Like a typical summer day in Korea, it was pouring rain when the plane landed. Our pilot informed us that we’d beat typhoon Chanhom to shore by mere hours. I felt relieved, but I was already beginning to sweat by the time I gathered my heavy luggage at the baggage collection belt. I dreaded stepping out of the nicely air-conditioned terminal into the hot, humid bus station. I bit my lip and was about to exit through the final checkpoint when the gate officer, whom I’d thought was there just to bow and welcome people, pointed to a desk with arrival declaration forms. I apologized and shuffled over, and started filling out the form quickly so I wouldn’t miss the bus into Seoul. But then the form asked me to provide my “Duration of stay in Korea (days).” I put my pen down and looked up. It hit me then that I had no idea how long I would be here.
Every time I’d stepped off the plane onto Korean soil, I’d always known when I’d get back on to leave. Since I first left Korea when I was four, the longest I’d ever been back was for five months, from fall to the end of winter the next year, and the another two times, each for three months. This time-limited nature of my visits factored into my overall schedule and my day-to-day decisions. I first had to travel from city to city and from district to district within Seoul to visit all my relatives I hadn’t seen in a while. Then, when I had some time, I had to visit some key cultural sites I had missed on my previous trips in order to reaffirm my Koreanness. And, most importantly, each mealtime, I’d choose to eat something new to make sure I ate all the different types of Korean food.
This time, as I held the yellow half-sheet arrival form, I couldn’t think of an exact number to write below the question. I honestly didn’t know how long it would take me to finish my military service and decide on what next to do, and then prepare for whatever I’d decided on pursuing. At least… three years? Maybe four? Or, if I chose to stay and find to a job, maybe six or eight? I looked out the terminal gate and decided I couldn’t miss the bus so I would just put something down. I did a quick side-to-side glance, as if to see if anyone were watching my blatant expedience, and scribbled “800.” I gave it a look, then scratched it out and wrote “950.”
950 days. I reckoned I’d be here for around three years. It felt like a chunk of time my mind could wrap around and understand. You know, see from beginning to end. Three years. Freshman year to the end of my junior year. Middle school, beginning to end. Or maybe I just didn’t want to write a four-digit number. A 1,000 days. An intimidating number. Because then I’d be admitting I really had no final date in mind, no definite end and no plan for escape.
On the bus ride, I gazed out through the rain-slicked window at the passing scenery. In the distance, green hills with rocky outcrops broke the hazy horizon and tall apartments stood up in each town next to the highway. I thought of how strangely different this all was to the flat, suburban geography of Grand Rapids, Michigan, a place I’d stayed for three straight years, the full summer, winter, fall, and spring.
Back in Korea, I found myself once again in a new place to call home, for an indefinite period of time, with a thoroughly uncertain future. The rain poured all the way to Seoul, and I hoped this summer would soon end.
Greg Kim (’14) graduated with a BA in history and international relations. He lived in Grand Rapids for a year and has since moved back to South Korea to fulfill his mandatory military service.