The next train left at 8:25am. I flicked my wrist to check the time: 8:04am.
“Halmoni, I have to go.”
With that I threw in my clothes and packed my bag. I had spent the night there as I would be leaving Korea soon and it was a courtesy familial visit. She walked me out to the yard and I gave her a quick hug, said, “Saranghaeyo” (I love you) and that I would call before flying out to Cali, and powerwalked down the road to the train station. I had a mission: I had to be at my hostel by 11am to do the DMZ tour.
My mind was so busy and preoccupied with wondering if I would make it to the train in time. I hurried away and when I had reached the bridge that would let me see my grandma’s house again, I waved thinking she would be there but she wasn’t. Oh well, I had a train to catch.
Ultimately, I missed the 8:25 train and waited for the 8:41 subway (which would take an hour longer with its 24 stops -__-). I would still make it to the hostel in time. The subway arrived early and I got on. As I sat there, I realized I had forgotten my glasses. Damn. But on second thought, I had also just bought a new pair yesterday that I was going to get fitted back home. And anyway, Grandma could mail it to me if anything. That’s fine.
Then I reached into my bag and realized I had also left behind three books (Bible, Conversations with God Book 1, and Mr Nice) in my hurry to leave. Those, I knew I didn’t want to leave without. But the tour… I sat there for about 30 seconds warring in my mind whether to be without my books/entertainment or risk never seeing them again until finally I said to myself, you know what you want – do it.
So I got up and headed back the way I came. I shook my head at myself for my negligence and lack of attention but let it go. It was what it was.
I arrived at my grandma’s, sweaty and a little out of breath. She didn’t hear me when I called or when I entered but that was usual. I opened the door to her room and she had the lights off and TV on streaming her beloved dramas. She was appropriately surprised to see me and chastised me for hurrying out earlier when I explained why I was back.
I packed my glasses and books and sat down next to her. I was going to catch the next subway in an hour so I had time to kill. In a moment of clarity, I grasped the realness of what had just happened. I didn’t know if I was going to see my grandma again – ever. This is very cliché but I didn’t know what was going to happen tomorrow or the day after but here I was, next to my grandma in Korea, getting to be in her presence. And there I was 30 minutes earlier, rushing off to catch a train to catch a tour I could reschedule. I hadn’t said a proper goodbye, I hadn’t even looked back and waved as I powerwalked away. She had been a second thought.
Then, getting that second chance to say goodbye hit me. I said to her in Korean,
“I left in such a hurry and I don’t feel like I left properly. I’m glad I forgot my glasses and books. I’m glad I got to come back and see you one more time, Grandma.”
She agreed. We sat there with the TV on and I held her small frail hands. She squeezed mine and I squeezed back and we could only just enjoy what we had for a few more minutes. We talked a bit and finally it was really time for me to go. It was a different air this time. I hugged her and said I would miss her and asked if she would miss me – of course, she said. I hugged her again – tighter this time – and I felt her breathe deeply. I knew she was crying and as she pulled back, her eyes were filled. I felt again even deeper, a feeling – love? Affection? – for her, my grandma.
She told me to work hard when I got back home and I replied I would work hard thinking of her. She again walked me out to the yard and again, this time, it was different from 45 minutes earlier. The trek down the road was also different. I turned at 10 meters and waved back and she waved back. All the way down the road, I turned and waved back to her, until I disappeared from her sight at the end.
As I walked the same route to the station, everything was different. I was a little more sober-minded, a little more clear-headed. As I walked, I thought, I came to Korea and am leaving now with everything I had wanted. I’m not sure why but I teared up at the thought. I remembered first arriving at my grandma’s house after my dad had picked me up from the same station I was walking to for the last time. I remembered the birthday lunch for her 90th, all the cousins, aunts, and uncles that filled the restaurant. I remembered spending nights with her and my aunt, just talking and laughing and hanging out and of course, watching dramas. I remembered our train rides to Andong to visit my older aunt and to Busan to visit another relative.
I remembered most the things in between. The feelings of belonging, the beginning of understanding those who were so far from me, those I never thought I would get a chance to understand, even while sharing meals and beds. Though we are oceans, cultures, and universes apart, they had reached me. I did nothing but be there, and in just being who they are, how they live, they reached me. They didn’t ask for understanding or acceptance. They asked that I have another bowl of rice or another slice of chamae (Korean melon) and did I sleep well?
And right now as I sit on the subway leaving my grandma’s hometown, I’m left with a whole full heart. It really just hit me that I’m leaving now. I came wondering and hungry and curious. I leave grateful and full and content beyond expression.
Before I came out here, someone told me, people who travel alone are usually searching for themselves. Although a good portion of my time here has not been spent alone, I found what I didn’t know I was looking for. I am walking away with a deeper appreciation for where I came from, the network of people I belong to even without actively participating, the homes I have admission to without question. And in that, I somehow have a deeper understanding of who I am as a Korean, as cliché as it is. This really is one of the reasons I came out here and for this long.
I’m still on the subway and my battery is at 6%. I had to write this before I forgot. I don’t know if I want to publish this but it needed to be written.
Thanks Korea. You’ve been so good to me. I walk away with no regrets and a billion pictures in my iPhone to remember.
Til next time,