Saturday, 13 November 2010

Tribute to Evan, Kelly, and Matt: People Leave

"A Case of You" by Joni Mitchell: the line "I could drink a case of you, and still be on my feet" is one of the greatest lines in a pop/rock song ever. And other lyrics get quoted in the comments.

I always encourage my students not to ask the question "What's your least favorite thing about Korea" or "What's the worst thing about Korea?" when they first meet a new foreigner:  do they really want to get the conversation off on such a negative note?  And what if the answer to that question is something honest, or savage, rather than just another sideways compliment, the way it's often expected to be answered?

My "safe" answer to that question, for a long time, has been "The language barrier" -- it prompts a "fair enough" kind of reaction, and it shifts the onus from Koreans to "fix" something (for example, if I said "corruption") to me, who should really be studying the language harder.

Not long ago, my answer to that question changed: there's a new "worst thing about Korea" in town, and this is it.

People go home.

On facebook today, I discovered that it was Evan's birthday.  Evan's one of my boys.  Honestly, he's one of my favorite human beings.  He's smart, but humble, he has a faith that is strong but realistic, that gives space for others to be who they are, without sending his own moral compass aswing.  He was a loyal friend to me for about three years in Korea, and he was one of the few of my friends who'd call me instead of waiting for me to call them.  And he always had something good to say, something on his mind, worth talking about.

Evan (on the left)
We never ran out of conversation once.

He's also handsome:

You've read about him here before, at this post (Do Make Say Think concert), this post (Christmas) and this post (his birthday party)

It's been a year of attrition in Roboseyoland: Evan the bum-chin is not the only one who left, either.

Kelly NameChangedForPrivacy, whom you first met way back in 2007, has also flown the kimchipot.

Kelly was another really nice lady: I knew her when we were both WAAAAAY younger, back when I lived in southern Ontario, and she was one of the first Canadian friends of mine whom Wifeoseyo met.  Wifeoseyo was absolutely smitten with Kelly's warmth, down-to-earthiness, and sense of fun.  Kelly's another one who never ran out of conversation: she always had a story or a joke, and while she was ready to laugh at a good one-liner, she was just as ready to shoot down a lame one.

When Kelly decided to go back to Canada to get her teaching career in Canada rolling, well, it was a sad day for me and Wifeoseyo.  We got together and went to see the Rodin exhibit at the Seoul Art Museum by Deoksu Palace, ate the best Kongguksu I've ever eaten, and sent her off to church.

And now she's far away too.

Funnily enough, she and Evan were friends, too: you can see her here at Evan's party.


And last December, my best friend during my time in Korea, Matt, left as well.

This is the guy who not only pulled my fat out of the fire, but taught me how to recognize when my fat was in the fire, and how to avoid getting my fat in the fire for future reference.  He backed me up across South China, in some skeezy streets of Yokohoma, and in a few shady situations here in Seoul, too.  He and I shared some experiences that make great stories - stories of the type where people almost die - and also some stories that aren't dramatic at all, but involve things like grief, and heartbreak, and loyalty, and betrayal, and restoration.  The kinds of stories that bond a friendship for life.

And that's Matt.  He's my brother until I die.

Oh yeah... things got silly too.

And he left Korea, too.

Now I'm glad he's moving on to something bigger and better.  I'm glad he's living out the life plan he'd formulated in his head.  I'm glad he's busy loving the heck out of his fantastic wife (who happens to be another of my favorite people)... but that little, selfish, self-pitying part of me wishes he was still doing those things in Korea, you know?

So you know, life in Korea is good: it's a beautiful country with a bottomless well of things to enjoy, there's so much to learn about this place I barely know where to begin, and wifeoseyo is a stalwart, a wonderful support whom I love more and more...

people go home, though, and it's OK to stop for a bit, and remember them, and say "yeah.  Those were good times."

Maybe some long-term expats start to hunker down, and only hang out with other long-termers, because we get tired of the comers-and-goers.  Maybe that's what it boils down to... I hope that I never completely detach from the newcomers, I hope that I never become one of those smirking snarkburgers who makes fun of Johnny two-month and his "You know, I've noticed that Koreans are very competitive!  Especially in school!"... but then, every time another friend goes home, it gets a little harder to invest in then next Johnny two-month that comes along, lest he also leave after twelve.

Is this the sound of an expat turning into a lifer?  Maybe.  Maybe this is why many of the lifers I know mostly roll with Koreans, and the occasional other lifer.

I'm trying not to let that happen: one of my favorite poems in the world is Rainer Maria Rilke's "Be ahead of all parting, as if it were already behind you" -- and I think it's fine, well and good, to have some friends who come and go, as long as you can spot and lock onto the ones who are friends for life...

but it's still sad when someone goes.

Evan: happy birthday.
Kelly: we miss you.
Matt: brother, you'll always have a home wherever I am.

Hope you're all well.


Traveling Hawk said...

A very fine analysis of relationships that really count in your life. Meantime, you offered a good answer, just in case I will be asked about the worse thing in Korea: "language barrier" (as I will make a trip to Seoul on April)

Charles Montgomery said...

Was it something you said?

JIW said...

I like meeting new people. But hey I am only on my third year. Throughout my life I have either moved or people around me moved.

I am sure these people will forever be affected by having you in their life and likewise. I think that is the best part about living here. Meeting people and connecting in ways unimagined back home.


조안나 said...

I find myself making fewer and fewer new friends lately. So many of my close friends have left, and another is leaving this week, and it's just getting to the point where it is just exhausting trying to make new friends. Not to mention the fact that when I meet newbies they tend to make lots of off the cuff remarks like you mentioned because they don't understand the culture or the language yet. And then I start to sound like the know it all when I start explaining why koreans say or do the things they do. Nowadays I get along much better with the people who have been here for a while . I don't want to be like that, but it's just the way it is lately...

chiam said...

I think you're lucky that you came to understand this so many years after getting here. That's lucky, so be thankful for that.

The flipside of that is that I know exactly what you mean. What's worse, is that it's even harder meeting up with long-termers because after so many years it's hard breaking into circles that have already been created.

Be cool dude,
A fellow long-term expat in Korea.

Mr. Gross said...

Dear Rob. You are a sentimental old fool who also happens to be one of the greatest humans ever. Thanks for this post.

Oleny said...

Rob, I know exactly what you mean. Except that I would have assumed that worst thing about Korea was "North Korea." Seriously though, my own good times with Matt are now too long past and much missed! But while good friends may leave, they stay with you, too -wherever you go.

Roboseyo said...

That's true, Oleny. From Joni Mitchell's song "A Case of You" - a favorite of both Matt's and mine,

"I remember that time that you told me, you said
Love is touching souls
Surely you touched mine
Cause part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time"

The Seoul Searcher said...

I say.. if you're in a class and they ask you that, speak your mind. Go ahead and say corruption, male chauvinism, or crappy education system or whatever you want. They asked, so they ought to know what you really think. Talk about the controversial issues as much as possible. If anything, students will appreciate you being an actual person, and if they don't like what you're saying they can debate you on it.

Don't make it all fuzzy gumdrops, "I'm a guest here" all the time.

Be yourself.

Roboseyo said...


I'm all for that, when I'm teaching classes where the students' evaluations don't hold the power to get me fired at the end of the semester. In classes where they DO take evaluations, like they had at my last job, I'll butter'em'up as much as I can.

Matthew Finlayson - VIU-ELC Instructor said...

Cheers boys. Nice words. That is a really silly video clip; I had forgotten about the moew episode... as you said, "Good times, good times boyz!"

~ Matt

The Seoul Searcher said...

Well what other controversial questions do you get asked?

In my short 3 month stint in an adults hagwon, I got questions about my opinion on Japan, on Dokdo, on China, on the Korean education system...

I brought issues to the table like, how come Hines Ward is "Korean" but multiracial black Koreans who didn't win the Superbowl aren't? Why is Hines Ward's mother a beaming example of Korean tenacity, when other women in her position are low life whores?

Or my favorite... why do you hate Japan? (presuming that they all did...) One was outspoken about how he doesn't hate Japan and that everyone who does without being able to clearly state their reason is a mindless drone.

That turned out to be the rest of the class. I used the opportunity to drive the point home that rather than listen to school or the government or the news, it's better to research yourself and make your own decision about whether you like or hate something, and also by researching, you'll be able to clearly express why.

This through word of mouth brought more students (and more money) to me by the second month. In the third month I had to get a bigger room in there.

When I quit after 3 months, about 1/2 of the students also quit that particular class I was told.

So there's definitely a way to ruffle the feathers and not be insulting.

Then again, perhaps I have a leg up by being partially ethnically Korean... I don't know for sure.

3gyupsal said...

My favorite answers to the question "What's the worst thing about Korea?"

1. You
2. Your face
3. Your mama
4. Girls Generation
5. Kanye West calling me a racist.

Caryn Ouwehand said...

Dan says,

Thanks for this post - your eloquence allows you to say the same thing for all of us who have left friends behind or been left. As a lifer, you have an interesting opportunity to have a much greater impact on those Johnny Two-Monthers than most. The less time someone stays in Korea, the more impactful each encounter and discussion is. I barely ever get to meet people who are outside of their comfort zone like that - it's a cool time to meet someone.

kelly finlayson said...

hey Rob
we all leave somewhere....but our true friends never leave our heart....I'm proud to call you 1 of my boyz....