It was a rather strange place to be practicing my fledgling Korean skills: atop a volcano on the southeastern coast of Iceland.
We were slowly making our way across the glacier covering Eyjafjallajökull, a subglacial volcano that made news in 2010 after an eruption that halted air traffic in Europe for over a week. My top priority as lead trip guide was ensuring the safety of the guests, followed closely by ensuring their happiness at all reasonable costs. One of my guests, a waifish woman nearing 60, realized she had left her sunglasses roughly a half mile back up the trail at our lunch spot. I was not entirely sure I could guarantee the safety of this particular hiker, considering her questionable physical state and less than ideal snow-hiking gear, but I figured I could at least make her happy. After assuring her it was no inconvenience, I set off back up the snowy incline to look for her glasses.
As I came upon our lunch spot, I saw a group of roughly 20 middle-aged Asian men and women, packs set off to their sides, casually munching on the pre-packaged sandwiches sold in all the Icelandic convenient stores, and I couldn’t help but notice a small Korean flag patch stitched onto the small pocket of one of the bright green packs. The scene struck me as a bit odd, as I had not encountered this many ajummas and ajeossis on a hiking trip since seeing the stone Buddha of Seokguram in Gyeongju several years before, but as Iceland has become a favorite destination for travelers from around the globe, I was not entirely surprised.
Their shock quickly became evident however, as I confidently stepped in front of them and offered the standard Korean greeting when meeting someone new. They nearly choked on the bland sandwiches they had been silently eating.
I whisked through the introduction and abruptly halted at the edge of my knowledge, not having sufficient vocabulary to explain what I was doing there. After a few back and forth hand gestures, they concluded I was looking for sunglasses and leapt up to help in the search. Despite the unexpected search party, it was clear the sunglasses were gone for good. At that point, I didn’t care so much about the glasses as the fact that I had spoken Korean and actually communicated a message beyond, “Hello, I’m from America,” in Iceland of all places.
As I had recently moved away from Korea, my thoughts often drifted back unprovoked.
Much has changed since that unexpected encounter in the wilds of Iceland, and despite living in Korea for nearly two years, I have come to think of it as my defining Korean travel experience. It combines in a bizarre yet revealing manner the way in which I am always attempting to hold on to where I have just left instead of being where I am. As I had recently moved away from Korea, my thoughts often drifted back unprovoked. Instead of attempting the utterly baffling but beautiful Icelandic language, I immersed myself in the Korean language via audiobooks as I completed a weekly six hour solo drive surrounded by the glaciers and volcanos of Iceland. Although it’s rather embarrassing to admit, my Korean language skills increased more in 3 months in Iceland than during all my time living on the peninsula. This phenomenon was a simple continuation of a trend: as when I lived in Korea, my now wife grew tired of my nostalgia-tinted yearning for the countryside of Ohio. I was once again attempting to go back to where I had just been.
I’m still not entirely sure how I found myself living in the Land of the Morning Calm. It’s a country about which I was comically ignorant. I landed with a suitcase full of teacher-appropriate clothes, several bags of coffee, and multiple tubes of toothpaste, as I had heard Korean toothpaste did not work and I didn’t think I would be able to find coffee there, both utterly false assumptions for which my wife still makes fun of me.
Beyond the common trifecta of many an ESL teacher: Travel, Student Loans, and Teaching Experience, all I’ve really been able to muster by way of explanation is the common affliction of wanderlust. As a child of the American Midwest Pastoral, my earliest memories are filled with the gently flowing creeks and jade-colored cornstalks of Ohio, memories that never felt more acute than while living in Korea. I was never quite satisfied to be there however, and I scratched my itchy feet with books, the only way I could until a more permanent retreat was possible.
Nowadays, I find myself from time to time disregarding my present situation in Southern California and thinking rather wistfully of Korea and Iceland both. My wife gently reminds me how good I have it when she scolds me for not wearing sunscreen in mid-February. Indeed, I’ve yet to master the subtle talent of contentment in being where I am.
Each of my moves has taken me farther away from Korea, yet simultaneously has brought me closer to it.
Each of my moves has taken me farther away from Korea, yet simultaneously has brought me closer to it. I can now drive 20 minutes in any direction, except south because that way lies a beach, and enjoy the best Korean food outside of the peninsula. I regularly take my car down the street to a mechanic shop my wife and I simply call, “the ajeossis,” as it’s run by two brothers who left Korea some twenty years ago. These little reminders of my time in Korea have gently worn away the sharp edges of restlessness and my wanderlust has been pushed aside by the domesticating influence of having a wife, a development I’ve found to be surprisingly welcome.
I have also slowly grown more comfortable with the idea that I may not be moving anywhere exotic and unexplored for quite some time, if ever again. As more time passes since I left Korea and returned to my own familiar country, the more content I’ve become taking imaginary trips, fed by the memories I’ve collected throughout my global travels, and sometimes aided by a scalding hot bowl of kimchi jjigae.