How can a goodbye be considered good when you are leaving a place that you have grown to call home? When four months of love and investment come together in one moment of departure, and you look into the eyes of your new family as you desperately grasp for words to convey gratitude and thankfulness and endearing affection, knowing that this is a rather permanent farewell? These are the questions I ask myself when I prepare for my final week in Korea.
|▲ Audra Toes with her friends at a restaurant around CNU
To say Korea exceeded my expectations would be untrue, as I did not come here with any expectations, choosing instead to have my heart and mind open to experience authentic Korea, without the haze of any preconceived judgements. However, to say I fell in love with Korea would be much more accurate. I arrived at Chonnam National University on September 1st, 2014. Excited to explore, I took off the first morning for a little individual tour and ventured around the campus. My first impression: Chonnam National University was old and ugly. Maybe I was still suffering from jetlag, or maybe I was experiencing a little culture shock, but I was highly unimpressed with what I saw. However, after that first day, a kind of metamorphosis occurred in me. The buildings and the sidewalks did not change physically, but my perspective of them certainly did. As soon as I started to meet friends and walk around the same places with these people, the whole atmosphere changed.
Coming to Korea alone, I was anxious and hopeful to meet people who I could connect with and talk to openly. I was nervous that the communication barrier would hinder these kinds of personal relationships, but that was a very unnecessary fear. After reflecting on this last week, which included a day trip to Jeonju with three Korean friends that I met in class, a day spent making kimchi with my roommate and her family, and copious amounts of dinner and coffee dates with multiple Korean friends, I have realized that my greatest fear was replaced with my greatest blessing.
From hiking on Jeju Island, to eating kimchi and rice for breakfast, I have thoroughly enjoyed and savoured every last beautiful moment that I have had in Korea. Furthermore, I have come to realize that beauty is made deeper when experienced with loved people.
Although I came to Korea on a government scholarship and was excited to study in a new environment, I found that most of my learning came from the cherished moments spent tasting new spicy (and delicious) foods, learning vocabularies to describe joy, and taking off on road trips to foreign cities with local people. Tasting and seeing is essential in having an authentic cultural experience and I strove to saturate myself with as much Korean culture as possible. I stayed away from all western style food during my time here, evolving a high level of spice tolerance, as I know that deeper fellowship and community can be shared around traditional meals. I took risks and joined two clubs on campus, an English speaking club called LPG, and a Christian club called CCC. I tutored friends with their English, learned to speak slowly, modeled my friend’s hanbok, attended a Korea wedding, made kimchi from scratch, all the while falling in love with the country as I fell in love with the people.
Korean people have a fierce loyalty in their friendships, matched with sincere generosity and lavish hospitality. Although I can say my mind was strengthened by my lectures and assignments, my heart was strengthened even more by friends who modeled a lifestyle that was centered on serving other instead of serving self.
Thefore, as I prepare for four months of love to compile into one moment of goodbye, I recognize that it is a good thing that is also a moment of pain. For it was a simple and easy thing to depart, it would mean that my heart did not become involved in this land, in these people. For this reason, I am glad to have pain eclipse my leaving, and treasure the relationships I have formed. Finally, as I walk around the campus one last time on my final day, I will see it alive and beautiful, as all these places are now connected to a face, a smile, a memory.
By Audra Toews, University of the Fraser Valley, Canada
* The author was as an exchange student studying at Chonnam National University during the fall semester of 2014.