The Decision to Leave
The road back home after any trip abroad is often one filled with mixed feelings.
Part of you is probably happy to be returning home and another part, often larger, is sad to be leaving behind what has hopefully been an eventful and enjoyable time in your life. Even in the case of my four months in Korea, which had definitely been more pain than pleasure, I left Korea with a great deal of sadness.
Nobody likes to be defeated, but that is how I left Korea in 2011. I’d gone back with the hopes of moving on after my break-up and finding a new niche for myself and discovered one of the great truths in life:
You can never go back home.
Korea isn’t my true home, obviously, but in many ways I did more growing up during my time on the peninsula than I had done in the twenty four years prior to first stepping off the plane.
I lost my virginity in Korea, I had my first adult relationships there, I had my first full time job there, and I learned a great deal about what I am capable of.
During my two years and change in South Korea, I’m pleased to say that I exceeded my own expectations of myself.
Sadly, my third stint in Korea just hasn’t been what I had hoped it would be.
I made some fantastic friends, had a brief but fun time with a fantastic girl, and managed to see some pretty amazing things, but at the end of the day I learned that teaching English in South Korea is no longer for me.
Perhaps more importantly, I learned that I cannot deal with my depression simply by making the band-aid fix of moving to a new country and starting afresh.
Maybe running back home with my tail between my legs is little more than another band-aid, but it is one administered with the knowledge that my support network in Australia is far stronger than any I could have found in South Korea. And that’s no slight against my wonderful friends there.
The Decision to do a Midnight Run
A “midnight run” is when a foreigner (usually an ESL teacher) leaves without notice. This is usually done overnight, hence the term ‘midnight run’.
While I tried my best to do the right thing by giving my school notice, I found myself hit with all manner of nonsense charges that I would be forced to pay.
I’d been prepared to reimburse the cost of my flight, but additional fees were not only not in my contract – but downright opportunistic bullshit.
So, rather than tough it out and pay through the nose for the pleasure – I decided to do a midnight run.
Saying Goodbye to Friends: Leaving Shenanigans
I said goodbye to most of my friends on the Saturday preceding my departure. The short notice meant that a lot of people had to pull out, but it’s perhaps indicative of the year I had that the turnout was considerably smaller than I’d managed when leaving Australia in January or when leaving Korea in 2008 or 2009.
Those who did come were the cream of the crop though. Zak and Heather made it across from Gwangju to represent my former home, Anne, Crystal, and Jinho represented the Thursday Party empire, and a motley crew of pretty gals and cool cats were on hand to ensure Busan wasn’t left unrepresented.
Our evening started at a very good ddeok galbi place whose name escapes me. Cheesy ddeok galbi (a combination of chicken, fried rice, chewy rice cakes, cheese, and spicy sauce) is perhaps my favorite Korean food and a must try if ever you find yourself in the land of the morning calm.
We washed it down with liberal servings of Hite and soju and then it was on to HQ bar for some more drinks.
HQ, perhaps best known for its fantastic Western food menu and weekly trivia comps, has recently opened up a very chill fourth story lounge that really does feel like a slice of home. Comfortable couches dot the room and make it feel more like a house party than a bar, and no smoking means that it’s one of the few bastions of breathable air in Korea.
“Never Have I Never” was played and many things were learned, and by the time we stumbled on to Blue Monkey (a club that my Welsh friend insisted we visit) I was nicely buzzed. In fact, I recall very little of our time at Blue Monkey aside from shots of whiskey courtesy of Jinho and some doubtlessly bad swing dancing.
Things really were a blur after that.
I vaguely recall embarrassing myself at beer pong at KSU Thursday Party before my group splintered in two. Half of us (myself included) ended up at a soju bar and the other half ended up in Gwangan. At some point I got it into my head to join the Gwangan crew and instead ended up taking a nap on beautiful Gwangali Beach.
Thank God for Zak having the presence of mind to find me and steer me safely home.
It was easily my drunkest night in Busan, so I guess it’s fitting that I saved it for last. Those who did show up ensured I had a great night, and I won’t say I didn’t wake the next day sad that I’d not get to partake in any more Busan drinking adventures.
Moreso than Gwangju (with its tight knit drinking scene) or Seoul (with its sprawling scene), Busan has a great mix of bars, pubs, and clubs to ensure you’re never short of options.
Saying Goodbye to the Girl
After finishing up my final day at school, I headed home immediately to collect my belongings and rushed to the train station to ensure I didn’t miss my ride up to Jochiwon. Although the girl and I had broken up two weeks earlier, we’d both wanted to get some closure before I left the country.
The goings on of my final day in Korea (and our final day together) aren’t really anybody’s business but our own. Suffice to say it was probably the best and worst day I’d had in Korea.
Saying goodbye to somebody you care about is never easy, and kissing her goodbye at the cab rank the following night was an exercise in heartbreak. We might not have worked out as a couple, and that may have played some small part in my decision to leave, but there’s no denying that we cared about one another a great deal.
Meeting her was most definitely the highlight of my time in Korea. It was worth the journey, without a doubt.
My tears had scarce dried by the time I stepped onto my 10.30pm train to Seoul.
With my flight being at 9.40am, I wouldn’t be able to miss a beat in my trip. I arrived at Seoul Station just in time to miss the last train out to the airport, so resigned myself to a night spent sleeping on the floor. I wasn’t alone in my thinking – it seems most of Seoul’s homeless population crams into the station when the sun goes down and the clouds open up.
Sleeping in Seoul Railway Station
While enjoying a midnight Lotteria feast I spotted another foreigner with dark circles under her eyes and luggage piled high around her, so struck up a conversation and shared stories of our experiences with the same hagwon chain. She’d missed her train back to Daegu, but opted to shell out for a hotel room instead of chancing it on the cold, marble floor of the terminal.
With no cash to splash on such an extravagance, I instead spread out my blanket and tried to catch a few Z’s on the terminal floor.
Alas, Seoul Station closes at 1am for ninety minutes, and so I found myself unceremoniously (but apologetically) out in the rain with my luggage not long after I’d dozed off.
My First (and Last) Jimjilbang Experience
Thankfully a kind cab driver was able to point me in the direction of a jimjilbang, and even came inside to explain what I needed to the staff behind the counter.
I’ll definitely miss the Korean people’s eagerness to help. It doesn’t extend to everybody (I’m looking at ajummas and ajoshis here), but by and large you’ll never have to look far for a kind soul who is willing to help out a hapless foreigner.
Jimjilbang’s are something unique to Korea – a combination of sauna, public bath house, hotel, restaurant, and entertainment complex. I paid 15,000 won ($15 AUD) for access to the entire facility – although all I really needed was a place to shelter from the rain.
Immediately after entering I had to check my shoes into one locker in exchange for the ‘uniform’ I’d be required to wear inside. Many of the Korean men in attendance were stark naked though. Jimjilbang’s are divided up by sex, so I was saved the blushes of seeing Korean women in their altogether.
Once I’d changed into my white shorts and t-shirt, I grabbed a drink and retired to the upstairs PC room to check some emails and watch some TV.
Perhaps I should have slept, but I was afraid I’d miss my 6am train out to the airport and so instead contented myself with chatting and catching up on my TV. The humid heat was in stark contrast to the cool outside, and when I left at around 4am it raised goosebumps on my skin as I walked back to the station.
The Train to Incheon Airport
An hour later a very tired Chris stepped onto the express train that runs from Seoul Station to Incheon International Airport in 45 minutes. It’s definitely worth the 13,000 won as there are no stops along the way and it drops you almost immediately underneath the departures area.
I hurriedly shed some excess luggage (and said a fond farewell to a pair of shoes that had served me well for almost two years), checked my luggage, and turned in my alien card to officially end my time in Korea.
Incheon International Airport consistently receives praise as one of the best airports in the world, and it’s easy to understand why when you’re sitting at a free laptop using free internet to say your last goodbyes.
Eat a dick, China Southern
I’d managed to find a flight home for $408 US through China Southern Air. If all you’re worried about is price, the go with it. If you want a little more comfort though, I’d advise steering clear of this particular airline. The lack of in-flight entertainment, the generally horrendous food (even by airline standards), and the often surly staff might have made for a rough flight had I not been so exhausted. I slept the entirety of my three hour flight to Guangzhou in southern China.
Eat a dick, Guangzhou Airport
My eight hour layover at Guangzhou’s Beiyun Airport might have been my most unpleasant travel experience to date.
After being hurried through customs and back in to the departure lounge, I was dismayed to find that there were no currency exchange facilities in the entire area. Clutching a sizable wad of Korean currency did me scant good as I surveyed the dismal selection of food options on hand. There’s an abundance of boutique stores and duty free outlets on hand, but just three generic cafes in the airport. I’d read that Beiyun provided free WiFi to travelers as well, but I could find no sign of it on either my Galaxy or my laptop.
Thankfully, I had $20 US in my wallet and so took a seat in the nicest looking of the cafes and ordered myself a ham & cheese sandwich and a glass of orange juice. It arrived promptly and I handed over my $20.
The food was unremarkable, yet I received a single dollar bill as my change. A quick chat with the sole English speaker on staff confirmed that yes, I had just been charged almost twenty dollars for a dry sandwich and a meager glass of orange juice.
At least my purchase got me access to the WiFi network.
The remainder of my day was spent attempting to sleep on the plentiful but not particularly comfortable benches, searching in vain for a place I could exchange some currency, and wondering why an airport in a city with 34 degree days didn’t have air conditioning.
It was only as I was preparing to board downstairs (after a last minute gate change) that I discovered that the lower portion of the airport not only has air-conditioning, but also has plenty of international power outlets with which I could have charged my phone or laptop.
The bottom floor was rife with mosquitoes though, so maybe I made the right call in enduring the sweltering heat.
Nine and a half hours flew by thanks to my exhaustion, and soon I found myself arriving to an Australia substantially chillier than the one I’d left.
It brought a smile to my face and a patriotic tear to my eye to be greeted with a thick Aussie accent and a ‘no worries’ at customs. I’d left Australia in 2007 sure that I didn’t like living there, but my year in Australia in 2010 had clearly had more of an affect on me than I had anticipated. I’ll never give up travel, but maybe it’s time for me to make Australia my base of operations.
I was greeted by friendly faces and whisked away for a good feed (home made boscaiola), a nice hot shower, and an afternoon spent napping. It was hard to leave behind all of the people I’d met in Korea, but I can’t say it wasn’t damned good to be home.
Have you ever left a country in less than ideal circumstances?