Katie is from Libertyville, IL and participated in the 2017 Korea summer program.
With a bittersweet taste on my tongue, I sat on the cold metal seats of the line 2 subway returning from Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul towards my host family’s apartment for the last time. Korean conversations that no longer sounded foreign to me fluttered in and out of my ears as I stared into the harsh blackness of the subway tunnel, eyes filled to the brim with tears at what I saw.
I’d spent the past six weeks immersed in the NSLI-Y Seoul program. As it dawned on me that I was really leaving South Korea, I couldn’t help but reflect on all the places the subway had carried me. In my mind’s eye, the dark window glass was filled with colors, a million scenes and memories dancing before my eyes.
Flashback to my first trip to Ewha: with my three brand-new little sisters in tow, my host parents and I made the long walk to the station and boarded the subway. I fell in love with my little sisters after about thirty seconds, but communication with my parents was a little more awkward. My Korean was stilted at best and nonexistent at worst, and I couldn’t exactly bond with my host mom by high-fiving her the way I did with my three-year-old sister. Unable to genuinely express my gratitude, I felt detached and guilty, more like a babysitter than a daughter. However, as she balanced three umbrellas, the baby, and the five-year old’s hand, I decided if my Korean skills weren’t enough to tell her how much I appreciated her hospitality, I would show her instead. That night, we had a dance party and I twirled and sang with my host family without any regard to how silly I looked, and that shameless, carefree joy brought us closer than any Korean conversation could have hoped to do.
As classes picked up and my language skills improved bit by painful bit, I strived to, at the very least, tell my host mom what I’d done every day. I’d flip through my textbooks on the subway ride home from class, planning out what I’d say: Today I went to Insadong. I did taekwondo for the first time. I had a speaking test and I think I did well. She asked me questions; sometimes I could craft answers beyond formulaic sentences, sometimes not. But even when we sat in silence, the simple act of just washing dishes or folding clothes together eased the uncomfortable tension between us until our tiny apartment felt like home.
My last full Sunday in Korea, I woke up to three little bodies jumping onto my bed, yelling: “일어나 언니!! 바다애 갈거야!” [Wake up! We’re going to the sea!] After the hour-long drive to Incheon, we ran down the rocky shore into the ocean fully-clothed. We splashed each other and laughed, completely soaked. After we dried off and showered, we ate fresh fish at a restaurant out in the sun. It was my happiest day in Korea, and it didn’t hit me until the car ride home that I hadn’t spoken a word of English all day.
Sitting on that subway, I flipped through a stationary pad until I found a goodbye letter I’d written in Korean to my host mom. While I still have much more to learn, a language once completely alien to me became familiar enough that I could express my overpouring love to the woman who adopted me as one of her own. No longer dragged down by my fear of embarrassing myself, I could communicate regardless of my language level. Wiping away my tears, I tucked the letter away and stepped off the subway, heading home with a heart that felt free.