Last Day in Korea
by Fairlie Atkinson
Well my departure from Korea was entirely fitting to my four year experience there. In fact it summed it up marvelously.
After spending the previous day eating dog soup, drinking traditional Korean alcohol and talking with my Korean friends, I was tired and emotionally stretched. I slept late, then grabbed myself by the scruff of the neck and threw myself out of bed; no mean feat I can assure you. Snack, my scruffy little silky terrier, and I went for a walk to run some last-minute errands and say goodbye to the local shop keepers who had been so kind to me as they filched my weekly paycheck. On returning to my apartment around 2pm, I was sitting at my computer writing a short note to my parents, when I received a phone call from the pet exporter Mr. Chae.
"Ms Fairlie, you arrive airport now?"
"Where are you? You arrive airport now? I waiting for your lovely pets."
"Ummm Mr. Chae (pause) Sir…its 2.00pm…you told me to be there at 7.30pm…their flight is at 9.30pm…"
"What? You no get my new email?"
"No, and I am sitting in front of my computer now…"
"Ok, Ms. Fairlie you get in taxi right now and go to airport because I need to have your lovely pets in processing by 4pm. If you can't get there your pets no fly today. Wait a minute. In fact, frankly speaking, honestly, I think you no can go on time."
"What?! Wait a minute….I will get a taxi now, but my flight is not until 12.30am and that means I have to come back to Sinchon which is an hour away again. What the hell happened?"
"I send you email. You no read? Go! Go! Go! See you at customs ok?"
I stared at the phone in my hand, listening to the dial tone. Then I took a few long deep breaths. In, out, in, out. Then I rung Ron my neighbor and asked him to help me carry my pets down to the main road in their gigantic luxury airline standard traveling cages. I grabbed all the documentation, my wallet and with a pet in each hand I fled the house.
Ron helped me down to the main road where we were almost backed into
by a little man in a very big, black car, who was proceeding to
reverse down the street without looking over his shoulder or using his
mirrors. Ron exchanged a few beautiful Korean cuss words with the man,
On the way to the airport I rang around those who were supposed to meet me at my apartment to see me off, to tell them not to come because of the scheduling hiccup. Jenny, my close friend and colleague, and Yoda (the nickname we use for my boss), were to meet me at a later time to help me with my bags. I was watching the clock like a hawk as my mobile phone service was scheduled to be terminated at 5pm and I wanted to make sure Jenny and Yoda wouldn't be worried if I dropped out of communication.
The ride to the airport was a very uneventful hour, with the taxi driver cheerfully cussing at Chilli, my dreadfully put-out cat, every time he let out a small meow. We arrived at Korean customs and the taxi driver, bless his tobacco blackened heart, helped me inside with my animals. I realized that I was very far away from transport back to Sinchon, so I asked him to stay with me and take me back to Sinchon. The grin on his face almost split it in two.
Inside the customs building on the first floor, one glance indicated
to me that all of the Korean government officials were involved in a
very intense card game called 'Go Stop!' There was a lot of swearing and
gesticulating going on and money exchanging hands amongst the circle
I trudged up the three flights of stairs (why are animals twice as heavy when you put them in a cage?), and entered the inspection office, out of breath and out of patience. The little man behind the desk took one look at my face and sprang into action. He handed me his bill.
"Before inspection, pay at bank on first floor."
I took some more deep breaths and then ran for the stairs. After queuing at the bank and paying the fee to a surly looking woman who must have lost money on the card game, I ran back up the stairs to find the little inspection chap gingerly reaching a microchip ID reader into Chilli's cage. Chilli took one look at the little man, gave a little shrug and shifted positions so that it was impossible to get a clear reading. I walked over to the cage, said a few choice words to Chilli, grabbed the reader out of the wee man's hand and got a reading.
"Microchip number not same as on Arab import paper."
He thrust the Arab Emirates import paper in my face. He was right. Another misprint on the paper, after I had just spent a very stressful week getting the last one corrected. Damn. More deep breaths.
"What should I do?"
"Dunno. I give you health certificate anyway. I don't care bout microchip number."
Numbness. "Thank you."
At 4.15pm, after watching the little man chicken-peck the keys on the typewriter and spell Dubai 'Bubai' on all my documents, he thrust another bill in my face.
"You have two animals, so two fees. I forget," he giggled.
More deep breaths. I made it down to the bank, cut the line, paid the fee to the now weeping bank teller, and sprinted back up the stairs in under five minutes.
I collected all my documents and my now very distraught looking animals and ran for the taxi. The taxi driver loaded up my animals again, made a few comments about how I looked like everything must be very hard for me, and then we proceeded to the cargo terminal.
On arriving at the cargo terminal we discovered another elevator-less
building and the taxi driver helped me up the flights of stairs to the
pet exporter's small airless office. We walked in and were immediately
hit by the smell of stale cigarettes and fresh instant coffee. Mr.
Lee, a big strapping man with a very good suntan, glanced at us,
glanced at the clock on the wall and shot out of his chair. He labeled
both animal cages at the speed of light, fastened the water bottles
I left the building with a small ball of tension somewhere at the base of my gut, worrying about my animals' flight. The taxi driver and I drove back to Sinchon, about 30 km over the speed limit, in companionable silence. At 4.45pm, I tried to use my phone to call Jenny and tell her I was on my way back, when I discovered the schmucks at the phone company had terminated my service early. Great! I gave the taxi driver the equivalent of two days pay for his 3 ½ hour fee and headed for a pay phone. Having never used one in Korea, I wondered if they would be like the ones you find on the streets of New Zealand: decorative, yet useless. Luckily I was able to use one, and Jenny and Yoda said they would be over around 6.30ish.
I sprinted for home and a shower and was just emerging from a cloud of steam when they arrived. We talked for a little while about school things and then I finished packing and we went off to get a bite to eat. At this point I had to say goodbye to Yoda. Standing on the bright street in front of the small restaurant where I go almost every day, I heard Yoda say to me, "lets say goodbye while smiling". I tugged a smile into place, forced my tear ducts shut and bowed low to the best boss and one of the most beautiful friends I have ever had. I then went into the cool of the restaurant, sat down opposite Jenny and cried. If you have ever had a boss who makes you smile when he enters the room, who listens attentively to all you say, who is fair, generous and efficient and who has a witty remark for every occasion, you will understand how I felt to be saying goodbye to him. I think he had stopped being my boss a long time ago and had become my friend without me even noticing.
Jenny and I sat over our kimbab and talked of school and the future and then we headed back to my place where I did up my suitcases. Ron appeared and I offered up the remaining contents of my home to his discerning eye and then we left and locked up (Ron would be back the next day to claim the few good things I had left, as I didn't want the new tenant getting his grasping paws on them). We hauled my three suitcases down to the airport bus, laughing, joking and wailing at parting all the way. The bus came quickly and Jenny and I got on and I stared out the window at Ron, thinking about how much I would miss seeing him everyday to gossip and swap our weekend stories.
Jenny and I had a nice trip in to the airport and I felt so grateful to have her with me. She calmed my mind and relaxed me and helped me to say goodbye to Korea with a sense of peace.
The peace I was feeling was abruptly shattered at the Air Emirates
counter when I discovered they were going to charge me $400USD for
overweight luggage! I had resigned myself to paying a small fee, but
was surprised at the inflexibility and unfriendliness of the Korean
We then raced over to the money exchange place and I got a stack of American cash to tide me over. The lady at the money exchange place was reluctant to give me the money, as she did not know if the UAE had a currency, accepted US dollars or was even a real country. In fact she had a small conversation with the woman waiting behind me about it! In the end Jenny and I became vocal about being given my 'damn' money and we left the counter shaking our heads with disbelief. I then escorted Jenny down to her shuttle bus. It was by now 10.30pm, and the last bus to Suwon in southern Seoul left at that time. We said a very calm goodbye, but the moment was loaded with feeling. I stood and watched until her bus disappeared into the smog filled night and then I sat down outside on a bench in the heat and had a final cry.
After pulling myself together, I went through to the gate and boarded
my plane. I had been given a window seat, perhaps as compensation for
my overweight luggage charge, and I settled in with my copy of 'The
Wind-Up Bird Chronicle' by Haruki Murakami. The flight was quite
As I reflected on my life in Korea, I realized that my last day summed everything up perfectly. Good friends, good food, total chaos and disorganization, miscommunications, touching moments, ignorance and lastly, passion. Passion for friendships, passion for family, passion for education, passion for jobs, passion for getting ahead, passion for money and most of all passion for living and God help anyone who gets in their way because you will be backed over by a big black car driven by a small man who has just lost a lot of money on a card game!
1stopKorea would like to wish Fairlie the best of luck in her new job and country.
Korea has lost an interesting and colorful member of her expat community.
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