Turning The Page
As the kind stranger handed me a paper cup containing some sort of milky white liquid, an odd sense of belonging came over me. Just as I began to lower my head with pursed lips, the rest of the group proceeded to raise their cups high to gleefully extend their welcome, “Ganbae”. I was a little dazed having just been woken from my jet lag induced slumber by the kind stranger, and my eyes were still adjusting to the 3 AM darkness, but I could see well enough to make out the two young, attractive women sitting across from me. I raised my cup in return. “Sláinte!”
There I sat by the river, under the clear night sky, 9000 KM from home, knacker drinking with a gang of thirsty Koreans. I felt extremely happy to be there; I felt welcomed. Strangely enough, it wasn’t too far removed from the kind of carry on I would have enjoyed back in Portarlington.
We’re not all that different, I thought.
After one or two more cups of makgeoli, and a few strips of squid jerky to line the belly, I was feeling a little tipsy, and the craic was flowing. I learned that of the other three men in the group, one was a teacher and the other two were soon to be joining the army, for the compulsory 2 year stint required of every Korean man. It was apparent that one of the girls was dating one of the army lads, because she seemed pretty upset at the prospect of him enlisting and leaving her.
After catching the stray eye of the other less friendly cailín, she shot a question in my direction that carried with it a subtle element of aggression. Although the flow of alcohol seemed to muddle her broken English even further, I understood what she had said all the same, and it caught me completely off guard. “Do you like to wear condoms?” Not the ice breaker I was expecting. Sensing her hostility, and figuring that she may have had a bad experience with a Westerner in a previous lifetime, I lied so as to not provoke her any further. She seemed satisfied with my response, and returned to whispering sweet nothings into her paper cup.
I kept telling myself how surreal the whole situation was as it was all taking place before me. We continued drinking and chatting, and although the barrier of contrasting language would prevent us from understanding each other fully, the cross-cultural connection was palpable. I returned to my hostel at the end of a fun encounter, thankful that I’d accepted the invitation of the kind stranger. I lay on the top bunk, staring at the ceiling, looking ahead to the next 12 months with excitement for all that was to come.
That was my first night in South Korea.
A little over 3 years have since passed, and I will soon be departing the shores of this wonderful peninsula before embarking on a new adventure across the Yellow Sea. It’s incredibly difficult to articulate in just a few short words, the magnitude to which my experience in the Land of the Morning Calm has impacted upon my life. I don’t think I could ever do it justice. As I half-jokingly put it to my good friend Timmo over a farewell coffee this past week, “As much of a cabbage as I may seem now, I was on another level before I came to Korea”. And that says it all, really.
I met Timmo- and the majority of my network of friends here in Asia- through the GAA. When reflecting upon my time here, I would have to at least attempt to pay tribute to Seoul Gaels, a wonderful club that offered so much more than just the outlet of competitive sport. They quickly became my extended family away from home; a tight-knit network of friends who would do anything for each other.
Yes, there were some exhilarating moments of glory between the white lines of which I will never forget, and many a wild night spent toasting the expat life together in the regular haunts of Itaewon and beyond, of which I struggle to remember, but more than anything that which I benefited from most was the incredible support system afforded to me, and the unbreakable bonds I was able to forge. I’ve met some amazing people through the Gaels- people that I would consider friends for life.
I guess you could say that in a roundabout way, I met my beautiful girlfriend Áine through the club also, but that would be doing an underwhelming disservice to a quite magical tale. There’s much more to the story of how we came to meet, but the details of that predestined episode can stay unwritten for the time being. I will say for the purposes though, that on that faithful September night, while wrapped in a warm embrace under the street lights of Seoul, it immediately became apparent that every decision I had made up to that point was for a reason. I knew from that moment forward, as we reluctantly unraveled, and said the first of many see-you-laters, that my days in Korea were numbered. I was ready to leave; I was ready to turn the page and see what awaited in the next chapter.
Time has since evaporated in a cloud of blissful moments, and there are now only a matter of days remaining before I depart this land. Of course, it will be with a heavy heart. When I took the leap way back when, little did I know the degree to which my life would change for the better. I owe a lot to this country, and its wonderful inhabitants. I feel incredibly lucky to have enjoyed my time here, and to be able to leave with fond memories.
That being said, I am beyond excited to weigh anchor and set sail once again, and continue upon this incredible adventure. Wishing away the days is no way to live, but it has been a necessary evil of late, while navigating this cruel existence people like to call the long distance relationship. The end had always seemed so far away, but now it’s beginning to come into view on the horizon, thank Jaysis.
Shanghai is the next port of call, the largest metropolis in mainland China, and although only a stones throw away from Seoul, in terms of culture and lifestyle these two cities are moons apart. The prospect of starting a new chapter in this vibrant new world is exhilarating, but if I’m honest, it could be Timbuk-f*cking-tu for all I care, so long as that beautiful girl from Swords is there too.