by Sarah Carey
Photo by Megan Chung
This piece is a part of our Winter Issue of Selected Works.
A little over 20 years ago, I was 9 years old and waiting for the new millennium. Between the television preaching of assorted doomsday ministers, canning vegetables, rumors from the kids at school, and my never-ending concern for our dot-matrix printer with accompanying computer, I was (mostly) convinced that the world as I knew it would cease to exist. Our computer would no longer work, the merchandise scanners at Walmart would cave in, the world wouldn’t function without a calculator. We would scrounge for food, barter with cans of baked beans, and our main form of entertainment would revert to sticks, stones, and crayons. All of this would happen, that is, if we didn’t die first in the riots that I imagined would sweep the country.
As I watched the clock tick up the minutes to midnight, 11:51, 11:53, 11:55, 11:57, 11:59, I waited for it all. I waited for the end of a world where most luxuries I took for granted would vanish at the stroke of midnight. In a matter of minutes, those conveniences would be gone as the year 2000 ravaged the country from coast-to-coast.
As Times Square ticked down the seconds from 10, I savored the last moments of the life I knew. At the click of midnight, fireworks popped on the screen, the New York skyline lit up, crowds cheered. But, in Washington County, Kentucky, the new millennium arrived without fanfare—just the ticking of a clock. Nothing happened. Our giant computer reverted back to 1984, and that was it.
If this was the end of the world I was waiting for, it wasn’t much to write home about. A few days later I went back to school, and time marched on.
Twelve years later, on the same night I once pondered the end of the world, I found myself nesting in an empty, shared hostel room in Incheon, South Korea. Around me, seven other bunk beds lay empty, as surely most tourists in need of a bed were out for a big night in Seoul, waiting for the New Year to dawn in a matter of hours. I unpacked what little belongings I had and arranged them for easy access: my hairbrush, toothbrush, and a change of clothes. The next day, New Year’s, I would catch an early Korean Air flight to Tokyo, to meet a friend and usher in 2013 in a way of which I could only dream. Yet, as I prepared in the silence of the end of 2012, I thought again about the last moments of 1999 and my life leading up to that New Year’s Eve.
Even before the age of 9, my family traveled extensively, with car trips to the East Coast, up to Chicago, and down to Florida to see the beach (the near future would bring car-based trips to California and Washington State, Maine and beyond). Yet, in spite of my travels, I never imagined living, realistically, very far from Central Kentucky—much less South Korea—a country I only knew of from history books and documentaries. Certainly, the impending doom of the year 2000 would eliminate any hopes of a life abroad—or even beyond Kentucky’s state line.
However, against the odds of worldwide destruction, I was now 8,000 miles away from home, living with a wonderful host family and teaching in a lovely school. Almost every day when I returned home from school, my host mother would have a traditional Korean meal simmering on the stove. My host father would take me to different fire stations where he worked on Jeju Island. During major holidays like Seollal1 and Chuseok2, I was treated as part of the family—not just a temporary visitor from afar. I learned to shrug off the shame of nudity in a local jjimjilbang3, and when I contracted pink eye, my host family dropped all their weekend plans and took me to a local doctor. Together, we fished for snails in the ocean and ate lots of cake. It was almost as if I never left Central Kentucky. Life in Korea was different compared to those final days of 1999, where I wondered if I would ever log onto a computer again. Life was simple and I had little to worry about.
On December 31st, 2012, a few hours before midnight, I slid between the rough sheets of the hostel bed and turned out the lights. My mind hummed with anticipation of my trip to Tokyo: the lights, the sounds, the food. Knowing I would soon add another country to my list of places visited added to my zeal. I thought of my host family still on Jeju Island, such kind and generous people. I thought of the kind hostel owners who radiated hospitality. I thought again of myself on that same night in 1999, wondering what life would be like in the future. After all thoughts concluded, I drifted off to sleep, and the New Year came and went without any fanfare. Through this rebellion of peaceful rest, it was as if I sent a postcard to the 1999 version of myself waiting for the end of the world.
I was letting her know that everything would be okay.
Sarah Carey was a 2012-2013 ETA at Seogwipo Girls Middle School in Seogwipo, Jeju Island. After returning from Korea, Sarah taught a variety of subjects in Kentucky, New York, and briefly in China. In 2015 she received her master’s degree in Education with an emphasis on English as a Second Language from Georgetown College (Kentucky). She is now a graduate student in Applied Linguistics at Teachers College, Columbia University.