A light, high-pitched bell sound rings in my ears as I open the door to one of my favorite coffee shops. It reminds me of an old mom and pop shop back in the States, the ones that I grew up going to, with a rickety door, full of battle scars that give it personality and character.
“아메리카노 한 잔 주세요.”[1. Americano hanjan juseyo, One Americano, please.] I say to the coffee shop owner.
“따뜻하게 드릴까요?”[2. Ddaddeuthage deurilkkayo? Would you like that warm?] He responds back.
“네, 감사합니다.”[3. Ne, kamsamnida. Yes, thank you. ]I nod and sit down next to the window.
I stare at my computer screen for a while, not quite sure for how long. Out the window, I see kittens wandering the streets, avoiding cyclists that ride through the town, brazenly unwavering in their stance as they face the passersby.
I don’t have a very productive day at the coffee shop, but I begin to wonder if that’s such a bad thing as I pack up my bag and head back to school.
On my way back, the scenery is laden with the lives of the ordinary people of괴산[4. Goesan, a town in Chungcheongbuk-do], a small town located in the heart of the Korean peninsula.
아줌마s[5. Ajumma, middle-aged woman] sitting on the wooden ledges with tarps of dried peppers and beans, going back and forth about the state of the local economy. 아저씨s[6. Ajeossi, middle-aged man] having a bottle of 소주[7. Soju, Korean rice liquor] with a cigarette, giving each other tips on farming.
Stray dogs and cats eating from the large bowls that several shops have placed next to their doors.
Grandchildren who have come down from the cities for a weekend with their grandparents. I wonder if they know the value of this kind of proximity.
The last time I talked with my dad, he was worried. He told me in a series of complicated and roundabout codes to remember that I was American—not Korean. “Don’t forget that you were born in America, not Korea. America is your home. Come back home,” he had said at the end of his long but important rambles. He always rambled when he had something important to say.
He did not understand why I was so drawn to Korea. And honestly, I was not sure if I knew myself.
I stop by one of the stands to buy a 망 of 귤[8. Mang of gyul, a net of tangerines ]. It’s market day and the streets leading up to the bridge are full of fruit and 반찬[9. Banchan, small side dishes served with Korean meals] stands. The grapes and apples and oranges and 참외[10. Chamoe, Korean melon ]are all piled like a pyramid in plastic green baskets with moms and dads peering over the stands to pick the best ones without touching them—their children following suit as they pretend to inspect the quality of each basket. I look this way and that way and have a thought: how simple and trivial my life is here.
A friend of mine told me about her brother’s experience when he visited South Korea for the first time in many years. He talked about how he could see his face in every level, in every crevice of society.
Whether celebrities or news reporters, restaurant workers or shopkeepers, educators or office workers, custodians or government officials, they all resembled me. I don’t think I realized how powerful that actually was until I came here. To see yourself reflected everywhere. To have hair products fit your hair. To have glasses fit your face. To be able to eat kimchi without the fear of offending anyone with its smell.
Offending. Standing out. Blending in.
Living in the United States as a Korean American was like trying to walk into Exit 9 at Hongdae Station on a Friday night, when everyone was trying to walk out. You can’t.
But being here, is like resting. I don’t have to push as much. I don’t have to fight.
Yes, people here still don’t really understand what it means to be Korean American. For many that I had encountered, my identity was a commodity. I was lucky. I could speak both Korean and English without struggling. Or so they thought.
I was used here and there, when convenient for anyone, Korean or foreign, to translate, to interpret, to be in the in-between of important and not-so-important communications and decisions. But even in the midst of all that, I was still resting.
I clench my fists a little bit tighter as I pass the little intersection right before the bridge that would connect me to that dreaded hill. I hold each image of this little, average town a little bit tighter too as I cross the bridge, knowing that I will not have much time left before going back home.
Every time I thought of home, my mind became a little more frazzled, a little more frantic than when I thought of my life in South Korea.
I was afraid. I am afraid.
I am afraid that I will not be able to see myself reflected in my home.
I am afraid that I will have to go back home only to be greeted with that feeling of constantly being questioned and challenged on my belonging—a feeling that is all too familiar, but one with which I will never become accustomed.
I am afraid that I have gotten too comfortable with this incredibly plain life of people treating me like I am one of them.
I finally reach the end of the hill and think of what I have to do before the weekend ends.
Finish lesson planning for Monday. Grade those speeches that are piling on my desk. Check their online homework. Do the dishes. Clean my room. Start packing.
But I decide that maybe I will save the packing for another day. Because I am not ready to pack, and then unpack, my life here just yet.
Andrea Kang is a 2013-2016 ETA who taught at Gongju High School in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do, and is now at Jungwon University in Goesan, Chungcheongbuk-do.