Thursday, December 29, 2011

Stephanie Returns to Gyeongju

Yesterday, I stood in the exact same spot where I had stood three years ago.  Actually, I probably stood in a lot of the same spots where I was three years ago.  Sadly, a lot of things have changed since then.  I was hoping to prove Daphne du Maurier wrong for once, but she really was uncannily correct when she wrote, "We can never go back to Manderly."

I flew into Korea on the 27th, and since this voyage is mostly for the purpose of having my bad ankle finally tended to, I opted to go down to Gyeongju on the 28th, before any doctor had the chance to tell me to stay off my ankle.  They've gotten a high speed train down there since I was there, which means that it now takes just a little over two hours to go from the top of Korea to near the bottom (i.e. Seoul to Gyeongju).

I won't lie -- I was feeling pretty sappy and emotional about going back for a visit.  I had eager plans to surprise Cate, my wonderful former boss.  I thought there might be a chance of even running into former students, though they would have grown quite a bit since I saw them last.  That year that I spent there in Gyeongju was one of the most foundational years of my life -- it was the year that I went from being a pathetic, broken shell of a human being (2006 and 2007 were not kind to me), took back the reins, and grew into a person I could feel confident being.  I had a lot of spiritual growth during that year, too.

I anticipated that Gyeongju would not be exactly the same as I left it -- after all, Korea changes incredibly quickly.  I just didn't count on one very sad change . . .

English World is gone.  The small, successful hagwon (academy) where I worked for that lovely year has left without a trace.  Perhaps it failed during the economic hardships that have struck the world, or perhaps Cate just grew tired of the stress of running it.  I have no idea where she is now -- English World was the only link to finding her.  In its place is a completely different business now, and the building, though fundamentally the same, is also changed.

I walked all around the city, ignoring the protests from my ankle, marveling at what had changed and what had stayed the same.  Many of the stores I patronized are still there, even the dinky little Hello Kitty store where I used to buy stationary.  The coffee place that I loved most is now a different type of restaurant, though the outer decor of the building is the same.  I found the spot downtown where I fell and sprained my bad ankle during my first month in Korea, and avoided a repeat.  I chuckled when I crossed the street at the same crosswalk where the infamous pears-down-the-shirt incident took place.  I avoided slipping on the curb where I tumbled off my bike one morning, and I gave a friendly wave to the tomb that I used to pass each day on my way to English World.  I stopped at the "fish cookie lady's" stand to buy the treat that I used to love -- and she misunderstood my request for two cookies, made me buy a whole bag instead, and yelled at me.  A creepy guy tried to get me to share his sausage-on-a-stick.  He did not stir any sentimental memories for me.

In the end, between all of the cross-country travel, I only spent about 4 hours back in Gyeongju.  And, honestly, those four hours were a bit disappointing -- no joyous reunions, the "fish cookie lady" has turned mean and senile, and the foreign friends have all gone on to other places.  Nevertheless, I'm glad I had the chance to go back for a day.  The last time I was there, I really thought it was the last time.  It was nice to be wrong.

And to Cate, wherever she may be now:  Thanks for a wonderful year, and for being one of the best bosses I ever worked for.  I'll never forget all of your kindness to me.


Anonymous said...

I am so excited I came across your blog. I recently moved to Gyeongju to teach, and tried searching to see if I could find former teachers from my school...that is when I came across your blog! All I had to do was search Gyeongju, and my current bosses name: CATE! English World is no longer the school...but in the same building, the school is called Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. Cate is still the director here.
I am actually with one of my current, and your former, students now, Rachel. She is now a middle school student, about to go to high school. She is amazingly smart!
If you want to you can e-mail me: so you can try to get in contact with Cate. I can give you her current phone number!
Best wishes in Korea. I hope you are able to read this message before you leave :)


Stephanie said...

Oh my gosh, what a wonderful epilogue! I am so glad to hear she's still in business! I was really heartbroken at the thought of her having to close -- well, I'm sure YOU know what a great boss she is!

Aw, I remember Rachel well. She was one of my best students! I adored that girl! I'm so glad to hear that she's still studying English.

Thanks so much for contacting me!

"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"