Farewell Conversations

Laura Kennedy (2008-2011 ETA; 2009-2011 OC)

It’s autumn 2013, and with one hand, I hold tightly to the box of juice purchased at the corner store, feeling the plastic handle slice into my hand. With the other, I wipe the sweat from my brow. Why is it still so warm? Chuseok came late this year, and yet the humidity still hangs in the air. Exiting the subway car this morning, my glasses had fogged over. It’s not even nine o’clock in the morning, and temperatures are already in the mid-thirties. Is that right? Mid-thirties is low-nineties? I’ve been in South Korea for six years, and I still struggle with simple temperature conversions.

I double check the address I’ve typed in my phone and ring the bell. I’ve been to her home before for holiday celebrations–nearly every Chuseok and Christmas since I moved to Seoul–but today will be different.

“Laura, I told you not to bring anything,” she scolds, opening the front gate, “You never listen.” I smile and bow. “Good morning, Mrs. Shim! 추석 잘 보내세요!” The Korean words roll off my tongue; it’s one of many phrases I’ve memorized over the years. As I pass through the gate, I wonder if this is the last time I will utter those words, and, if so, how long it will take my mind to forget them.

I’ve decided to leave South Korea; I’m returning to the U.S. and going back to school. If I can get accepted, that is. I haven’t applied yet. I need a letter of recommendation from her, but that means telling her. And telling her risks disappointing her. Something I’ve tried so hard to never do.

As we walk up the path to her home, she tries to take the juice from my hand. “Your garden looks lovely. Has the crop been good this year?” I ask, quickly switching the box to my other hand where it will be harder for her to take hold of. She notices the switch and shakes her head, acknowledging that I’ve won (this time).

“Nearly everything on the table today comes from this garden or one my farms,” she says, “We’ve had a very good year.” She places her hand on my elbow, steadying my balance as I slip off my shoes.

“Is your son’s family joining us for breakfast this morning,” I ask.

“Yes, but they won’t be here for awhile yet. They’re caught in traffic.”

This is my chance. If I am going to tell her, it should be now. Why am I so nervous? As we settle on the floor in her living room, I take a breath and wring my hands in my lap. “Mrs. Shim, I’m thinking about going back to school…in the U.S.,” I say without making eye contact. I wonder if she is surprised by my uncomfortability in this moment.

Conversations with Mrs. Shim usually feel natural, as though she is my grandmother. We talk about our families and jobs; she shares updates on the ETAs; I tell her about my students and all the crazy things they say or do in class. We’ve laughed together; we’ve held each other’s hand as we’ve mourned the loss of family members, friends, and colleagues. The love and concern flowing between us, in so many ways, resembles the relationship that I have with my paternal grandmother–Grandma Kennedy–back home. I cherish our relationship, and I’m proud of how we have been able to remain close even after I left the Fulbright program two years ago.

“Tell me more,” she replies, “Are you applying to good schools?” I smile, suspecting the question she had really wanted to ask was, “Are you applying to any Ivy League schools?”

“I applying to some of the top schools in the country,” I say, quickly adding, “in education.”

“Do you have to leave Korea? Aren’t there are schools here you could attend?”
I was ready for these questions; I knew they were coming. “My American family is excited for me to come home, and if I want to teach in the U.S. as a professor someday, I should probably earn a Ph.D. in the U.S. as well,” I explain.

“True. You have been here quite a long time now; you’re what? 28? And you’re not married yet.”

“I’ll be 30 in the spring, Mrs. Shim,” I say. Then, skipping over the marriage comment–a common theme in our conversations recently–I add, “I’m glad I’ve stayed in Korea for the past six years. I’ve grown a lot as a teacher, especially since I started teaching at the University.”

“Well, I’ll be sad to see you leave, Laura, but to be honest, I think it’s time. Change is good. But…I also know that you will be back.”

“Oh yeah? You see me coming back to Korea someday?”

Smiling, she says, “Of course. Korea is in your heart and soul; it’s why you’ve stayed this long already.”

“Do you see yourself retiring someday, Mrs. Shim?” I ask, curious and ready to change the subject.

“I would retire today if they would let me,” she chuckled, “I’m an old woman, and I’ve worked hard–harder than many people realize.”

I must look concerned because she quickly adds, “But no, I don’t see myself retiring yet. I’m still needed.”

I cannot imagine KAEC with anyone other than Mrs. Shim at the helm, I think, as I stand to open the front gate. The chime of the bell tells me that her son and his family have arrived.