Today was incredible, and like most of my time since arriving in Korea last Friday, today I was once again reminded of how very lucky I am. I am writing this blog post from the comfort of my room on the 26th floor of the five-star hotel where I am staying in the southern port city of Busan, South Korea. Normally more than I would spend on myself, I justified the decision to stay at this rather fancy hotel as an early 40th birthday present to myself, and to commemorate my return to this city 10 years since leaving it. I used to live and work in this area until I decided it was time for me to return home to the United States in 2007.
And to this day, I still believe my decision to leave Korea when I did was the right choice to make. After 5 years in the country, I was missing the comforts of the United States, I missed friends and family, I missed weddings and babies and felt my career would not grow unless I moved back home. And so I did.
It wasn’t until a year ago that I started having these recurring dreams about being back in Korea. They were dreams of being once again in Seoul and Busan, the two cities I lived in during my time here, and these dreams simply wouldn’t go away. For the past year, I have been having them about once every two weeks, and I knew deep down inside the only way to make them go away was to return to these cities ASAP.
While I recognized the emotional need to return to Korea, I knew financially, it would be difficult. Thanks to some planned saving, I could afford the plane ticket, but it would a longer time for me to save enough to afford a few days in a hotel, as well as meals and transportation. So the idea of returning to Korea was a distant goal for me, and one I believed I could make happen, but not anytime soon.
And then one day I got an email. I honestly believe things happen for a reason and that a higher being out there truly does make things possible for us when the time is right. Late last year, a friend of mine told me he was relocating to Seoul for work and insisted I come visit during his tenure in Korea. I could save some cash by staying with him and his family who would also happily feed me during my stay, helping me save significant money on such a trip. I could not have received a more divine sign than this generous invitation and before I knew it, I had my plane ticket to Seoul booked by late January.
And so here I am. Finally. Because of my friend’s generosity, I was able to make this return trip to Korea this year and also tag on a side trip to Busan (and the town of Jinhae), where I spent most of my time in Korea. By having my friend open his home to me, I have also been able to afford two days at this nice hotel here in the Southern part of the country as a special treat to myself for in many ways, this vacation is a therapeutic one for me. It’s not just an escape from the incredible stress I have left behind in Washington, DC, it’s also an emotional trip to reconnect with a past that will always be a part of me.
And today was very special in that regard. Today was the day I decided to try and find my old neighborhood in Jinhae. I did some research and found that the bus I used to take between Jinhae and Busan, the 58-1, still ran, but so many stops had been added to the route that what used to be a 30 minute bus ride was now a 2.5 hour commute! So I looked at my finances and decided that since taxi rides are so cheap here, it’d be worth taking a cab from Busan to Jinhae instead. I also figured it’d reduce the chances of me getting completely lost.
And so that is what I did—I found an available cab at the Hadan subway station and to my luck, had the sweetest driver who was able to track down my old neighborhood using the address I provided him. Neither he nor I knew if the apartment building I used to live in would still be standing, but he was willing to help me find it.
The drive to my old neighborhood was memorable. Using broken English, broken Korean and Google Translate, I explained to my driver how I used to work in Jinhae and how this was my first time in 10 years returning to the area. I was able to pull up on my phone old Korean newspaper articles from 10 years ago about me in my former job, giving him a very good understanding on the importance this return trip to what is still somewhat considered the middle of nowhere down here meant to me. He was such a sweet man and very excited for me to be making this visit 10 years since leaving.
The drive from Busan to Yongwon-dong (my old neighborhood) in Jinhae was both alien and recognizable to me. The Noksan River (Green Mountain River) more or less looked the same as I remembered except it definitely had more ship traffic than in the past. And there were more buildings along the route than I remembered. Most were industrial factories, which is what the area is known for—a funny contrast of ugliness against a dramatically gorgeous natural backdrop of green mountains, clean rivers, and blue skies.
When we reached Yongwon-dong, the street I used to live on, I could somewhat recognize it. Not surprisingly, the businesses I remembered were no longer there, and the amount of shops seemed to have tripled since when I lived there. But the skeleton of the street remained the same. I never knew it was possible to recognize a road despite everything surrounding it being completely different from how I remembered, but that is exactly what I felt. I didn’t know the businesses on either side of the street, but I knew this road and could recognize aspects of it from 10 years before.
By the grace of God, my cab driver found my old apartments. Both buildings appeared to have been well maintained, but the neighborhood was claustrophobic. Many more new shops, apartment buildings, and businesses had popped up in the neighborhood since I left and what was once a relatively open space now seemed crowded, but strangely, still quiet. The woods behind my second apartment were still there, and it was a relief to see this natural landmark still in place despite the development the area has seen.
It was a bit emotional seeing my old apartments, especially the one my cat Soju and I lived in at the time we both left Korea for the US. (Soju, although aging, is still with me.) It is unbelievable to me how I was able to remember things as they were despite the many changes that have since taken place in the neighborhood. I would point out things in the neighborhood that I recognized, amazing my cab driver with what was still in this area 10 years ago and what has changed. For example, the pavilion by the water is still there; the used appliance repair shop is also still in business. The mechanic shop where my ex-boyfriend worked is also still there, as is the pig foot restaurant that I went to once but didn’t really like.
But the batting cage where the young male workers frequented after their shifts at the shipbuilding factory was gone, as was my favorite galbi restaurant. The Yongwon fish market was also missing. Top Mart was gone too but appeared to have been replaced by another grungy grocery store with a different name. My favorite Korean porridge (juk) restaurant, which my ex-boyfriend’s older sister used to run, was no longer there and the pet shop where I got my little Soju seemed to have disappeared too. My dentist’s office was also gone, as was the nicer, more upscale grocery store in the neighborhood back in the day.
My cab driver allowed me to indulge myself with photos of my former home, and drove me around so I could get a final look of the place. I had originally planned to spend an hour walking around the neighborhood, but upon seeing how much it had changed, I decided to stay in the cab and ride back to Busan for there was a high probability I would get lost and cabs in the area seemed scarce.
When my driver dropped me off at Hadan subway station where we originally met, in my broken Korean, I thanked him deeply from the bottom of my heart for being a part of my return visit to Yongwon street. He touched his heart, smiled widely, and said something to me that I could not understand, but I have no doubt in my mind it was sincerely kind wishes.
As I look back on this incredible day, I am so very much aware of how lucky I am to have been able to experience this return visit. Not many people have such chances in life, and I never thought I would have such an opportunity either, but a higher being truly is looking down on me and very much wanted me to return, almost exactly 10 years to the month after I left.
Maybe those recurring dreams will stop now. Maybe, with today’s visit, I have put those past memories to rest.