My Long Goodbye to Korea

 

It’s been 6 months since Yun and I returned to the United States.  Seeing my parents outside the Phoenix Sky Harbor gate around midnight, with bleary eyes but smiling faces was a déjà vu experience.  Had I really been living in another country for 4 and a half years or was I just coming back from a trip to Disneyland?    Was this really “home for good,” or was this just another stage in part of a bigger journey?   

There were so many things to look forward to back in Arizona.  Blue skies and Mexican food, for one.  Yun would be able to pursue his career.  I would finally be able to spend Christmas with my family again.  Of course I was happy to be back.  Even so, I’d heard many tales about other expats who had a hard time transitioning out of the life in Korea.  They would often talk of the dreaded “reverse culture shock.”

The comments of these fellow expats raised questions in my mind.  Would I feel like I “belonged” or would my hometown feel alien somehow?    Would I be able to find a job?   Would the food be too greasy and salty?  One expat in some literary article spoke of suffocating isolation in his small hometown and complained that he didn’t like how personal and chatty servers in American restaurant were.  Fine, that was just silly.  But still.

It turned out my fears were mostly in vain.

The confidence I gained while living and working in Korea made my post-Korea experience in Arizona very different.  I got a job, a car and an apartment within one month of being back.  I wasn’t scared to go places and talk to people after almost 5 years of living in one of the most densely populated places on the planet.  Having lots of prior work experience made it much easier to adapt to new demands and situations at my new job.   And there was no language barrier either!

There were other more surprising ways in which Korea made life easier back in Arizona.  Hearing other languages like Spanish or Chinese at the grocery store wasn’t intimidating.  I was used to hearing a language I didn’t (fully) understand and I became much more sympathetic to expats living in the US after knowing what it was like to be one in Korea.  It wasn’t a conscious highhanded decision.  It was a natural reaction after living and traveling in foreign countries for a long time.  The world didn’t seem as big and overwhelming – just different wherever you went, which was part of the fun.

I thought about Korea, but I focused on the present situation and kept my head down and moved forward.  My brain seemed to be compartmentalizing: That was Korea, that’s what you did then – now you’re in Arizona, this is what you do now.  Yun bought some Korean ingredients at an Asian foods market and I bought seaweed crackers from Costco, but otherwise our diet was American.  We talked only once in a while about our memories in Korea.   Yun now spoke English to strangers and co workers.  It was sort of like living in another lifetime.

Sometimes I would remember Korea and it seemed like a dream.  Other times it seemed very real.  At about the 3 month point I began to miss Korea and felt pangs of nostalgia and bittersweetness about the places and people.  Leaving behind expat friends wasn’t as painful because I knew eventually they would leave too.  They weren’t part and parcel of it.  But the mountains, the cherry blossoms, the food, the lantern festivals, the neon lights, the music, and the Korean people were.

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My old route to work.

One of my favorite characters in fiction, Philip Marlowe, said, “to say goodbye is to die a little.”  Appropriately enough that comes from the novel The Long Goodbye.

Leaving Korea felt like a long goodbye.  Yun and I had planned for months how we would apply for his visa, send our things home, and travel Asia on our savings.  I knew Korea wasn’t “home,” but it had still become a part of me.  Even during our planning I couldn’t become detached from Korea.  The time went by faster than I’d hoped.  There would never be enough of it to explore the city, the countryside, and to eat another bowl of haejang gook.  Each year living there went by faster than the last.

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This is one of the things I’ll miss the most.

It seems natural for people to preserve their psyches by not thinking about what’s beyond their control.  If saying goodbye really does kill a little part of you then better not to dwell on it.  But did saying goodbye to Korea kill a part of me?  That sounds so…tragic.

Perhaps it’s the opposite.  Cheesy as it sounds, perhaps there’s a part of me that wasn’t there before thanks to Korea.  I’m a fuller person with a heart that belongs to two places.  Leaving Korea was sad, but it’s cool to know there’s a place on the other side of the world that is now comforting and familiar.  I can’t really imagine never going back.  Perhaps it’s not truly “goodbye” – it may well just be goodbye for now.

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Book #4. The Long Goodbye. By Raymond Chandler

“The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right.

To say goodbye is to die a little.”

Or so says the unforgettable cynic and private eye Philip Marlowe, in a rare sentimental moment in a novel that is otherwise the least sentimental novel I may have ever read.

I have my cousin Lisa to thank for introducing me to Raymond Chandler – or rather, Philip Marlowe (the two are still the same person in my mind). This is one of those novels I probably would never have read otherwise. For whatever reason I balked at the premise of a moody, cigarette-smoking quasi-playboy private detective trying to solve a case about a beautiful woman who’s been murdered. Looking at that sentence I just typed I know it sounds crazy I thought that. Perhaps the story just sounded cheesy. Maybe (gasp) not quite literary enough for my “taste.”

But I put my normal prejudices aside and dived into a world that I have absolutely nothing in common with aside from the fact that it’s set in west coast America and I totally fell in love. I think the sign of a great author, actually, is that he or she can create a world the reader may not “relate” to and yet can still feel a strong connection to it. There is no world or reality apart from the world of Philip Marlowe when you are reading this novel. Whether you’re comfortable in it or not, you are sitting in the front passenger seat for the entire ride.

Philip Marlowe, for all his self-destructive habits and cynicism, is a reliable protagonist. You love him partly because everyone else is suspect. At the very beginning of the story, he encounters the only other truly sympathetic character, Terry Lennox. Here is the opening paragraph:

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith outside the entrance of the Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.

 While this may be the first time Marlowe sees Terry, there aren’t too many more times to follow. Marlowe has just begun to establish a friendship with him when Terry’s wife – the daughter of a multimillionaire – is murdered brutally in a guesthouse on her property. Yikes. Marlowe helps Terry make a getaway to Mexico where he ends up committing suicide and leaves a note confessing he was the murderer. The rest of the world is convinced, but Marlowe suspects Terry was the convenient scapegoat in an affair that is much more sinister than it even first appears.

For the sake of justice on Terry’s behalf – even though he only actually utters the word “justice” a handful of times throughout the book – Marlowe fights an uphill battle against corrupt cops, gangsters and the victim’s rich and powerful father to get the scoop on what really happened. At the same time he finds himself enlisted in another case searching for an MIA famous author who is prone to drunken rage. Events and people all become inevitably linked to each other as they only can in a fictional and sensational world of crime caper but it’s so well done that you don’t question it. There are no gaps, no pot holes in the plot, and all things come full circle to a glorious, if somewhat bittersweet ending. (Hint: it is called “The Long Goodbye”).

Throughout the ride we are entertained on every page by the cynical Marlowe and his characteristic zingers. At times he is endearingly self-deprecatory:

I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split.

 When he’s talking back to thugs he fights fire with fire:

“See you around,” the bodyguard told me coolly. “The name’s Chick Agostino. I guess you’ll know me.”

 “Like a dirty newspaper,” I said. “Remind me not to step on your face.”

 Or sometimes he’s just sitting at home watching TV, bemoaning the banality in the culture all around him:

“The dialogue was stuff even Monogram wouldn’t have used…And the commercials would have sickened a goat raised on barbed wire and broken beer bottles.”

These are more superficial examples from a larger-than-life character who has practically created a stereotype and a genre of his own. Marlowe, however, is more than just quick on his feet. He is a closeted intellectual. On the one hand, he describes a side character in the publishing business as “a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel.” This is in keeping with Marlowe’s own straight talking tell-it-like-it-is. It’s the way the other characters see him too.

Mainly to the reader, though, Marlowe makes references to literary figures ranging from Flaubert to T.S Eliot. He knows his cultural stuff, at least on a basic level, but he isn’t a prig. On one occasion a rich man’s chauffeur quotes two lines from a T.S Eliot poem. The poem goes: “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michael Angelo.” He asks Marlowe what he thinks it means. Marlowe’s sardonic response: “It suggests to me that the guy didn’t know very much about women.”

The Marlowe that the reader – and only the reader – gets to see is both weary and introspective. His intellectual side is such that he knows and understands himself (and other people) all too well, even if they are too selfish and self-destructive to understand him. Marlowe is not simply resigned to this fact – he likes the life that he’s chosen, in spite of its disappointments:

…Part of me wanted to get out and stay out, but this was the part I never listened to. Because if I ever had I would have stayed in the town where I was born and worked in the hardware store and married the boss’s daughter and had five kids…I might even have got rich – small-town rich, an eight-room house, two cars in the garage, chicken every Sunday and the Reader’s Digest on the living room table, the wife with a cast-iron permanent and me with a brain like a sack of Portland cement. You take it, friend. I’ll take the big sordid dirty crooked city.

 Sordid and dirty as it is, I’m already longing to return to Marlowe’s world. In his strange sort of self-aware way he is the purest thing in it, he’s but tough as nails at the same time. You know in the end everything’s going to be okay because he’s at the helm. And sometimes that’s all you really need in order to enjoy the wild and crazy ride.