In less than a week now, I’ll celebrate my 30th birthday. When I stop and consider that age, I’m stunned. How could twelve years have flown by since I finished high school and emerged starry eyed and full of youthful naiveté? That younger, less beardy, and altogether more optimistic CWB dreamed of ‘meeting and marrying his soul-mate’: a direct quote from my high school yearbook, if you can believe it. He certainly had no designs on seeing the world.
They say that all of us have an internal age: the age we see ourselves as when we pause to think about such things.
For me, I’ll be forever 24. My 24th year on this earth was by far the most enjoyable and life altering. I turned 24 a week after moving to South Korea back in 2007, and that first birthday weekend completely redefined both my time in South Korea and me as a person.
I was not the shy, socially awkward wallflower I’d been in college. I was no longer the super geeky, naive kid who’d graduated high school. Despite my worries to the contrary, I wasn’t somebody undeserving of ‘cool’ friends or affection.
And all it took was a selfless act of kindness from somebody I’d never been particularly kind to.
Coming to South Korea
Korea terrified me from the start.
Prior to stepping onto that plane where tears stood in my eyes and a growing sense of anxiety screamed to me “What the fuck have you done?”; I’d never been farther afield than Newcastle – six hours drive from my parents and a ten minute bus ride to any of my grandparents or cousins. Hell, I moved there with my best friend.
To say I’d always played life pretty safe up until that point would be an understatement. I’d had best friends and/or family with me everywhere I’d lived since I’d left home.
I remember standing in the middle of my cold, largely empty apartment the day I arrived in Korea. My boss, well-meaning but perhaps a little ignorant of just how jarring the transition would be, had left me clutching a carton of milk and a loaf of bread. I wasn’t due at work until Monday, so he’d patted me on the back and told me he’d see me there.
Then, he’d closed the door and left me alone with my thoughts and the realisation that I hadn’t even known South Korea was in the northern hemisphere.
Thank God I managed to find an English language TV station. I drifted off to sleep that night with Return of the King for company.
My first week in Korea was a blur. I made a new friend (the sober but thoroughly inappropriate, Mike) and he introduced me to a few comforts that would get me through the worst of the culture shock. He showed me where to find Han’s Deli and Baskin & Robbins and TGI: Friday; but his sobriety meant he couldn’t introduce me to the night life.
It’s hard to express now just how lonely and out of place I felt in those first few weeks. I loved the newness of the experience, but every part of me screamed Go home! I had long, tearful conversations with my family in which I told them I was sure I’d made a bad decision and that I wanted to come home.
As my 24th birthday approached, I realised that there was a very real chance that I’d spend it alone and computerless inside an apartment that didn’t yet feel like home.
I braced for sadness.
It was during that week leading up to my birthday that I got a Facebook message from an old classmate, Paul.
We hadn’t been friends in high school. In fact, although we’d run in the same social circle, we’d often been actively antagonistic towards one another. If I’m being honest, I was the guilty party more often than not.
So his selfless offer to come and help me settle in and ensure my birthday wasn’t awful meant a lot to me.
It still does to this day.
Paul arrived with a pair of lovely South African girls and showed me that Korea wasn’t quite the scary, alien place it had felt like so far. We ate delicious shabu shabu (at the very venue I’d do my farewell dinner approximately a year later) and he introduced me to Gwangju staples like Soul Train, Abbey (RIP), and the Speakeasy.
It was my first experience with the truth that we change so much once we leave the social confines of high school. This wasn’t the guy who called me ‘fat’ in Year 11 and 12, and I certainly didn’t feel like the smart-ass who’d said all manner of nasty things to people in order to get a laugh.
In fact, as I nervously stood outside the downtown Starbucks and waited for his arrival, I began to realise that I barely recognised the CWB who had left Glen Innes High School five years into the past.
We started my birthday eve with shabu shabu. Although this is a Japanese dish, it’s quite popular in South Korea as well. A warm, hearty broth full of meat and vegetables, and later soaked up with rice, it’s the perfect meal for a communal dinner in the country’s colder winter months.
As we sat around and I experienced my first Korean food not bought from a convenience store or eaten at the school cafeteria, I noticed something amazing: there were other foreigners here!
Of course, I knew there were foreigners in Gwangju. I’d spoken to Mike of Mike & Dave’s Speakeasy fame prior to arriving, but had yet to see a foreigner aside from my co-worker. To see a half dozen loud, drunk foreigners at the table next to us filled me with hope that maybe my year in Korea wasn’t going to be a lonely, miserable thing.
And when they passed me my first shot of soju and wished me a happy birthday, I knew I’d found something unlike the social circles I’d brushed against and often been ignored by in Australia.
Expats were, and still are to this day, the only people who I feel at home with.
The Best Birthday
It would be remiss of me to simply label my 24th birthday as the best without highlighting just how blessed I’d been with birthdays in the past. My family – particularly my mother- had always made every effort to ensure the day felt like something special.
I’d been given many memorable gifts but, perhaps more importantly from a memory perspective – I’d had a number of wonderfully fun parties. We’d hosted rugby league and baseball matches, all night LAN parties, and even the boozy affairs that were my 18th and my 21st.
The bar had been set pretty high, is what I’m saying. My 24th might not have matched these past birthdays in terms of extravagance or the number of people present, but it played such a huge role in defining who I now was and who I remain to this very day.
After our dinner of shabu shabu, we went to a Ministop (or possibly a Family Mart) where the girls went about secret business as the boys distracted me with cheap beer drank from plastic bottles.
As midnight approached, we were seated on cushions in the serene confines of Abbey: a now defunct hookah bar in which I’d later steal kisses with my first adult girlfriend and spend many a night out until the sun came up and I realised I’d be a wreck for work the following day.
“What’s your birthday wish, Chris?” Paul shouted across a table cluttered with empty Hoegaarden bottles and flavoured hookah. I remember feeling like such a rebel smoking this flavoured tobacco. I remember worrying what my mother would think if she knew I was smoking.
“Uh…”, I began wittily. Before I could answer, though, the clock struck twelve and the girls stood up to shower me with confetti and streamers. A hat was hurriedly placed upon my head and I was hugged by this group of people who had been largely strangers only 3 or 4 hours earlier.
It’s a wonderful and sad thing about expat life – the evanescent nature of these friendships we form. It’s wonderful in that complete strangers can become fast friends over the course of a single evening, but sad in that these fast burning and fiercely fun friendships rarely last.
How many people have I befriended, shared a fantastic night or week with, and promptly forgotten?
My Facebook page is a graveyard for friends who I know longer speak to, but am too nostalgic for better times to remove.
In that moment, though, surrounded by my first expat friends and drunk more on the newness of feeling included than the doubtlessly huge amount of beer and soju I’d consumed, I was just grateful.
I still am to this day.
The original point of this post was to have been about attending a Seattle Mariners game with Liz and her husband CJ. I got sidetracked and this happened instead, but I’ll introduce Liz now so that the next entry makes sense.
It was perhaps 2am at an uncharacteristically Speakeasy. There were maybe a dozen people in the bar aside from our party of five. I have vague, doubtlessly beer goggled enhanced memories of dancing with a buxom South African girl who I never saw again.
Sometime during the night, I got talking to an equally buxom Canadian by the name of Liz and her Aussie friend, Kirk. I talked about short-lived friendships, but these two would become the foundation upon which all of my future Korean friendships were built. While I’m sad to admit that I’ve let these friendships perhaps slip a little to the wayside over the years, I still keep up to date with their lives as best I can.
When Paul and his friends returned to Seoul, it would be Liz and Kirk and their wonderfully inclusive circle of friends who welcomed me and made every effort to include me. I have so many fond memories of nights spent wandering snowy streets with this posse of wonderful people: Joy, Liz, Kirk, Brodie, Ken, and Vanessa.
For my first three or four months in Korea, all of them took me under their wing and helped me to realise that I wasn’t some loser undeserving of friends. Liz, in particular, was a rock for me. She taught me how to hug (it’s a sad truth that I used to hug ‘like a corpse’) and encouraged me to be more social and not look at myself as an ugly loser who deserved to be alone.
When I was depressed, it was Liz who came and dragged me out of my apartment to attend a flower exhibition. Liz who came over the night after my first break-up and sat with me as I cried like a little girl.
Writing this, I tear up thinking about how blessed with friendship I was, and how undeserving I feel now knowing that I don’t speak to these people nearly as often as I should. If it weren’t for Paul and Liz and Kirk and countless others, I might not have made it beyond six months in Korea. Lord knows, I talked about leaving often enough.
More than that, though: if it weren’t for these people, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I could very well still be the same shy, self-loathing guy who had left Australia.
It’s cheesy to say it, but I was given a priceless gift on my 24th birthday. I was given permission and encouraged to like myself. It’s not always easy – and Lord knows there are days when the black dog makes it downright impossible – but I am an infinitely more confident, personable, and happy person now.
(And to my old friends who had been beside me in Australia, I fully acknowledge what wonderful and supportive people you were and remain to this day. It just took a change of environment and hearing the words from new faces to make me realise it was truth rather than blind loyalty).
Happy Birthday to Me
I turn 30 in two days. I’ll be lucky enough to spend the day with my brother and his girlfriend. While China has not been as warm and welcoming as Korea felt, in the recent weeks and months it has certainly come a long way.
I’ve got an entry coming up about exactly why Nanjing is finally starting to feel like a place where I could be happy, but more on that later.
But as I prepare for another birthday I’m dreading, it felt right to reflect on one I’d dreaded and that surprised and changed me so fundamentally.
I couldn’t possible list and thank the people who made my 24th year on this earth so memorable and life altering, but it saddened me to think that no record to that day existed outside of my own memory.
To those who made it such a wonderful day: thank you.
What’s the best birthday you’ve ever had?
Or, if you’re feeling specific, what was the best gift you received?