I learned this morning that Yvonne, my first boss in Korea and a lovely friend and one of the most fierce, brave, beautiful, talented people I have ever known, died after a long battle with depression. We said goodbye when she went with me to the airport when I left Korea in December 2012. I’m glad I had the foresight to write this down right after I got home.

Another departing memory to treasure: bear in mind, Incheon is arguably the nicest airport in the world, if several prestigious travel awards are any indicator. I got my last bite of bibimbap with Yvonne, who was sweet enough to meet me there and spend time with me before I had to go through security. When we debated getting a beer before I left, I first thought we would find a bar somewhere. But wise Yvonne Teacher had something more sentimental and uniquely Korean in mind. Maybe you remember from my first entries that there are no open container laws in Korea? So it’s a-okay to buy cans of Cass from the convenience store in the departures area, walk over to the lovely historical architecture exhibit, and pop a top inside a replica of a palace building. If Tim Riggins ever visited Korea, this is exactly what he would do. (I wish I had been as deep into Friday Night Lights then as I am now, I totally would have made her cheers “Korea forever”.)

I remember her giving me shit for only drinking one of the two beers we bought for each of us. I remember her walking me to the very last security checkpoint and giving me the longest hug ever. That wasn’t supposed to be goodbye forever, and I am so mad that it was.

I sat in my office today and cried on and off for hours. I had so many things I wanted to say and now they’re lost in a fog. I’m exhausted and angry and so sad. I am sad for the babies that will never get to grow in her belly under the enormous Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts she bought in every city she went to for when she one day became a mom. I am sad for all the kids she will never get to teach. My little guys in Nemo class, you were so lucky. I am sad for all the wide-eyed young teachers that will never get to respect her and learn from her and love her. If you know anything good about me today, I guarantee you it is in part because of her. Her work ethic, her loyalty, her compassion, her adventurous spirit…these are all qualities that grew in me because of her.

In the thirteen hours since I got the news, I have had flickering feelings of guilt, too. She was born a fiercely independent woman in a time and place where that is not an easy identity. Part of me thinks that if we had cosmically switched spots, she would be okay. I’ve never known a person who was clinically depressed before. I think by and large, I thought of her as someone who was just romantically dissatisfied with her life, but clearly it was far more than that. I don’t know what I could have done to help her. I just know it hurts to think I never tried, other than to be the best friend I knew how to be to her.

Now, all I can do is try to paint you a picture of who she was and what she meant to me. She taught herself English from TV shows like the X-Files and went on to teach music in Bermuda for years. She could cuss better than I could. She wanted to be loved so, so badly. She had such a strong sense of honor and purpose and right and wrong. She could talk to anyone and make them feel like they were the most fascinating person in the world.

None of the words for death make sense for her. They’re like puzzle pieces that don’t fit.

There are a lot of pictures I want to share with you. The ones below don’t even scratch the surface. It would make me so happy if you would look at them and think about what an amazing person she was, to put smiles on our faces this big at one time and make me hurt this deeply for her loss years after we said goodbye.

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We really should have moved those condiments out of the way.

We really should have moved those condiments out of the way.

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Poor feverish Ryan.

Poor feverish Ryan.

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ten years

the lauren remembered by some people.

I got a text from a friend last night saying that one of our middle school teachers (a woman who, at the time, was not much older than we are now and who we adored in a manner approaching cult-like) found her email address somewhere and contacted her to say hello and catch up. Before I left for Korea, I included another former teacher, a legend in the mind of any kid who went to our middle school, in the massive email I sent to everyone about this blog as I departed, and she sent me the kindest words of encouragement in response. But then today I went back through this blog, and through pictures from my first year in Korea, and struggled to match faces to names and vice versa. To be fair to myself, A) that whole period was an assault on my senses and B) I cheated on guessing with the boys because three-fourths of them were named Jayden or Kevin, but it still made me feel guilty. I know I loved those little boogers as best I could, but time and limited brain capacity make it hard to hold on to all of them for very long. So what an honor it is to be remembered after ten years. I wonder which ones I will remember in 2021 (and who will remember me.)

ordinary

Dad keeps fussing at me to write more. I’ve never been diligent about it but when I’m struggling to orient myself I figure now is as good a time as any to start making a routine. I’m going to try some blogging community prompts and maybe make a schedule similar to NaNoWriMo. But in the meantime, I’m starting with this, Five Minute Fridays. One word or short phrase and you set a timer for five minutes to write. This week’s theme is “ordinary”.

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for a long time, ordinary was dogs barking, bud’s chicken, with my brother pestering me and dad’s phone ringing and ryan seacrest or somebody’s voice on the TV in the background. then it became catching the bus and avoiding the stares of the weathered old people, men with golf caps just as plain as their wives’ pants are colorful, inspecting me and my blue eyes like the alien i was — but not before i caught a whiff of the silkworm pupae being steamed around the corner, and glimpsed a legless war veteran rolling his torso down the dirty, uneven sidewalk with a radio blaring to get our attention. a world away, another radio was blaring, on our cozy back porch next my mother and her collection of orchids and cats. proof that even the most disorienting, extraordinary things can become comfortable and ordinary.

Park Jae-seo vs. Popcorn Sutton

Lately I’ve been really intrigued by MoonshinersThat, Duck Dynasty, and a recent visit to the Cheesecake Factory have almost fully re-indoctrinated me as a red-blooded American capable of deciphering unintelligible hillbilly and consuming enough calories for a week in one sitting. But I have several questions plaguing me.

  • How do they not get arrested?
  • How are the camera crews not in hot water over witnessing all this illegal activity?
  • Why aren’t these ATF officers just following the camera crews right up to the stills?
  • Aren’t the flood lights in the middle of the woods kind of a dead giveaway?
  • and this one, a little less hotly-debated on Twitter: Why don’t Koreans make their own liquor?

Tax evasion motives aside (a bottle of soju costs a dollar, how much can Lee Myung-bak be pocketing off of that, I ask you…), moonshiners seems to appreciate two things that Koreans also highly value. The first is family recipes. Moonshine recipes are really proprietary, right? Just like kimchi. (They’re both fermented too! And made in large quantities. Who knew a moonshine/kimchi Venn diagram would come together so effortlessly?) Can you imagine if every family had a soju recipe? There would be many intense ajeosshi quarrels over who makes the best soju, which would be fun for the rest of us to watch.

The second is rambling around in mountainous areas. I’ve written before about how Koreans hike with such devotion and intensity, and how they tote backpacks full of soju up and down the mountain. Can you imagine if, instead of carrying it, there was just a barrel of it at the top of the mountain? I briefly Googled “soju making”, and it appears there are artisanal soju masters in Andong, which makes sense because Andong is the capital of all things endeavoring to honor and preserve Korean traditions.

The Korean Popcorn Sutton.

The Korean Popcorn Sutton.

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The American Park Jae-seo.

But the process doesn’t sound difficult, so I think there need to be a few more hollowed-out Kias and Ssangyongs running up and down the highways. Hey, it’s Lunar New Year! Men, I know you’re not busy right now because every day following these holidays, your wives would come into work and complain to their coworkers like me about how you did NOTHING to help (and how your mom is bossy and mean.) So while they are busy making tteok-guk, hop to it and get started. :)

I’ve been admonished several times by my grandmother that I need to conclude this thing, so here it is. I’ve been home for a little over a month now. The last few weeks of Korea were a whirlwind, trying to finish work and tutoring, pack everything, and maximize the amount of time I could spend with friends and say goodbye.

I guess I have to start way back in mid-November. I had to work one Saturday each in November and December, which was aggravating. But I made up for it by making fun plans for afterward! In November, some people gathered at an amazing buffet at the Intercontinental Hotel in Seoul for my friend Jenna’s birthday. Fifteen minutes before closing time we stealthily approached the bar and snuck bottles back to our table. Then later, after we were finished taking their all you can drink wine offer literally, Casey talked us all into tequila shots, and I spent the next day curled up in the fetal position on the couch. :( But I was happy to celebrate with Jenna Teacher! Now she has moved on from her teaching gig and she is working for Yonhap News (akin to the AP in Korea) copy-editing for their English section. I am so proud of her! Chingus moving up in the world!

I celebrated Thanksgiving 2012 more fiercely than any other in Korea (as in, I actually ate turkey this year.) My friend Michelle invited several of us over to her lovely home in Itaewon. Her husband is in the Army, so they got everything for an amazing dinner on base. It was so nice to eat yummy food and hang out. She was expecting at the time (and still an excellent hostess) but she just delivered her baby, Jack Jiwon. :) So congratulations Michelle and David! Then the next night we had reservations at a microbrewery called Craftworks for another Thanksgiving dinner, which turned out to be amazing too. So I was a full and happy Lauren Teacher that weekend.

In December, my second-to-last Saturday was spent at school making up my first (and only) snowday. Boo. Give me a hurricane day in slacker Florida any day, I’ve decided. That night was spent in Itaewon at dinner with Jenna, Casey, and Suna, and later in Sinchon for a show my friend Ryan performed, which is always very fun. The following weekend was another friend’s birthday, so we went to an amazing all you can eat, all you can drink buffet (we were really good at finding those) and then the party reconvened back at my apartment, which was in shambles, but we still managed to have enough fun to get in trouble with the neighbors.

That Friday, I met with one of the people I tutored, a businessman named Bill who studied English with me twice a week and Japanese with another tutor three times a week. Amazing! He was one of my favorite people in Korea because he offered me a perspective I didn’t usually get to hear or learn from. The Korean men I met were generally my age; the Korean people I met who were older than me were almost exclusively women. Also, our tutoring sessions were primarily conversation practice, so we spent an hour or two each week just talking about anything we could think of. He grew up right after the war, so he experienced a starkly different Korea than any of us can imagine, and we talked a lot about the missing generation compared to the American generation gap. His generation would be more akin to the “Greatest Generation” here in America, having endured a serious economic depression and war, with widespread poverty to boot. On the other hand, his sons, who are my age, and I are pretty similar in experiences and expectations. On my last day, he gave me a ceremonial wooden mask as a departing present, like the ones I saw at the mask dance in the Andong folk village my first year. It is so nice. We are keeping in touch on Facebook but I miss our morning chats. For both their sakes, I hope his tutor now shows up less bleary-eyed than me at 7 am. :)

Bill taught me an important Korean expression for my last two days at school: “majimak suob,” which means “last lesson.” On Thursday, I met with my fifth and sixth graders for our majimak suob, and it was one of the hardest classes to say goodbye to. We were due for a Christmas Carol competition during the last period, and they were totally unfamiliar with the words, so we listened to the song fifty times, made cute signs to wave during the performance, and ate a bunch of snacks. It was good bonding time. At the end, I told them they didn’t have to hug me or anything, since Koreans aren’t really huggy people, but with the exception of one (who has surprised me since by emailing me on a regular basis), they all gave me a big hug. We’ve been keeping in touch on KakaoStory, which has been really nice. My goodbyes in kindergarten the next morning were kind of anti-climactic. Karry made me a paper heart but Raphael was a jerk and ripped it up at lunch, so Karry slipped me a note with the most precious apology. Later that day I found her Minnie Mouse notepad in her cubby, so I left her a note thanking her for the heart, assuring her it was okay, that I still had 30 other things she’s made me :P, and that I hoped she would email me and stay in touch. I got an email from her after New Year’s! So sweet. In one of my second and third grade classes, I took aside one girl who had been struggling a lot but also opening up a lot and working hard and gave her a big hug and told her I was so proud of her and if she kept working hard she would be great at English. Then she started crying. :( Major sad.

On my last “sleep” in Korea, Suna, Naomi, Jenna, Casey, and Riana showed up to take me out to dinner. We ate at my favorite meat restaurant, with a huge, bubbling vat of kimchi jjigae to share. Then they came back and raided what I hadn’t yet packed, which was a shameful lot of things. :( All of them are pretty organized and responsible and thorough so they were shocked. I have times where I can be, but packing isn’t one of them. Suna took a suitcase, and as much stuff as she could fit in it home with her. Jenna took home everything she’d given me when she left in June, Casey took most of my food still left, and I think I snuck stuff in Riana’s purse when she wasn’t looking. :) Then they also gave me a precious card which made me cry later. Between Yvonne, Ryan, Min, Casey, Jenna, Riana, Naomi, and Suna, I was very lucky to work with people who also became treasured friends.

The teacher who arrived to replace me seemed very nice and like he would be a great teacher in no time. From Kakao updates, I understand my little hoodlums are still running wild, and the most mischevious one still doesn’t have any reservations about whipping his junk out in front of everyone in class, so I pray for him often. But I guess you have to sink or swim…

The morning I left for the airport, I was struggling to drag my suitcases from my apartment to the airport bus stop. It wouldn’t be Korea if a kind passerby didn’t stop and help me tote one, and ask me questions about myself, and apologize for his English, and ask me if I had a boyfriend, and in this case, make me listen to the Beatles on his iPhone. And stand and wait fifteen minutes for the bus to come with me. …and push the bus driver away and insist on loading them in the luggage compartment himself. …and stand by the sign and wave sadly as I got seated on the bus, and continue waving as the bus pulled away. It started off cute, and ended awkward, which is everything lovable about Korea. Sooo I’m glad we had that moment.

Another departing memory to treasure: bear in mind, Incheon is arguably the nicest airport in the world, if several prestigious travel awards are any indicator. I got my last bite of bibimbap with Yvonne, who was sweet enough to meet me there and spend time with me before I had to go through security. When we debated getting a beer before I left, I first thought we would find a bar somewhere. But wise Yvonne Teacher had something more sentimental and uniquely Korean in mind. Maybe you remember from my first entries that there are no open container laws in Korea? So it’s a-okay to buy cans of Cass from the convenience store in the departures area, walk over to the lovely historical architecture exhibit, and pop a top inside a replica of a palace building. If Tim Riggins ever visited Korea, this is exactly what he would do. (I wish I had been as deep into Friday Night Lights then as I am now, I totally would have made her cheers “Korea forever”.)

I miss Korea really badly right now during this downtime, but I hope when something new starts the excitement will take away the sadness and all I will have are happy memories left. Sometimes I think of it as a privilege and a comfort to know I have friends scattered in all corners of the world, but when I’m stuck in my little part for the time being, it’s more frustrating than anything. Lots of people still in Korea, some people relocating within the US, and one gallivanting off to Singapore and Vietnam next week (I’m looking at you, Matthew.) I wish I could have fun everywhere with everyone at once.

I really don’t like this website for blogging, so I’m trying to start a new venture. I mostly just hate WordPress. I bought laurenbankert.com a few weeks ago. Toying with that, we’ll see how that goes. I would be delighted if Lauren’s Korean Adventures could be reopened one day, in a new venture other than teaching. I miss Seoul with all my heart and if any possibility presents itself to go back one day I am so on it. You should be too.

My Thanksgiving kicked off with one of our six-year-old students announcing to her teacher, one of my foreign coworkers, that she wanted to die. Not for shock value, but a decision reached after some obvious thought. “I want to go to heaven. My mommy and daddy don’t like me, my grandma and grandpa don’t like me, my sister doesn’t like me, my friends don’t like me. I want to go to heaven. It’s better than here.” And it’s true. By all accounts she’s being raised by a hateful mother and a spineless dad, with grandparents who deliberately involve her in her family’s drama instead of shelter her, by telling her that if her parents keep fighting they’re going to hurt each other, and then the grandparents will have to pay their medical bills. Why on earth would you get a six-year-old mixed up in that? Nobody at home seems to show her any considerable kindness, so she has no idea how to show it to others, and all her classmates range from wary to terrified of her. Daily we watch the warped dynamics of this family manifest themselves in the attitude and behavior of this precious little girl toward her classmates and teachers and it’s one of the most truly heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen. It’s even more depressing when you consider that she’s part of a culture where these aren’t empty words coming from her — suicide is the leading cause of death among young people here. Seoul’s youth suicide rate is twice that of New York City’s. You see stressed-out, sad little kids here (“stressed-out, sad” and “little kids”…those words shouldn’t even be next to each other) and you sincerely fear for their lives, though usually it’s attributed to the relentless demand for academic excellence. Every day, ten tasks all share TOP priority in an hour-long language class for six-year-olds. And if you think six-year-olds can’t sit still and do book work that long, you’re dead wrong. They’ll hold their pee, too. American preschool teachers would die of shock if they saw what we pull off on a daily basis. The expectations are a world away from those in the West. I’m tempted to blame it on the Confucianism (it’s not as charming as in the textbooks, I’m telling you) and/or the economic revolution here being so relatively recent, which means the life-or-death drive for success is still very prominent in society, and maybe that’s all of it or none of it. In any case, not to be a bummer, but I wanted to say I am indeed thankful for the things I mentioned on Facebook earlier, but most of all I am thankful to be raised by a family that shows me unconditional love and gave me the tools to grow into a healthy, happy person, and to be from a culture that might have no shortage of demons of its own to battle, but at least it never taught me my self-worth was conditional on my test scores.

worst secret admirer ever.

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I posted on Facebook a week or so ago about wanting to eat all the kimchi jjigae in Korea before I leave, and tonight I have a package waiting on me at my security guard’s desk. I told him it couldn’t possibly be for me but he made me take it anyway. Turns out someone has accidentally mailed me about twenty pounds of kimchi. My apartment reeks and this thing barely fits in my refrigerator. Confusion to be sorted out in the morning.

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