Follow That Flag: Cheongju, Korea


Distance Traveled: 12,831 mi/20,650 km

안녕 친구들! The flag is making it to one country a month -at this rate, the flag will make it home within exactly a year!

ESL Teach Korean Classroom Flag

Korean Student with Flag

I have struggled with how to write this one. It is the Korea post and I owe the story of how I came to know Alex, my best wit, wisdom, and references to cool triflings that you want to know. But because this chance meeting changed my life forever over the most common of circumstances, the only way to tell it is like it was; coincidental and real.

Alex had been to Korea several times before living and working there as a teacher. Her parents were academic colleagues with a family in Cheongju and she had been flying to and from the country, visiting them ever since she was an unaccompanied minor. After volunteering as a yoga teacher on various trips around the country, having been influenced by Korean culture for years, she earned her bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies. Following a stint as a hotel receptionist in Ecuador, considering graduate school, and relocating from the Pacific Northwest, she applied to teach in Korea. Four months into her contract (two months into mine), she walked past the Yong Udong that we nicknamed, “Dollar Kimchi”, where the Chungdahm crew frequented most nights after our last evening classes. Through the dingy window and grimy rain, we noticed her walking by since she is blonde and beautiful, and those types tend to stick out even more so like beacons over there.

Yong Udon Korean Restaurant

The way foreigners react to spotting other foreigners in Korea varies. Some people walk right up to you and start a conversation, “Hey, dummy, need help? Where are you trying to get to?”, “Do not get those, those are not chestnuts, they are silkworm larvae.”, “You look cool, want to be friends?”. Then again, some go out of their way pretending not to also see you on the sidewalk, towering over a sea of black shiny heads at the market, or sitting on the bus in your Levi’s and strikingly non-Asian bone structure, like acknowledging you somehow lessen their exotic experience. Thankfully, Alex is not one of those people.

At the time, I wouldn’t say I was feeling homesick, which didn’t affect me the same way it did the others (while four months was often the checkpoint in which most people were hit hard with the sudden longing for familiarity, I would feel it fleeting but persistently for about five minutes every day throughout the year), but I was becoming increasingly aware of a void, lacking honest human connection.

After Alex walked away and into the mist, I thought long enough to regret not finding some way to reach out to her. Then moments later, even though she had already gotten dinner, having spotted us too, she returned to the entrance, jingling the bell on the door of the crowded, muggy, one-room restaurant. She ordered gimbap, a Korean snack similar to sushi (think Spam, instead of fish) to-go, and just when I was about to ask her to sit with us, she took a seat and introduced herself. Later I learned it was completely out of character for her to do so, but also feeling void-ish, she was compelled.

Friends in Korean Bar
Grit & Grace

Leaving the restaurant with her second dinner/excuse to make friends, we got to talking about how we wanted to spend our days with more than just drinking and teaching (they go so well together). The next morning, despite more dreary drizzle, as our first attempt to get more out of our days, we met outside her apartment to run down to the University and back before work. I kept my mouth shut about my anxieties over an ex, and turns out she did too. We talked instead about the warnings our students gave us of going bald from acid rain, meditative versus just-for-fitness yoga, and the bitch of a hill we didn’t realize we’d be running. We waved and winked at puzzled Koreans who gawked at us for being clearly insane to run when there was no bus in sight to flag down and chase.

We started a running club immediately, then went on to break my camera filming a video blog, stay with Buddhist monks at an ancient temple, escape to an American military base just to have milkshakes, get lost and accosted by cult members before running a 10K, spend Christmas singing carols with opposing South Africans, climb a mountain during a blizzard on New Year’s Day, swim in forbidden rivers at a gorgeous national park, attempt to set free a tank of squid, play some pool, and eventually buy into the detox juice trend together. Somewhere in there, we got our whole life stories out and became best friends.

Korean Neighborhood Lily Pad Pond
Autumnal Filming in the Neighborhood

Alike enough to understand without explaining, and different enough to lend insight and learn perspective, we went through some tough and amazing stuff together that you don’t want to experience with just anyone, or can’t. At twenty-four, I had never met anyone I felt I could completely trust before and if that sounds insignificant, take a second to appreciate anyone you are lucky enough to share that kind of vulnerable, magic, confidence with.

There are definitely some bonds that have broken since that year in Korea, where moving worlds apart meant fading out of sight and mind, and that’s to be expected. But no matter how long Alex and I go between catching up, through the routine and transitional ebb and flow of our lives, there will never be a time when I do not know who I’m forever connected to in this world. I have traveling to thank for that.

Stick around as the flag makes the trip from The Land of the Morning Calm, to The Land Down Under!

Korea to Australia Map

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.