It’s not “goodbye.” It’s “안녕히 계세요.”
Goodbyes are always tough. But yesterday, during my last day as an English teacher at Ulsan Sports Science School, I experienced a whole new level of emotional farewells. Over the past year, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by wonderful coworkers and enthusiastic students, all of whom consistently went above and beyond with their generosity, kindness and sincerity to make me feel welcomed and cared for.
To explain why the day turned into such a sob fest, I should back up to a few weeks ago when the regular semester ended. On July 20th the school held a closing ceremony to mark the conclusion of the first term. It was then that I said a formal goodbye to a majority of my students, since most of them would be spending their summer vacation in training or at home, instead of taking summer classes. With a few broken Korean phrases, I tried my best to convey my gratitude and well-wishes, but ultimately I resorted to simple English. However, even then, since most of my students are very low level it was evident that the exact meaning of my words were still getting lost in translation. I’m sure they understood my sentiments, but I was sad for both of us that our final goodbye was falling somewhat flat. Especially to the students with whom I had connected despite the extreme language barrier, there was so much that I wanted to say but couldn’t. The disappointment left me feeling emotionally stunted.
Fast forwarding through three weeks of summer school camp with my two advanced classes, August 13th arrived and it was time for the last round of goodbyes. Earlier in the week I was treated to three separate dinners/lunches with my principal and coworkers, many of whom also gave me some thoughtful parting gifts. By yesterday afternoon I had thanked, hugged, and smiled at the camera with most of the teachers and staff at the school. All that remained were my first and second year advanced high school students, known as 1-3 and 2-3, respectively.
Unlike the student athletes, who are on a sports-bound track at the school, 1-3 and 2-3 students follow a curriculum that more closely reflects a regular high school/college prep focus. In general, they are stronger and more enthusiastic academically. So naturally, their overall English abilities are the highest in the school. During my year with them, I held weekly conversation clubs after lunch, gave and corrected short essays/creative writing assignments, and challenged them with open-ended projects. Because we could actually communicate, we truly got to know each other and established deeper bonds. They could tell me about their weekends, their interests, their problems, and their hopes for the future. And in return, I could share my experiences of living and traveling in Korea, ask them questions about Korean culture and make comparisons with that of America.
In preparation for our last day, I wrote each of them personal goodbye letters, thanking them for their hard work and dedication, commending their improvement and abilities with English, and wishing them all the best. Little did I know they had a few things planned for me, too. In our last class together, we made a Korean dessert called “bing-su,” which consists of frozen milk shavings topped with fruit, candy or cookies. And as each class came to a close, they dimmed the lights and presented me with two amazing farewell videos. I immediately welled up with tears both times, and by the end I was a blubbering lost cause. I fought through more tears and sniffles to thank them from the bottom of my heart and reiterate all the things I had expressed in their letters. My reaction brought out much of the same in them, so at least we were all one big sappy mess together.
Ninety-percent of those emotions were connected to them, 1-3 and 2-3 students, and the memories we made together. But the other ten percent, I think, came from all my thoughts and feelings for everyone else at the school that the language barrier had stifled 3 weeks earlier. Finally those words were being understand and received. It was just happening vicariously rather than directly.
After many group and individual hugs, I cleared the last few things from my desk, stopped by the shoe locker to change out of my slippers one final time, and headed for the door…all the while being escorted by shouts of “Teacher! Don’t forget me! I always remember you!” “Teacher! I love you!” “Teacher! Don’t go!” “Teacher! Will you marry me?!” “Teacher! You’re the best!” Through the front door, down the long row of concrete steps, and to the front entrance we went as one. Following one more wave and the biggest smile, I turned and headed down the hill to the bus stop.
Then, just as the echoes of “Goodbyeeee teacherrrr!” had faded away, a horn beeped at me from behind. It was Cho Gi Hong, the school athletic coordinator whose house I was invited to for Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving/Christmas) when I first arrived last September. Given his limited English but unlimited care for me, he gestured that I should get in the car. Speeding along the highway towards town, both doing our best to converse using any and all words we know in each other’s native languages, it occurred to me what a beautiful, full-circle ending this was to the whole experience. Outside my apartment, we shared a hand-shake-turned-hug and he said to me, “I…..uhh……you……hap……happ…..happiness….happy….life.” And I said, “나도요,” which means “Me also.”
I don’t know when I will be back in Korea. But I do know that the value of the friendships and memories I’ve made here far outweighs the cost of any plane ticket, and to see these people again someday would be an incredible gift.
The Korean language has two expressions for goodbye: one that you say if you’re the person leaving, and another that you say if you’re the person staying. The former applies to me, so I guess it’s “안녕히 계세요” (an-nyeong-hi gye-say-yo), Korea. 감사합니다 그리고 우리는 다시 마날때 까지. Thank you and until we meet again…