Written by Gem Chema, ETA ’11-13
It’s March 2nd, 2013. After driving three hours from Gwangju, we finally arrive at the 17th Combat Air Force Base Camp in Cheongju. My boyfriend’s father catches my wandering eyes through the rear-view mirror; we laugh with shared anticipation. The base entrance is heavily guarded by armed men. The cement wall is layered with blankets of barbed wire. After 15 minutes, I hear his voice call my name. He’s clad in his navy blue uniform, with a signature cap sitting on top of his freshly cut hair—wearing a huge smile across his face.
You can’t do much as a soldier’s guest. Security confines you to one area. You can only sit across a table from a man who is otherwise absent from your daily life. Fortunately, I came with my boyfriend’s father and sister, so we are able to drive around the base camp rather freely.
We drive down a long road enclosed by two lines of equidistant trees, thick mascara brushes shooting up towards the sky. For a base camp I found the buildings quite cute, just like I find almost everything in Korea. In many ways, it is much like a closed-off male university campus. Except the students are soldiers, teachers are armed, frats are squadrons, classrooms are roof aircrafts and dorms are bedlessly built for eight.
We have a picnic in one of the gazebos scattered alongside the lake. I’ve been in Korea for 20 months and it still amazes me how nothing can stop a Korean barbecue, not even hostile winter winds. We grill tasty beef, garlic and onions, wrap them in greens smothered with ssamjang. We devour boneless spicy fried chicken his mother and I cooked together the night before. Our high spirits and laughter keep us warm. The four of us snap pictures by a model aircraft, get Americanos and ice cream and hold on tightly to each passing hour.
In such a distinct environment, I am more keenly aware of others. As I walk with my boyfriend’s arm in one hand and his father’s arm in my other, his sister closely leading the way, I notice many looks of confusion: Some trying to figure our relationship out, others just surprised by our shared intimacy. As I’ve heard many times before, it’s rare for Korean parents to be so accepting of a foreigner girlfriend and embrace her as part of the family. Having been together for nearly a year, he and I stopped noticing strangers who stare at us like a spectacle, in straight-up awe of a Korean-foreigner couple.
It took time to get used to. It also prompted quite a few arguments. He’d question why I’d ask to wear his cap only when walking down the more conservative streets of our city. I just hate the sun in my face, I’d reason. But he knew I was melting more so under the critical gaze of our elders. He also wasn’t immune to it. I’d catch him nervously fumble with his Korean, naturally giving the impression he too was a foreigner. We’d subconsciously developed methods to subdue judgmental burns. It was too much in our heads and, luckily, just a phase. Inspired by his parents’ open embrace our unique bond, we realized our differences should be celebrated rather than concealed.
This all never would have happened if Jake Owens, my lifeblood in Gwangju, didn’t refuse to hang out with me on a Wednesday evening in May 2012. Thanks to midterms, I had no work the following day. “Jake, Jake, let’s play! I’m stir-crazy,” I begged.
But Jake declined, and I decided to go on a blind date. In my mind, it was a casual meeting with no intentions. Just some soju and 감자탕 (pork bone soup). I was pretty exhausted from being a foreigner in Korean dating culture. I felt I was going through the motions… meeting people yet struggling to connect…I wanted more. His name is Seongwook Kim. We met in the rain. I stepped out of the cab and he waited for me under a black umbrella. Aren’t you cold? He asked. Within minutes, I was surprised and impressed by his manners, humor and English. Somehow dinner and drinks turned into a two-hour two-person singing party in a 노래방 (karaoke bar). In the taxi home, I thought, he’ll be a good friend to have. A really good friend.
Months drifted by with ease. We took walks, talked for hours at coffee shops and sat at parks until the mosquitoes drank all the blood we had to offer. It didn’t matter; we were enamored. We traveled to the countryside to picnic, sightsee and visit friends in other cities. I didn’t realize how much of Korea I hadn’t experienced. One month in, he took me to his mother’s restaurant. The obvious apprehensions raced through my mind: I was nervous to meet his parents, who don’t speak English. Is my Korean good enough? Isn’t it too soon? Are they displeased I’m a foreigner?
I had no reason to worry. His family is kindhearted, open-minded, playful and understanding. They immediately opened their arms to me. I was shocked when his parents proudly introduced me to his extended family at his cousin’s wedding. On Buddha’s birthday, I was invited to their family temple in Boseong. The monk welcomed us into her home. We gathered together in a circle on the floor and spoke intimately over fresh fruit and warm rice cakes. Suddenly his parents were 아빠 and 엄마 (Dad and Mom), and they’d be surprised if I didn’t sleep over after spending the day at their home. They even threw me a barbecue party in their living room for my 1-year anniversary in Korea. I was honored. It was all very natural.
My first spring with him had come with a complete transformation in my Fulbright Korea experience. I finally carved out a life outside of my elementary school and outside my role as a teacher. I was reminded that teaching was only one aspect of my life here; this country had always been a unique place for self-discoveries, cultural exchange, epic nights, disastrous mornings, giving, taking, friendships, love and travel. I was no longer looking into an intangible bubble of Korean culture, but was experiencing it side by side with people who truly love me.
It’s my second and last March in Korea. Seongwook is six months into his mandatory two-year military service in the Korean Air Force with 18 months to go. This was always his dream. Breaking up for his service was never even an option. Even with him gone, I spend a lot of time with his family. When my roommate is away, when I’m scared of the dark, catch a cold, or just miss their son, I know I always have a place to retreat. As a foreign girlfriend who feels not-so-foreign anymore, I’m grateful to his parents who have offered me warmth, love and a home away from home.
And so just like our year together, as we sat hand-in-hand at Cheongju Air Force Base Camp, five hours flew by relentlessly. All the leaving, all the being left, it doesn’t get easier. “See you next time” should become clockwork, second nature, but each goodbye still aches and lingers. I climb back into his father’s car and immediately pop my head out of the backseat window. My boyfriend waves us off, neatly adjusting the cuffs of his uniform. He takes his turn and walks back into the guarded gates, ready for duty.
Gem Chema is a 2011 – 2013 ETA at Bullo Elementary School in Gwangju.