Friday, June 27, 2008

Goodbye, Seoul. And thank you.

I've decided to cross-post my printculture blogs, since some people don't click through. You can click here for the printculture version (the same for now, but sometimes I do after-post editing).

For a few years now we’ve had this bedtime ritual: we take turns saying five things we’re thankful for. As I sat down to write this I couldn’t remember why we began the practice; but looking back at my old blogs I see that it was a response to W’s increasing desire for the things (and brands) his friends had. I wanted to take some time each day to acknowledge and appreciate what we already had. His first list (made while in the bathroom brushing our teeth):

1. Mommy
2. Daddy
3. the toilet
4. the bathtub
5. his World Cup soccer ball

It is interesting to compare his lists from then and now. While I try to mix mine up every day he has developed a long litany that always includes God, Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, Earth, Star Wars, and his Nintendo Game Cube — got to cover all the bases, I suppose.

I wrote in my blog at the time about how hard it was to hold onto a feeling of thankfulness. Gratitude is often fleeting; the day seems to revolve not around appreciation but desire — what I want to do, to have, to eat, to feel. Even when we take time to name the things for which we are grateful it is hard to summon a deep emotional tribute to that which has become a normal, and thus largely invisible, part of life.

However, this ritual began at a moment in time in which the feeling of thankfulness was palpable and strong. We had been living in Seoul for about three years and I was just reaching the point of comfort. Around the year or two-year mark anxiety had been replaced with a feeling of relief whenever I could get through the day without serious misunderstanding or frustration, but by three years I had begun to really enjoy my life here. The glee that I felt being able to navigate certain procedures and social situations was accompanied by a feeling of pride in myself and a dawning comprehension of the way things worked. I had developed an instinct for Seoul, and in its early, fetal stages I wanted to hold onto and savor it, even show it off. (This explains why I began blogging at around the same time.) The bedtime ritual was as much for me as it was for W — a way of consciously inhabiting and extending a moment in time in which I could truly feel gratitude.

And now I’m getting ready to leave, and although I have barely begun to pack, feelings of thankfulness have emerged again, much sharper this time because of the accompanying sense of loss. From the mindset of planning, another move seemed like a good, logical idea, a way of opening more doors. But as the countdown has hit the one month mark I think not about what we will gain but about all that we will give up by leaving.

Although they have been the source of a great deal of hand-wringing and hair-pulling (as I’m sure I have been the source of the same for them), I’m thankful for my in-laws who have helped us enormously since we’ve been here. I’m thankful to have had a place to drop the kids on Sunday afternoon so that my husband and I could catch up on Battlestar Galactica, knowing they would be well-loved, well-fed, and possibly well-spoiled. It’s taken five years to learn how to avoid fighting with them but the bond that has developed between them and the kids is irreplaceable and could not have developed in several decades of living in different countries or cities. They have been a part of our daily life here, permanently woven into the children’s early memories.

I’m thankful for our apartment and neighborhood. Our apartment looks rather humble and small, but it has heated floors and lots of sunlight. I like being able to hear kids playing in the playground out front and walking to school past the back windows. I like the open halls in which I run into our neighbors. I appreciate the proximity to my in-laws’ place, the airport bus stop, the subway, restaurants, cafes, grocery stores, and banks. I like not living in a fortress and yet feeling safe — a part of the neighborhood rather than separate from it.

I’m thankful for my kids’ schools and teachers.. W counts his piano teacher as the adult he is the closest to after Mommy and Daddy. I will really miss M’s bilingual preschool (which W also attended), where the teachers spent a great deal of time holding M as he developed comfort with the place, allowing him to emerge as an loquacious, cake-loving charmer.

I’m thankful for the network of busy moms who have patiently explained to me that oil paper is tracing paper and sent me scanned copies of textbook pages when W has left his book at school.

I’m thankful for store workers that answer all my questions about what ingredients I need to buy for japchae and what size origami paper a 2nd grader needs to carry, who bow and smile to me when I encounter them on the sidewalk or the bus stop, and who ask me where I’ve been if they haven’t seen me in a while.

I’m thankful for my friends, American and Korean, who have put in the time and effort to build a friendship despite my continuing proclamations that we would leave “soon.”

I’m thankful for the city of Seoul (despite its often unpleasant smells), for its neighborhoods, safe atmosphere, and great public transportation. I’m thankful for an economic system that depends on volume, in which anything and everything can be delivered and goods ordered on the internet arrive within a day or two.

Despite being stared at I’m thankful that being an English-speaking foreigner mostly triggers envy and not disgust or anger.

I’m thankful for public baths.

I’m thankful for kimbab, bibimnaengmyeon, and galbitang. I’m thankful for neighborhood cafes, where I wrote most of my posts and spent a lot of money on coffee.

Goodbye Seoul. I’m glad I made a home here. I’m coming away with an expanded sense of what the good life might look like, and I won’t forget it. While I finalize details for our new apartment and schools, that sense of thankfulness becomes desire again as I try to find ways to fill the next stage of the journey with that which I appreciate in my life now.

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