Follow that Flag

In traditional expat fashion, when you, one of Korea’s twenty-thousand foreign teachers finally yet all-too-quickly find yourself at the end of your contract, closing the extended interim year between [insert life transition] and plunging back into the real world, you spend your last hours in town at your farewell party drinking fuel-grade soju on the roof of a Westerner bar called MJ’s until dawn. All your friends are there. The Americans tear up and promise to stay in touch, the Irish and English get out all their unused insults on you (they cry later), the Australians can’t talk you into a celebratory hike at dawn, so they go and take a shot for you on the summit at day break instead, and the Koreans are genuinely more happy about your future than you are. It’s hard to believe you only met them all four to twelve months ago, some now closer to you than the people you spent most of your life growing up with before this.

Despite having been exploited by the corrupt, blacklisted school you signed a year of your life over to, it’s things like this and the handmade friendship bracelet that one of your students tied around your wrist, that made it one of the best of your life. You twist the end threads of the keepsake between your fingers and realize you’ll wear the thing until it rots off.

Someone waves a Korean flag and brings your attention back to the room; everyone passing the red and blue yin-yang symbol of the country around to mostly draw obscenities on, though enough legible signatures and heartfelt wishes make it on there. You prance around downtown wrapped up in the souvenir, singing football chants you have no business knowing the words to. A grey-blue sky and all your anthems-of-the-era later, you wake up on a ping pong table with a cigarette butt indented on the side of your face and dart feathers in your hair.

Your best mates peel you off the plywood and walk you to the station to put you on the 6AM bus to Incheon International Airport. Between patches of rice patties and glimpses of temples tucked high and away into forested mountains, one or two friends stay up to text you all the way up to the gate. From there you either blow your entire teaching savings backpacking through Southeast Asia or anxiously make the journey back home.

Sounds magical right? That’s because it is. Except I wouldn’t know a thing about the bit about the flag. Which is my only regret.

After suddenly leaving Korea with intentions to return in a month, I spent much needed time with my family as I applied and Skype-interviewed with a few schools, this time wiser and willing to be picky with my next teaching position. Nothing was calling out to me and with “in the meantime” came taking night classes, picking up a day job, revisiting back-burnered hobbies, starting a new career, building new relationships, and eventually coming to realize: I was not returning to K-town any time soon. I didn’t think I needed the closure but nearly two years later, I still wish I could have given proper goodbyes. The night before I had left, one of the other expats reassured, “Korea will always be here!”. Reluctantly I agreed, but I knew it would never be that Korea again.

Because you can never really go back; the experiences you had were a unique combination of that time, place, and the people you were with, including who you were at the time.

By now, most of my international cohorts have left the Land of the Morning Calm and are on to one worldly adventure or another (I’m officially living in the least interesting place on the map, geography-wise and otherwise). With the help of social media it’s been easy to keep track, share, congratulate, miss, and “like” everything we are up to. But you know how that goes. Spread across different continents, trying our best to live fully in our new lives, as time would have it, has naturally filled the distance between us.

On one particularly distracted day, I pulled my neatly pressed flag out of a drawer and laid it out across my desk. The glimmer of the idea that unfolded with it kept me up a couple nights. Excited, I’d mull over the potential of starting up the project of sending the blank flag around the world for my friends to finally sign. It would have to be the hard way; all in one go with no back and forth, from-them-to-me, security or convenience. I was most hung up on asking already busy friends to add another task on their to-do lists. Then I thought, if I could make all the arrangements, why not? How often do people come together like this? So I pitched the idea to a dozen friends who were happy to be involved. As Carly put it, “It’s a moment for us too!”

So after a long chat with the local postmaster who answered my every neurotic question on the logistics of sending the thing literally around the world, our little flag baby was finally on its way!

Operation ‘Follow That Flag’ is underway! This is the start of a collection of friends and a collection of memories from across the globe via the glorious postal system. To follow this little flag on its mammoth adventure, through photos and other updates, check out Jeanie Rhoads‘s blog with selfies and peace signs galore! 

~My friend Amy who writes over at A Career in Korea.

It’s like a travel collage. But instead of compiling photos, ticket stubs, playbills, pressed flowers, receipts, coasters, or bottle labels, this momento is a collection of signatures: people I learned to love people from, ironically in a place once known as The Hermit Kingdom. From my first lessons as a teacher, through culture shock and homesickness, to mastering life as an expat, these are twelve people who helped make Korea mean something to me.

The Dirty Dozen:
Tami, North Carolina USA
Jaela, North Carolina USA
Alicia, New York USA
Maggie, Iceland
Amy, Leeds UK
Jade, Manchester UK
Lydia, Spain
Taina & Chris, Italy
Alex, South Korea
Carly, Australia
Ryan & Jihee, Oregon USA
Chris, California USA

A heartfelt thank you to all the friends bringing this to life! I’ll be geo-tracking our adventure at each stop (North America, Europe, Asia, Australia), featuring photos, stories, and mini bios of these great folks and wherever it is that they call home. First stop, The Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia!

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