Weather in Florida was not a terribly, unpredictable mistress, the worst we would suffer was a range of extreme heat and lots of rain, to less heat and sometimes rain. Having been born and raised in Florida, the idea of changing seasons was more a Charlie Brown special than a normal experience. Among my fellow Florida friends, I had been lucky enough to gaze upon the mythical snow once thanks to my parents’ quest to drive my sister and me as far north as it took.
Little did I know then, but my life would take me half way around the world to a country that experienced every season as drastically as I could ever imagine. South Korean seasons taught me more than any children’s show could have. But the strangest lesson was the realization that the cycle will just keep going, no matter where you’re left at the end of it.
In Florida, the announcement of fall comes in the form of “pumpkin spice” everything. America’s inventiveness of finding new everyday objects to transform into pumpkin spice could only be matched by the number of different Oreo flavors that existed. In terms of the weather, the most extreme cases would merely require pulling out a light wind breaker. The trees remained green, leaves clinging to their branches with the same certainty they did all year.
But in Korea, I could watch the yellow of the leaves march up the mountains. Burgundy, chestnut, and golds all crept into the trees, the dark branches contrasting brilliantly against them. The view from my apartment treated me with mountain sides that changed each day that autumn marched on. The temperature dipped, making me pull out my short supply of sweaters. This was the first time Rachel and I were cast so far apart. Sharing the colors we witnessed through messages and hugs on the weekends.
“Don’t put on that winter coat until you can’t stand it! Once you do, nothing else will be warm enough,” came the warnings from the more seasoned expats in town. I had stopped at the Burlington Coat Factory before my trek across the globe and purchased a black pea coat that I was sure would last me through the chill of winter. But, having come from the land of scarves at 60 degrees Fahrenheit, I couldn’t have been more wrong. By Halloween, that coat Id planned to save for the chilliest of days was now in my fall arsenal.
The morning of Halloween, I awoke with barely an hour to reach my co teacher’s wedding. Halloween isn’t as big a celebration as in America, so her choice to celebrate on this day of ghouls and goblins was severely insignificant. I remember throwing my little black dress on and wrapping the black coat around myself before sprinting out the door. No time for a bus left me with a $30 taxi ride to the beach city of Boreyeong. I scrambled through the wedding hall, searching for the other foreign teachers I knew would be here. I had a 50,000 won bill in an envelope to hand off to the attendant. Wedding gifts in Korea were instead given in the form of money. The closer you were with the bride or groom, the more you should give. The foreign teacher I replaced advised me that 50 would suffice. I suddenly heard my name and turned to find another Korean teacher from my school. Thankfully he directed me to the attendant who I told my name and handed the money to. Then he gestured me over to a handsome older man and his wife. I bowed deeply in greeting, confused as always as to whom they were, but trying to do my duty as a polite foreigner. It turned out I was mistakenly directed over to the parents of the groom instead of the bride. Regardless, I managed to find my fellow waygookins and watch the beautiful ceremony.
My co teacher was dressed in a gorgeous white, western style gown, and her husband-to-be in a tuxedo. The ceremony was in Korean and when it completed, they went to each of their parents and bowed low onto the ground. I glanced around, the room had tables like a reception hall but after the tables were filled, crowds of people just pooled into the room to watch the ceremony.
After it finished, we all were ushered downstairs to a gorgeous buffet and cafeteria style seating. Never miss a Korean wedding, especially for that food. Not too long into the meal, the bride and groom joined us. They had shirked their western style wedding attire and wore traditional Korean clothes called hanbok. I greeted and congratulated my beautiful co teacher, stuffed my pockets full of rice cakes, and rushed to catch a train to Seoul to spend Halloween with the frouple. In a blur of cat ears, zombie blood, spilling drinks, chill air and being together. No matter what directions Korea pulled us, we always came back to each other
Florida winter sounds a lot like an oxymoron. My instagram is filled with pictures at the beach with that very caption. Flip flops could be worn year round and the nip of cool air at night was the only telling attribute of the change in the season. That is without counting the unending loop of Christmas songs that piped through all our stores. My house in Florida was known in our neighborhood for the gorgeous light displays my father would erect on it. We were smack dab in the middle of the commute to an elementary school and more than once we would see people in our yard posing with the décor.
When we came to Korea, winter was the season we feared the most. Winter was a beautiful, scary, exhilarating and painful experience. Of all the distinct seasons Florida lacks, winter was the most obvious one. The other expats in town told me Korean winters were harsh, and that the warmth doesn’t return until around April. As fall had me pulling out my “winter coat”, I knew this season was going to truly test me.
The first day it snowed, I learned an umbrella can (and should) be used for more than rain. I also learned that though snow is rather dry, when it melts…your now wet, cloth coat will make you even colder. I learned that grips on the bottom of shoes were for more than decoration. Spikes in the heels of your boots were necessary to even travel down the sidewalk. I learned that the outdoor stairs that led to my landing were slippery in the rain, but that ice made them the most dangerous trek of my journey to school. After gripping the metal railing for dear life with bare hands, I learned that water proof gloves will save you from painfully defrosting fingers. I learned that blow drying your hair is important. Damp hair turns into frozen hair in the first 15 minutes of being outside. I learned that there is life below freezing, and that snow meant it was actually getting a little warmer. I learned that black, dead trees were the most beautiful when shrouded in snow. I learned about the magic of a white Christmas, and that running through the flurries in a onesie with your frouple is Christmas goals. I learned that an electric heated blanket is a magical invention, and that being wrapped in a handsome man’s arms beneath it should be the reason winter was invented.
I learned that falling in love in winter could really keep a girl warm.
I saw him leaning against the wall of the subway tunnel, winter coat with mandatory fur lining the hood obscuring my view of a tight blue t-shirt. He saw me, smiling, pushing off the wall to come greet me. He was handsome, hair waxed into spikes, energy vibrating from his body. The conversation was easy, flowing between us as we sat sipping sake at a Japanese style bar. I remember him sliding the coat from his shoulders, and that metal trinity symbol swinging from his neck. He talked about his boxing, flipping through his instagram to show me videos of him slipping across the floor, throwing punches, eyes so narrowed in focus. Then at the end of the video he would turn to the person behind the camera, intensity gone as he smiled.
He stood beside me in line for the bus to Rachel’s house. The cold of winter making us pull our thick coats back around us. I was next in line to enter the bus, so I turned to him, my breath warm in the winter air, wafting between us in a white cloud.
“Can I kiss you?” he asked. I glanced around; Korea had made me conscious of myself, eyes always trailed to the foreigner. Public displays of affection were frowned upon, but oh did I want to.
“But, we’re in Korea, isn’t it not ok?” I asked, still glancing around.
“Oh who cares?” Then he quickly brushed his lips against mine. I stepped onto the bus, slightly aware of the looks from around me, but not really caring as my stomach fluttered with butterflies I hadn’t felt since high school. Even though it was the coldest winter I had ever lived through, I had never felt so warm.
The transition of winter to spring in Florida is marked merely by holidays studded through the months. Green beer and Irish coffees in March, Easter egg hunts in April, and then suddenly we have left it behind. The trees of Florida are always green, and besides some blooming flowers and fresh, hanging mangoes, the reaction of nature to this season just wasn’t very vibrant.
Korea has a much more exciting, and colorful, time of year.
I can almost tell you the exact day I packed my coat away. I can also tell you I tried shirking it earlier than I should have. The green crept back into the trees, its lifeless limbs slowly returning with shades of emerald and sage. But first…were the flowers. The whole country was abuzz with prediction of the Cherry Blossoms. When would they come? First they would appear in the south, and the pilgrimage to Jinhae would begin. They were famous for the snow white blossoms, and their accompanying festival. But like a bunch of rookies, we made the journey a week too late. You see, the cherry blossoms bloom furiously, stark white against dark branches. Occasionally you’d see a pink blossomed tree, like little pillows on sticks. But after a few days, it was like a warm winter snow storm. The adults that I teach would write metaphors for me calling them Spring Snow. And just as quickly as they came…they were gone.
By the time we reached Jinhae, the white clouds had already littered the ground. But filling in for the loss was the beautiful green. I didn’t know I had missed green so much until winter had taken it from me. Defeated, but still comforted by the warm sun on our skin, we traveled back north. And in the north, it was our turn for blossoms to bloom. We hopped on a free shuttle from my city over to the Totem Festival that happened at the base of the Buddhist Monastery near our mountain, Chilgapsan. The shuttle twisted through the mountain roads and I told Rachel to look out the window. Arching over the road in a beautiful canopy were the cherry blossoms. I made this drive with my co teacher two days before, and my audible gasps from the back seat made her and my school’s librarian laugh. It was one of the most beautiful sights, and now, Rachel reacted the same. After arriving at the festival grounds, we walked through the totems. Each year they carved a new one from wood. They were used since the olden days to ward off evil spirits. We even found one dedicated to Florida. The spring showers were flitting drops over us, cool and refreshing as we trekked up the mountain towards the temple. We posed beneath the blossoms, he put his arm around me. A small smirk pulled at my lips, the tendrils of our hearts just beginning to recognize each other.
Half way up, we stopped at this old restaurant for seafood pajeon (Korean savory pancake) and traditional wine which we ladled into small bowls. The rest of the trek up the mountain was a breeze, our veins buzzing with alcohol. The temple was beautiful, hundreds of colorful paper lanterns strung along the courtyard and up the walkway to celebrate Buddha’s birthday. When I came with my co teacher, she brought me to the temple. Buddha’s statue stood in the main building, candles flickering all around him and a fat orange cat lounging near one of the sliding doors. After a few scratches behind the cat guardian’s ear, my co teacher invited me to pray with her. It was to make a wish for the New Year. We slipped off our shoes and stood on a mat, facing the shrine. Slowly, and quietly we bowed, low on our knees, raising our hands slowly before floating to our feet again. We did this at least three times. I tried to visualize my goals for the year, all that I wanted to achieve and what I wanted to come to pass. Then I made a wish. I am not the most superstitious person in the world but if there is any excuse to make a wish, I will not pass it up. I wished Rachel could move to my city, this, the tiniest dot in the Chungnam Province. I wished we would be happy here, that we would continue to grow as people. I wished that those I left behind would understand. That they would forgive me for my selfishness, that they would understand that I was doing what made me happy, and that I wished they were happy too.
Two days later, I brought my two favorite people back here. We walked up the path to the small turtle fountain. My co teacher taught me how to drink from it with respect so I taught Rachel. Staying true to who she is she dropped the large metal cup with a clang, and unceremoniously scrambled to return it to its hook. As much as Korea was changing us, I prayed it would never steal her magic.
Florida summers turn asphalt into lava, the heat rising off of it in translucent ripples like women dancing in fire. I’d lived in the sunshine state my whole life, and my survival tactics had been to never go outside for longer than it took to walk from a building to your car. Wait until the sun went down and then frolic off into the warm, night air. Otherwise, stay indoors and crank that air conditioner. The only reason I’d emerge during the sunlight hours of summer would be to bask at the beach. Even so, I still preferred it at dusk.
They warned me Korean summers were hot, but most of these warnings came from Koreans or other expats who didn’t live in the scorching hell fires that I thought I had grown up in. And like most every season, I was so not prepared.
The Korean summer dripped in, coating the streets in blankets of heat that pressed against you when you stepped outside. A semi-permanent squint kept the world at bay enough for me to reach my destination. But unlike Florida, the indoors offered no refuge. Air conditioners are a luxury here, and laying on my couch, curtains splayed wide, fans whirring at top speed, I still felt as though I was being roasted alive. My new world perspective included being obscured by the chopping blades of two oscillating fans. Yet still I thought I’d never experienced a hell like this one.
The school year in Korea is different from America. Usually in the heat of the summer we can hide away from the sun, or escape to cooler climates on vacation. But in Korea, the coldest months of winter is when their school year divides. So each morning I had to emerge from my slightly cooler oven of an apartment, and into the scorching heat for work.
The heat wasn’t my friend; it didn’t feel nostalgic or remind me of home. Its rays beat with anger, testing our patience, dripping down our necks no matter how much we tried to wipe them away. I didn’t like the summer. As numbing and chilling as the winter had been, you just add another layer, another blanket and the warmth was right back slipping around you. But there’s only so much you can strip away in the summer. Only so much you can give before you realize you have nothing left.
I had given him everything I could think of. Our lives twisted together so sweetly in my vision that I didn’t see the heat rotting them away on the end he held.
When autumn lurks at the end of summer, the praying mantis is one of the first to feel it. The female will scramble to lay her eggs. To ensure that she has given everything she can. Then, brown and shriveled, their bodies manifest. I didn’t know that so much died at the end of summer. You can give everything you have, but still when the scorching heat of summer is through with you, there may be nothing left.
Winter is the perfect time to fall in love, spring is beautiful and fleeting, summer can burn everything away….and then in fall everything will die again.
But autumn also meant the cycle could begin again, and that the wish I made beneath the cherry blossoms to Buddha had come true, Rachel had come to Cheongyang. Fall drifted in lazily, taking the sting out of the sun, and the bite from the air. The cool winds soothed my aching body, and my frouple soothed my aching heart. The tips of leaves have begun to brown and crinkle into the stunning reds I remembered. Soon we could watch the yellow march up the mountains. Then watch the snow fall across the peaks. We would watch blossoms creep out of the once dead branches. We could experience these Korean seasons once again. But now, we could do it together.