“Whatever they ask you to do, say yes.”
This was the advice that one of the speakers gave us at EPIK orientation.
Were you invited to a Tuesday-night work dinner where you’ll stay out late drinking soju and won’t understand anyone? Say yes.
Did your principal ask you to teach after school classes and judge an English speaking contest? Say yes.
Do your co-teachers want you to dress up as a bunch of grapes and perform an interpretive fruit dance for the new chapter on fruits? Say yes to that too.
In my case, I’d been invited to a work retreat to the mountains on a school holiday. I passionately hated sleepovers and could think of a thousand more relaxing ways to spend my day off, but of course, I said yes.
I regretted that decision on Monday morning, a few hours before we were set to leave the school on a bus that would take us out of the province. I was feeling an inexplicable sadness that I sometimes felt since coming to Korea. It was a hard sensation for me to wrap my mind around, because I really had nothing at all to complain about;
My job was tiring but fulfilling and let me be creative, I loved my co-teachers and students, I had friends, and I had a clean and cozy apartment very close to my school. But sometimes I couldn’t help but compare my life in Korea to my life in America and feel immensely sad, in mourning for the end of what I’d dubbed “the best years of my life.” When I felt that way, it was difficult to do much of anything, much less drink with coworkers and climb literal mountains. I wanted to go home.
Throwback to the best of times
But this wasn’t a trip I could easily back out of.
I found myself on the bus next to my coworker named Jiwon, who fed me red ginseng candy that I thought tasted kind of like dust.
About two hours later, the bus stopped just outside a buddhist temple by the sea.
There’s something about the sea that relaxes me. I remembered that I first started feeling at home in Spain when I got to the sea in Galicia. I don’t even like the beach that much, but the sound and smell of the waves is incredibly peaceful.
(I feel obligated to mention that at this temple, one of my co-teachers ran up to me and shouted “KYLIE, LOOK! THERE’S A WHORE! A WHORE!” to which I said “WHAT? A WHAT?” She then dragged me into the temple where I saw a small HOLE in the floor that let you see the ocean crashing up on the rocks)
That night, as is typical in Korean work culture, we all got very, very drunk.
We ate sashimi and drank beer, then soju, then beer mixed with soju. Then the principal and head teachers came around to pour everyone shots. I’d been to enough of these work dinners (called hwesiks) to know that when someone came to pour you a shot, you had to 1) get on your knees if you’re in one of the traditional floor-sitting restaurants 2) chug whatever’s left in your own cup or take the proffered shot glass with two hands 3) take the shot like a champ, but looking away from anyone who’s older than you (which is particularly annoying for me, as I’m always the youngest at a hwesik and find myself turning completely around in order to not stare down an elder)
I found myself leaning on my co-teacher Seung-jin’s shoulder and nuzzling her denim jacket affectionately with my cheek when another teacher asked from across the table:
“Kylie, how much have you had to drink?”
I peeled myself away from Seung-jin and reached for my water, knocking my chopsticks off the table.
“I don’t know,” I said honestly, letting my head roll onto my right shoulder.
I was the first to go down but not the last. By the time we left, even the gym teacher who normally ignored me because he didn’t speak English was shouting “SHOES SHOES SHOES” at me as I struggled to put my shoes on before leaving the restaurant. I clung to Seung-jin and watched the gym teacher stare fervently into a fish tank while we waited for the bus.
We got back to what I think was a Korean-style hotel, except it didn’t have beds and I was too drunk to ask why. It did, however, have a closet full of bed-sized cushions. I dragged two across the floor to be my bed and one more to use as a blanket. Then I sat on the balcony and looked at the beach while my co-teachers did drunken pirouettes behind me.
I came back inside to brush my teeth and promptly slipped on the floor, landing on my back and smacking my head on the hardwood.
“ARE YOU OKAY?” Seung-jin shouted for the hundredth time that night, rushing over only to slip on the exact same spot and fall on her back beside me.
I laughed and rolled over on top of Seung-jin, feeling warm and happy from the soju but also from the people around me and the closeness I felt growing between us.
“Are you okay?” Seung-jin asked in the morning, as I was putting on my eyeliner using my reflection in the glass door.
“No,” I said. “I’m hungover.”
I was nauseous, exhausted, and had no idea how I was going to climb a mountain without falling off the side.
I thought breakfast might have helped me pull myself together, but in my agony I’d forgotten that American breakfasts of toast and eggs isn’t that common in Korea. Instead, we got a spicy, mushy, fishy soup. I probably would have enjoyed it in literally any other context, but on that particular morning all I could do was stir it around and eat my rice.
I got back in the bus, feeling slightly more awake, and watched as we made our way to Seoraksan, the mountains we’d all been waiting for.
As soon as we reached the entrance, I recognized the bear statue from my Korean textbook. That was how I knew this place was really important.
Jiwon and I ended up walking together up the mountain. At first it was easy and so, so beautiful.
But after about an hour, it started to get steeper. There were fewer slopes and more stairs. My tank top was drenched in sweat. Even Jiwon, who is Korean (and according to real science, Koreans sweat less than white people) was sweating.
“You can go ahead,” Jiwon said when she stopped to rest.
I shook my head, panting and digging my water from my pocket. “God, no. Please let me take a break.”
Our pace was laughable because our legs were shaking after a few hours. When we reached a part of the trail with hand-rails on the stairs, I used the rails to essentially drag myself up, rather than using my abused leg muscles.
I didn’t even realize when we made it.
“Is this the top?” I asked Jiwon for probably the fiftieth time. I couldn’t tell, because everything around us was so beautiful. The sky had opened up everywhere above us and the ground was painted with autumn foliage.
I did a quick scan of the platform, jogging around and jumping excitedly when I realized there weren’t any more stairs.
“Jiwon, this is it! This is the top!”
I gave myself a moment to grip the railing and smell the air and just appreciate everything before I started taking pictures. I thought about how colorful and perfect the world looked in that moment, and how the view before me was something I never would have seen for as long as I lived if I’d decided to stay in America.
This isn’t meant to be a story about climbing a mountain as a metaphor for overcoming my struggles in Korea. To be honest, I don’t know that I overcame much of anything except for a hangover. Sometimes, I still want to go home. Sometimes I still question what I’m doing here and what I want from my life. Sometimes I still feel sad.
But when I feel those things, I try to remember the way I felt standing on top of that mountain. The clean air, the leaves, the open sky…