By: Kelly Riley
When you think about a year, it is at the same time a long stretch of life and a small blip in existence. A year can go by with barely any recognition, just floating past you as the days fade into night, only your job punctuating each rotation of the earth. Or there are years where the days carry on, stretching themselves out until each one is painted by a poignant memory. But most often our years are a mix of the two, braided months of monotony and vibrancy.
March 19th was my birthday, another year complete and ripe for review. Milestones always bring up reflection and sentimental thinking, and as I mull my last birthday over in my head I’m nearly left reeling. So much has changed and yet it feels as though a year ago was just a few months ago. My last birthday I was in Florida, the warm evening letting me bare my limbs in a tank top dress and sandals, sipping beers outside my local bar, Falcon Pub. My friends all weaving in and out of my company that evening, pressing drinks in my hands and hugs in my arms. At the time, Rachel and I were still getting our inquiries to the recruiter in Korea together. We believed in our hearts that there was no way we weren’t coming to teach in Korea. For years it had been our chant, our mantra, it was just a reality that would happen, and everyone knew this. At this time next year I thought I would be experiencing my one and only birthday abroad. As I write this from Korea, I can at least say I wasn’t completely wrong.
When I turned 25, a shift in my life happened suddenly, the cards I was dealt were shuffled back into the deck and a shockingly new hand was slid across the table to me. For years my writing workshops had to bear witness to my dissection and analysis of one certain relationship that lay in pieces in the corners of my vision, haunting me. But disaster can happen when two best friends try and let their feelings become something more. Timing was never on our side, and our relationship tore to ribbons, raining down around us. Years later, duct tape wrapped around our fragile bond, he came to my birthday party. It was one of those nights that stretched itself out, scribbling notes into my memory and tucking them in. After a few rounds of birthday shots, the brain often decides that decisions should never be made with logic. No matter how much something smells like a disaster, alcohol has a way of making it seem so thrilling. As the night faded into morning, my friends all filtered out or stumbled to rooms in the house. Soon it was just him and me, and that was when we made a choice, or maybe that was when alcohol made a choice for us.
The next morning the call of dehydration pulled all the hung over creatures from their beds, and we congregated in the living room to munch on burgers and french fries. We sat beside each other, silently considering the greasy meals but really trying to process how our night together would change the fragile friendship we had salvaged. But when people have a connection, it’s hard to keep from drifting towards each other. It was like pulling on an old, favorite T-shirt you thought you had lost. The fabric is worn and soft, and fits you like a comforting memory. Soon he was there every day, and our lives wove together. He was with me when I received the email from my recruiter.
“I’m sorry to inform you Kelly, you have passed the EPIK interview, but Rachel has not.”
Rachel was with her family on vacation when the emails came, and my heart broke in half. Our dreams, our plans, were derailed, and I staggered, tears streaming down my face. It was one of the lowest points in my year of being 25. But he just pulled me into his arms, and let me sob. When the frouple could finally come together, we brainstormed over a bottle of wine and as you know, Rachel secured a job at a Hagwon (private English academy) and is teaching in South Korea. Together, any hurdle seemed traversable.
But what is really important, when you consider a year? How do you measure its success or its failings? What criteria do you use? Looking back on this year, I know that I was the happiest I have ever been, but as I look at the end of this year, everything is completely different, but I am still so very happy.
When the time came to leave for Korea, I felt hesitation gnawing at me, letting panic slip in and fill the cracks. Months before I was set to leave on this amazing adventure, I had fallen in love with my best friend, and now I would be on the other side of the world. Years ago, when we tried our hand at love, he left for a summer long camp, and as the distance grew, we grew apart as well. But I knew, without a doubt, this person was the one I wanted to hold my hand at the end of everything. So saying goodbye, merely felt like saying “see you later”.
Living in South Korea has been good to me, even if at times it doesn’t feel like it, but ultimately the resolution of all the obstacles it’s thrown at me have resulted in smiles, or growth. Rachel and I were all we had coming here, but fate had decided we would be far apart. But it graciously also decided it would throw many amazing people into my path as well. Expat, or ex patriots, are an interesting breed of human. This simply means they are people who live in countries that are not their own. To do this, to abandon all you know and immerse yourself into another world takes a certain kind of person. Every expat I’ve met here has different approaches to living a foreign life, but they all have a type of spirit in them that seeks out bonds, and experiences. I didn’t exactly know this about myself before coming here, or maybe it didn’t get indulged quite as much in my small town in South Florida. But making friends here is easy, and your friends here become your family.
They were there for me when life dealt me another hand of cards. My first few months in Korea left me buzzing with excitement. The pay was good, the lifestyle engaging, and my new expat family sealed the deal. I wanted to stay here, so I began to make plans with my boyfriend that I would come home for 6 months after my contract and we would apply together to return here to teach…as a married couple. I had never been so sure of something in my life, and I indulged my joys and planning with all my friends here in Korea, and they were just as excited as me. My parents raised me without the influence of gender roles, so this also left me free to decide that I would be the one to propose to him. We had planned for him to visit in March, this very month. I had it all thought out, I would master our song “Lucky” by Jason Mraz and Colbie Caillet on the ukulele then take him on top of the mountain behind my house. I would play it for him as we looked out over the stretch of countryside rimmed by mountains….and I would ask him. All that needed to happen to make these dreams come true was for him to finish his bachelor’s degree. Every day I excitedly would ask him what classes he had signed up for, but each day I was met with new excuses. I didn’t think too much of it, until my asking began to wear on me.
Finally the truth came out, and it felt like the world shifted. Most things in my life I always make back up plans for. I indulge that little voice in the back of my mind that whispers, “what if”. But for once, that voice was silent, and it let me dream, and it let me look like a fool. He wasn’t coming to Korea, he wasn’t even going to school. He lied to me. I saw my life in that moment, penciled in plans in bullet points and he wasn’t there anymore. I suddenly realized that I had worked so very hard to get where I am, paperwork, applications, interviews and planning. I had goals and dreams for myself, and right then I realized, his dreams were nothing like mine.
I was embarrassed to even confess what happened to my expat friends, but as Nadia and I sat on a bus to Boreyeong, it spilled out of me. She is one of those people I can bare myself to, and I think I am that for her. She listened openly, and gave me her honest opinion, like she always does, even if it’s not a popular one, and I always appreciated her for that.
It seemed a trend this year that when terrible news struck, the frouple was cast apart. But that weekend, I was finally able to reunite with Rachel. She had a bottle of red wine waiting for me. After tears, discussions and running to the roof of her building to yell our frustrations and even hit stuff off with golf clubs, I accepted what I already knew. I fell apart, and then put myself back together. Part of being an expat is knowing that you will always be able to rely on yourself. That was how I was going to live my life.
Even though there aren’t too many expats in Cheongyang, it means we all know each other, and pull together. Nadia and I had exactly 1 week in between our birthdays, so we scheduled our Cheongyang celebration the Wednesday between us. We all met for Gamjatang (감자탕), which translates to “potato soup”. But really “pork bone soup” is a better translation. Big bones with tender meat, mushrooms, greens, potatoes all simmered in this slightly spicy broth, it was a wonderful birthday dinner. Even my friend from Daejeon, which is an hour away, came out to celebrate with me.
Saturday, my actual birthday, Nadia, Rachel, and I met with friends in Hongdae, Seoul, South Korea. Unlike my last birthday in the warm evening of Florida, we reveled in the beginnings of spring, where we could merely wear a blazer and not layers and layers of sweaters and coats. I had survived my first winter ever, and just like my amazement at each season before, the change in temperature was exhilarating. I couldn’t wait for the flowers. We had a dinner of unlimited Korean BBQ, hung out at the hostel, made some new friends, and danced the night away. My friends even took me to a dog café the next day.
Being 25 was one of the most exciting years of my life. I spent half of it in my hometown, met my nephew, worked 3 different jobs, packed my life up for the other side of the world, joined a soccer team, made amazing friends, tried amazing food, fell in love, had my heart broken, and grew so much as a person. Thanks to everyone who touched my life this year. Well, here’s to being 26, you sure have a lot to live up to.