7,000 miles of separation
One of the reasons that many people move their life abroad is to put some distance between that life (with all its compartments) and other things, including family. Regardless of the advancement of technology, that physical distance still provides a buffer and a certain level of control over how much interaction with and influence on one’s life family has. That move, that gigantic schlep over the oceans, dwarfs the move away to college or the relocation from one coast to another. And as the years pass and that space becomes part of life, the return grows all the more difficult.
My move to Korea gave me absolute control over my own life and put me in a precarious position where only I could work things out, bar a family member boarding a plane for the 7,000 mile flight to Seoul. I remember the day that I told my closest college professor, an author who’d served in the Peace Corps where he nearly died in an African village, that I’d decided to leave behind the safety of a journalism job in Boston or New York for the far-flung Korean Peninsula. “This will be your Vietnam,” he said without a pause. He didn’t need to tell me to think about it.
No, I wasn’t going to war, but I was going to go away to a place where I’d learn about myself in a way that I imagine most aborigines who go on walkabout find out what they are made of alone, away from family in the wild, or the way one extended family member told me he “grew up quickly” when as a 17-year-old boy he was sent on a 30-mile hike into the unmarked woods of Vermont with a compass and a knife. In both cases, the individual must use what he knows, listen to and learn from what is around, and deal with whatever pitfalls or mishaps befall him.
Self-reliance: as Emerson said, “None but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.” That feeling first filled my mind when I grasped the reality that I was aboard a plane headed for Asia with only two duffle bags and a backpack. I had this vision of a huge zoom lens or telescope sitting on the shore of the New Hampshire lake where I grew up focused in on my vacant face as I stared out of the airplane’s window. Then, that lens pulled back, way back, all the way to a wide-open, star-filled sky where a pin’s head moved off into billions of other dots, lost in space.
Years later, that moment sits in a box like many of the other things I packed up and mailed out of the local Korean post office before I moved back across the seas, those same two duffle bags and backpack in tow. “You’ll never move back,” my stepmother had said time and time again during my years in Korea as if her assertion or challenge would prompt me to leave life in Korea behind. And for quite some time I thought she was right, though I never said so.
Now I’ve been back for a couple months and the question of what home really is continues to toy with my mind. I’ve been gone for years and my family and friends seem to have gotten used to that fact. Moreover, my tentative “re-entry” has people wondering (albeit rather tacitly) when I’m going to buy a house, get a car, take a big job somewhere to prove that I won’t be back on another plane out of Boston. It’s almost funny.
Every summer when I returned for a visit people asked questions, most of them direct: “When are you moving back?”; “How long are you going to live over there?”; “What is it that you are doing?” Over time, four, five years, the questions and questioners tired and conversations turned to politics or sports or travel. One friend often said, “We’ve lost you to Korea.” And it never bothered me much. The distance and separation started to turn me into an outsider like the long lost uncle who shows up at a rare family reunion with stories and an exotic air only to depart into that same unknown whence he came.
When I think of the Vietnam that my professor spoke of, I think it also symbolized a place that those closest to me could not truly know about — regardless of visits, stories, photos — because they hadn’t lived it. I find myself having deeper conversations about life with friends that I made in Korea, especially those who have been there for a long stretch (long-timers as they’re called) simply because they took on a familiar unknown. By no means are these war stories, but they are thick threads that tie together a bridge that stretches from the woods of New Hampshire to the Korean Peninsula, across that long-established distance.
My stepmother’s mantra about me never returning was always repeated with a surety and sadness that would leave me without words. Still, today, as I sit in an old New England home atop a cool stone foundation with the smell of the idle fireplace lingering, I’m not sure whether she was right or wrong.