Ten years – I wasn’t originally planning on writing an entry today. I have been wanting to write since the beginning of the week, but I’ve been feeling rather ill lately, and I haven’t been able to muster up enough creative energy to warrant a journal entry. But then I was reminded that today is something of a special day, so here I am.
My wife and I are planning a trip to Jeju Island (which I am sure some tourist brochure somewhere calls “the Hawaii of Korea”) next weekend. My wife has wanted to visit Jeju Island for a long time—despite being a lifelong resident of Korea, she has never been there. People make fun of her, she says, because she’s traveled around the world but has never been to Jeju Island. This trip will finally allow her to remove the albatross from around her neck. She also pointed out that I have been in Korea for ten years, and I’ve never been to Jeju Island either. Then she said, “Actually, isn’t it ten years today?” I thought for a moment and said, “Hmm. I guess it is.”
So despite the fact that I still feel pretty lousy, here I am to commemorate the tenth anniversary of my arrival in Korea. Come to think of it, my first day in Korea was probably the worst day of my life so far, so I guess it’s only appropriate that I should be thoroughly miserable on the tenth anniversary. Fortunately for me, the ten years between August 31, 1995 and August 31, 2005 haven’t been nearly as bad.
I’ve already covered how I came to Korea (including that wonderful first day) in my background story, so I guess I can’t really regale you with tales of my adventures back then. Honestly, I really don’t know what to say. Sometimes ten years feels too long, while other times it feels entirely too short. Sometimes it feels like time is standing still, but the next thing you know a decade has gone by. I feel like I should say something momentous to mark the occasion, but what is there to say? I have no profound insights that can be summed up in easily digested pearls of wisdom. I have learned a lot in the past ten years, but what makes those things so valuable is that they took ten years to learn. It’s hard to just wrap them up and put them on display.
I am as fond of looking back on my life as I am of looking forward to it. I like to remember the past just as much as I like to dream about the future. I suppose that the downside to this is that I sometimes forget to live in the present. In terms of the present, today is just another day, and a pretty crappy one at that, to be perfectly honest. In terms of the past, it’s an artificial milestone in my life. In terms of the future, well, who knows?
One of the positive things about milestones, though, is that they give me an opportunity to look back and judge my progress. Sometimes it’s hard to judge progress on a day-to-day basis, but when you look at larger chunks of time things become clearer. Learning Korean used to frustrate me immensely until I started thinking about how far I had come overall. That used to cheer me up a lot, so I guess that’s what I’ll do with today’s entry: see how far I’ve come in the past ten years.
Ten years ago I was fresh out of university and pretty much flat broke. I had so little money that I had to sell my computer just to get enough for a one-way ticket to Korea. I knew no Korean except for basic greetings. I was single and despaired of ever finding the “right one” for me. I was ostensibly an English teacher—I had, in fact, taken TESL/TESOL courses at university, but not enough for even a minor. This didn’t matter, though, because standards for English teachers ten years ago were very lax. Pretty much anyone could teach English in Korea, which meant that we ended up with an interesting cast of characters. But teaching English in Korea was a temporary thing for me. I planned to do it for maybe six months, or a year at most, and then move on to Japan. I had vague dreams of traveling around Asia, maybe eventually settling down somewhere and going to graduate school. That somewhere, though, was most likely going to be Japan. I had studied Japanese language, literature, history, and society in university (despite being an English major), so naturally that’s where I figured I would end up. Things were very up in the air, though. The vague dreams were just that, and I had no real plans. I was free, like a ship on the ocean is free. I had left my home port behind and Korea was just a port-of-call.
Ten years later, I am studying for a doctorate in Classical Korean Literature, and I’m pretty sure I’m not flat broke. I am married, having found the right one (it didn’t take nearly as long as I thought it would), and she handles most of the money in the household. So unless I see her poring over our bank accounts with a worried look on her face, I don’t worry too much about it. My wife has told me that going to Jeju Island will not mean starvation when we get back, and that’s good enough for me.
I am no longer an English teacher. In fact, shortly after becoming an English teacher, one of my primary goals in life became trying to find a way to make a living without teaching English. The holy grail for me was translation, but I could not imagine when I would ever become fluent enough in Korean and Korean culture to translate successfully. Ideally, translation is about quality, but when it comes to making ends meet, quantity becomes the measuring stick. Since most translation is piecemeal work, the faster you translate, the more money you make. When I first started translating, it would take me an hour or longer to do a page of general (i.e., not dealing with a specialized field of knowledge) translation. I can still remember those first days of translating: sitting in front of the computer and typing a few words a minute as I puzzled over my dictionaries and grammar books. It kind of felt like trying to run a hundred-meter dash by hopping on one foot. Backwards. And blindfolded.
Now, though, it’s been years since I’ve taught English, and I will not deny that it is very difficult to contain my glee when refusing requests to teach English to somebody’s children. Not that I don’t have the greatest respect for the English teachers here who do it right, but the work is just not for me. Now my only work is translation, and I get more work requests than I can handle these days. I hope to finish up two major projects (both of which will hopefully be published) by the end of this year and around the beginning of next year. And for some reason (probably because they couldn’t find anyone else), I’ll be shooting a segment with Arirang TV tomorrow in which I will discuss Korean literature and translation. I feel kind of embarrassed about that last bit, actually, but they say it’s a good thing.
I did settle down, and I did enter graduate school, just not in the country I had originally imagined I would. I don’t think I’m quite as free now as I was back then, but overall I think that’s good. Honestly, I did some pretty stupid things when I first came to Korea (quite a few of them involving soju and other poisons), and my wife has certainly been a calming influence on my life. It was really self-preservation—either I shape up, or she kills me. It wasn’t too hard to decide.
In all seriousness, though, I’m not too bothered about the relative lack of freedom. I’ve spoken about it here before, but a decrease in freedom means an increase in stability, and it’s nice to have stability in your life. In my early twenties, I could do without stability and was too busy enjoying my freedom to notice anyway. Now, in my early thirties, I am glad for the stability that I have. A lot has changed over the past ten years, and if I strip away the temporary discomfort I am experiencing now (my intestines are apparently trying to punch their way out through my throat), I can honestly say that every single one of those changes has been for the better.
I like where I am now, but I am always looking forward, too. I have no idea where I will be ten years from now. I would say there is a very good chance that I will not be living in Korea, as we plan to move back to the States sometime after I get my degree so I can teach there. Then again, had you asked me ten years ago where I would be today, I very much doubt I would have said Korea, so who knows?
Anyway, happy ten years in Korea to me. It’s been a great ride so far. Here’s to the rest of it.