Twenty – Today marks a number of things. For one, it is the last day of August, and thus the last day before the fall semester begins; at least at SNU, classes commence tomorrow. It also marks the 46th anniversary of the emergence of the Big Hominid from the chthonic realm, thereby ushering in an age of unspeakable terror the likes of which the world had never before known. As he slouches inexorably toward old age and the accompanying decrepitude and senility, I would like to take this opportunity to wish him a happy birthday. May your tentacles never be still, my friend!
There is another milestone of sorts, though, that I would like to write about today. It was on this day twenty years ago that I descended through the clouds and rain (on an airplane, that is) and first set foot in Korea. I have not spent the entirety of the past twenty years in Korea, of course. I have returned to the US for visits to friends and family, and also for academic conferences in recent years. I’ve also traveled to many other lands—mostly on brief holidays, but I did do one six-month stint in Mongolia in 1997. Today is an important milestone, though, because since 31 August, 1995, I have called Korea home.
I’m honestly not really sure what to write here. I knew for a while that I wanted to write something to commemorate the occasion, and I envisioned myself tapping out some profound meditation on the past twenty years or, barring that, at least something witty. Here’s the thing about milestones, though: Even though we often make a big deal of them, they don’t actually mean anything on their own. A milestone is just a marker, an indicator of how far you have traveled from a given point. But if you simply come across such a marker without having walked all that distance, it’s just going to be another sign. It only means anything in context. On the opposite side of the coin, how am I supposed to provide twenty years worth of context in the space of a single journal post? Even if I did have the time and space, it’s unlikely that my memory is reliable enough for me to do the decades justice.
I suppose I could look at who I was then and who I am now. Then: a young kid who had no idea what he was doing, just stepping out into the world and hoping that it would still be there when he put his foot down. A recent university graduate with a highly marketable (cough) degree in English literature and creative writing, a thirst for new experiences, and an optimism born of ignorance. Someone who had yet to learn that you can’t run away from your problems, that even if you move halfway around the world your problems go with you. Now: an older man, and a wiser one, if only thanks to a greater knowledge of his own limitations—although it is still not clear if he has any real idea of what he is doing.
The above may make me sound overly modest. The truth is that there any many good reasons why I am still here in Korea after twenty years. Although I don’t get this question quite as much anymore, in the past I would often be asked if I liked Korea. My reply would be: “Well, I’m still here, aren’t I?” It may seem like a weak answer, but there is truth there as well. I have a wife who is also a friend and a soulmate, someone who shares my hopes and dreams, who has supported me even when it seemed that I otherwise stood alone, and who is a companion in every sense of the word. I also have a job that allows me to do what I enjoy—and, I’d like to think, what I’m fairly good at. I’ve heard it said that the ideal job is something where you do 1) something you enjoy, 2) something you’re good at, and 3) something that pays well. I’m probably not going to get rich doing what I do, but I’m not going to starve, either, so I think I can check off that third category as well. And then there are all the friends and colleagues who make my world a brighter place. In other words, I’m pretty happy with my life, even if things can sometimes get a little stressful.
Along with the question of whether I liked Korea, people also used to ask me if I would ever return to the States. My response was often that I had no plans to return. Invariably, they would exclaim: “What, you mean never? You don’t think you’ll ever go back?” And then I would patiently (because I’d done this many times before) explain: “I didn’t say that I planned never to go back. I just said that I have no plans to go back.” And I still don’t have any such plans. My secret, I guess, is that I’ve never really had any plans. I’ve had dreams—things I wanted to do, places I wanted to go—but I’ve always just waited to see what life is going to throw at me and then taken it from there. I guess there was a point, at a much younger age, when I had “plans,” but early on I realized that life doesn’t really care too much what sort of plans you make. The best you can do is try to see which way the wind is blowing and then ride the waves in the direction that seems best at the time. Often that direction is not the one you originally planned to go, but sometimes it turns out better than anything you could have imagined. When I look back on the past twenty years, I find myself thinking that a lot.
For some reason, I felt rather melancholy all day today. I suspect that part of that might have been the knowledge that summer is officially over and the new semester begins tomorrow. Mostly, though, it was this anniversary that was weighing me down. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it was just a reminder of the passage of time. But having written this brief reflection, I realize how much I have to be thankful for—how many amazing things I’ve experienced, how many exciting places I’ve visited, and how many wonderful people I’ve met over the past two decades. And I suppose that is the real significance of milestones: They give you an opportunity to look back and see how far you’ve come.