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Friday, January 30, 2015

Stones For Korea

I am sitting here in my room in Ajijic, Mexico reflecting on life as an expat. It occurs to me that shortly after graduating college I took off and have been zig-zagging the world ever since. The overhead fan whirls, a soft high-altitude breeze blows though the sheer curtains, and the quietude here, now, belies my more frenetic life as an expat in South Korea.

I recall being a twenty-something gallivanting around Hong Kong. Late one night I perched myself atop a stool in an Australian bar somewhere in Kowloon--celebrating, as it were, the single most "international moment" of my young life. Here I was, an American English teacher, visiting from South Korea, sitting in an Australian pub, in Kowloon, sipping a Fosters (I guess there is no accounting for taste) that, moments earlier, had been served up by a pretty Portuguese bartender, who was speaking Mandarin Chinese. I raised my glass in a toast to the world of all things international.

More recently, my itinerant life found me befriending Sara, a main character in a well-worn paperback I found several weeks ago in Zihuatanejo. In the book, "Stones For Ibarra," Sara and her husband, Richard, shake off their uneventful lives in San Franciso, squeeze all their worldly belongings into an old Volvo wagon, and head to the tiny village of Ibarra, Mexico. To the utter consternation and criticism of all their friends and relatives,  they're off on an adventure to reopen a long abandoned mine, once owned and operated by Richard's grandfather.

The skepticism they encountered from loved ones reminded me of what a few family members and friends expressed when I left for Korea to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer ("Be careful, they have dangerous jungles there."), then again later when I departed for graduate school in West Texas ("They think Jews have horns down there."), and more recently, when I took off to visit North Korea ("You'll be tossed in one of those prison camps."). While I don't seek affirmation for these choices, I found myself quietly comforted recently when I saw a waiter sporting a t-shirt in a Zihuatanejo restaurant which read, "I drink upstream from the herd."

Nearly every overseas adventure, including my current one as an English professor in Korea, proves to be noteworthy, if not extraordinary, in terms of learning, growth, and the making of special relationships. In "Stones For Ibarra," Sara, finding an old, well worn map, reflects on her journey:

"Tracing the marked route, Sara recalled the motel where Richard killed a cockroach, 
the one where he crushed two scorpions. As she folded the map she foresaw that future
sorting might prove difficult, so faint and uncertain was the line that separated the significant
from the trivial.

It occurred to her this evening in Ibarra, with rain at the window and Richard four months
dead, that nothing ever happened on either numbered or unnumbered roads that could be
classified as unimportant. All of it, observed by dark, observed by day, was extraordinary."

Countries, adventures, encounters all become stones one places on a pile along the side of the road. They remind us of our dreams, of the people we've shared the journey with, of the pot holes we fall into; each and every stone, in its way, extraordinary.

Sometimes the stones have served to humble me, like years ago when several Korean students asked me incredulously, how could I possibly have majored in American history. "American history, it's only 200 years old, how could that be a major?" Korean history, they noted proudly, was over 5,000 years old. Now that is a major!

Once while visiting Syktyvkar, a city in northern Russia near the Arctic Circle, I had a chance to experience a traditional Russian sauna. To my surprise, my soaked and naked body was repeatedly lashed with birch tree branches. Then to my amazement, I was told to run out and leap into the fresh snow of the Russian tundra. I reluctantly complied and the stars I saw that night, will be forever frozen in my memory.

I recall a visit I made to a Palestinian friend, Ahmed, who owned a clothing store in the Old City of Jerusalem. There had been no tourists in a season marred by fighting within Israel. Ahmed literally had had no customers for months.  Yet after proudly welcoming us into his shop, he insisted on giving my wife and me a vest and dress as gifts. His generosity, in the face of dire economic hardship, reached deep into my soul.

The late afternoon light in Mexico wraps everything in a deepening bronze blanket. Tomorrow night my bed will be in Portland, Oregon. Two weeks later, my feet will be retracing the familiar paths of my neighborhood in Gyeungsan, South Korea. This, the life I have chosen as a curious expat and veteran explorer.

Remember the moments, and the people along your journey. Remember the places. And always remember too, the stones.

Enjoy your travels. Remember to leave stones.

* Stones For Ibarra, by Harriet Doerr, is a wonderfully written story set in rural Mexico. I think  expats and everyone who enjoys traveling will find the book especially appealing.