This Global Life
Los Angeles International Airport
When I reach the gate to board my plane to South Korea, with its first stop in Beijing, the flight attendant refuses me.
“You need a visa to stay in China for longer than twenty-four hours,” she tells me. Like most airport staff, she is brisk. “Without a visa, they’ll arrest you. Trust me. You don’t want to be on that plane.”
I make a panicked call to my parents. My step-mother’s sleepy voice snaps awake as I describe my predicament.
I’m headed to my first teaching job abroad, in a small city called Tongyeong, on the southern coast of Korea. After a year of unemployment, I’m eager to throw myself into a new experience. It’s my second trip outside of North America and my first of many calls to CheapTickets, a website that lives up to its name. Once the gate clears and the attendant sees me in tears on the phone, she takes the receiver and re-directs her sternness. “This young lady used your website, and forty-eight hours before her flight, you changed her itinerary to add an overnight in China. When was she supposed to get a visa?”
Soon my shoulders relax, and I head to a hotel for a few hours of sleep.
The next day, I make the most of my extended layover and hop a city bus to the Santa Monica beach. L.A. looks just like the movies—palm trees and white sand! Seaside perfume intoxicates me, and I drink in my surroundings. Kids laughing and sculpting sandcastles, teens throwing Frisbees, and adults splashing in seawater, free of nine-to-five shackles. I already feel lighter, trading part-time jobs in Canada for steady work and cultural adventure. In the selfie I take, the satin bow on my hairband glints and my face glows against winking aquamarine.
This is what my new life will be like, I tell myself. Free.
Six years later, I rub my parched eyes and try to blink wetness back into them. A fiery orb lights the sky, casting amber on the deciduous tree-covered hills that have become the backdrop to my late thirties. I had an emotional day saying goodbye to saddened students, distracting them with gifts of household goods like my neon green duster. Extending the mop top to its full length, my grade four class screeched with laughter as they skirted its cotton tentacles.
Breaking the news was hard, elementary students gasping and demanding, “Teacher, no go!” After class, frowning faces crowded the open doorway as I walked backward and waved. I told myself to turn around before they saw my tears, but I wanted to capture a mental snapshot.
Too late—dew drops seeped out. Young eyes widened, and a few of them wiped wetness, too. Oh, to hell with it. I ran back with open arms, and we puppy piled, children forming onion layers of hugs around me. “I don’t want to go, either,” I told them, voice quivering as I wiped my cheek.
On the bus home, I rang the bell one stop early. A walk would be nice during Korea’s one-month breath between sultry summer and the bone chill that will come.
Facebook Chat (Tongyeong, South Korea 🡨 North Adams, Mass.)
“You need to leave,” my friend writes. “It won’t be good for your students if you stay.”
My friend is not thinking of my heartache over leaving, but of flying free of a stability that has grown staid.
“I’m not ready to leave the life I love here.” My fingers tremble over the faded keyboard.
“Freedom is important,” she continues. “They need to see you go on an adventure. They watch you to see what kind of life they can have. What do you want them to see?”
I hear her saying, Let them see you fly.
I flew here, six years ago. Launched and stuck the landing a little too deep. I’ve built up my “one-room” apartment with brimming bookshelves, pantry, and closet in a concrete building that sprouts green-grey walls in sticky summer and humid winter. Lego-like blocks dot the otherwise leafy landscape of my tourist-attraction town.
My student loans are almost paid off, I have comfortable savings, and I chat with my students on walks home, who make me smile even on grumpy days. But have I stayed too long? My four contract renewals have been knotted with a desperate energy, and a small voice deep inside me whispers, yes.
It’s time to move on.
Let them see you fly.
Kicking off my blue flip-flops, I toss my backpack on the pavement and set off barefoot across the sharp, manmade meditation stones that carve a winding path near the pier by my apartment. These zen parks can be found in every Korean town and city, usually near the ubiquitous outdoor workout stations where you can pump a creaky mechanical version of a ski machine, legs and arms squeaking in unison. I wonder if this will be my last visit, and my heart twinges.
On the stone path, smooth logs and shallow grey discs massage my instep. Taller black ovals poke. I wince as they hit my thin-skinned heel.
Tongyeong, South Korea
My former student, Sally, tells me over coffee, “Before I meet you, I want to stay in Korea when I grow up. But now I want to travel the world!” Her eyes widen as she sips her iced coffee, cool brown topped with foamy white in a tall, glass cup. I marvel at her excellent English. She’s only in the sixth grade.
“My Korean friend has worked in Kuala Lumpur for five years now, for a Korean company,” I say. My mint tea freshens my tongue.
I lean forward, smiling. “And I’ve been to a mall in Hanoi, Vietnam, full of Korean stores.” The storefronts gleamed in the upscale mall where Korean expats shopped. “Many Koreans work for Korean companies all over the world. You can definitely travel anywhere!”
I watch Sally’s eyes light up and her face flush, savoring the possibilities.
Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok, Thailand
I pace the length of the wheelchair ramp to the side of the boarding area, the only space not jammed with huffing passengers and their luggage, hot coffee in my hand. Once in line, I do that annoying sidestep like a runner at a stoplight who can’t bear to break their stride. Even the fit-looking older dude turning around to glance at my personal space—which I take to mean I’m standing too close and step back—doesn’t bother me.
Earlier, I indulged in a mango sticky rice in a crowded cafeteria and sipped on a fresh coconut, scraping the soft flesh as my delicate dessert.
I’m on vacation! In the months since I left Korea, I’ve been adrift, mourning a life I loved and cowering from the void I saw in front of me. What am I doing? I kept wondering. Funding my full-time writing life? Unemployment? Travel? Visiting friends and family? All of the above? Liminal, this space between breaths and new worlds. When your legs bend and prepare to spring, but you’re still deciding on where and why and how.
I miss my students, but the change has allowed me to re-evaluate how I want to spend my time. A four-month rental for a DIY writing retreat near Chiang Mai fell through, but I decided to use my plane ticket anyway. This will be a break for a few weeks, a time to journal and reflect.
It's my first time going to Northern Thailand!
Around me, passengers sigh and huff and droop. My own knees bop and my mind dances.
The mass of bodies push forward, and my Canadian passport—my ticket to anywhere—feels light in my hand. When the counter attendant waves me on, I skip down the ramp, find my seat, and buckle in.
The plane lifts off, and I watch as the rattling wing traces our smooth ascent across the sky.
Author’s Note: The name of my student, Sally, has been changed to protect her privacy.
Yolande House’s creative writing has appeared in literary magazines such as The Rumpus, Grain, Joyland, and PRISM International. Her Entropy essay was selected as one of the magazine’s “Best of 2018,” and she was a finalist for an issue of Creative Nonfiction. She can be reached at www.yolandehouse.com or on Twitter @herstorian. Currently, she’s revising a completed childhood memoir.