I’m still living out of a suitcase. I departed San Francisco last Saturday with two giant, second-hand rollies and a carry-on bound for Busan, South Korea. And here we are a week later, their mouths agape, contents dribbling all over my bedroom floor, as I try to figure out what to do next. I don’t know, I thought. I don’t know about this job, this place, this country. Why bother to unpack?
From above, it was easy to remain afloat with head-in-the-clouds excitement, embarking on what I thought was a year-long sojourn teaching English to young students. I was hoping I’d find my bearings in the Orient. Find a sense of direction in my life. Which all made sense until I landed on the ground.
On the road from the airport, past the duck farms along the south bank of the Nakdong River to my assigned housing in Myeongji Ocean City Queendom English New Town, a new high-rise subdivision in an outlying suburb, what struck me was that the only English I saw was on the gas stations and the no-tell motel moral holiday inns. Everything else was expressed in glowing neon Hangeul and I was illiterate. Also, not knowing a soul on this peninsula, I realized I was an alien all alone.
I survived my first week of teaching, so that Saturday night, I took the village bus across the river into Busan, the vital port city of four million, and caught the subway downtown. Up the escalator, I was blinded by the light and disoriented from the constant craning up trying to see the narrow, vertical signs in Hangeul and English attached to the corners of multi-purpose buildings.
I wandered around for a while, pointing at various foods I had never seen until settling on a bowl of spicy ramen, then hailed a taxi, handed the driver a business card that had my school’s address, and headed back to Myeongji. But instead of calling it a night, I stopped by a convenience store, marched down to the water, and found a deserted artillery bunker behind a myriad of concrete tetrapods where the river meets the sea. Posted there, alone with my Buds, I listened to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere on repeat while I tracked the blinking lights of 737s in a starless sky.
This September marks my tenth anniversary of living in Korea. Back then, I thought I’d save money, take my contract bonus, and move to Argentina. On second thought, why not stick around, learn Korean, then parlay that into working for the State Department. Neither of these things happened. But, I’ve always found work teaching, made lifelong friends from all over the world, and had priceless experiences traveling. On the other hand, during the first six years, I didn’t save any money, lived paycheck to paycheck, paying off bar tabs instead of college loans, and broke my skull, requiring a lifesaving craniectomy and six months of recovery.
Until I met fellow ex-pat Susanna in 2015. She’s now my wife of two years and the mother of my five-month old baby girl. Susanna has a way of nudging me to start taking steps in the right direction. I quit smoking, enrolled in grad school, and changed my mind about having a child.
This September will be our last Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving). My wife wants to go to Jeju so we can summit Hallasan. I want to trace the Nakdong to its source in the Taebaek Mountains. But really we should use these days off to start packing. Call our friends who are around over the long weekend. See them while we can before we start the big move — repatriation. Going home.
Anthony Huerta Velasquez is a California native from the San Joaquin Valley who has been working in Busan, South Korea since 2009. Recently, he graduated from Lindenwood University’s MFA-Writing program and has essays published or forthcoming in the Sierra Nevada Review, Concho River Review, Foreign, and The Offbeat. Formerly, he was a food and wine contributor to various English-language magazines in the ROK. He supports National Public Radio which has sustained his connection to news and culture while living abroad.