Nathan – Chicago

Contributor on ‘2020 – A Year’s Worth of Ruminations’


January 31, 2020


1. I woke up on the 31st in a whirl of travel and overall daze. I was finally going back to Korea for the first time since leaving last summer, making good on my promise to attend my students’ graduation ceremony and to get the closure I needed after deciding to work in Chicago for the time being. I technically took off from Chicago on January 30, but because of the time difference and the long flights, most of my first 2020 reflection day was lost in the travel time warp. Even so, the few hours I had awake and moving around were really valuable for reflecting and figuring out where I was in my head space. Flights longer than eight hours are usually pretty miserable for me, being a 6’5” guy with majestically long legs, but the one consolation is that I sleep well during spouts of travel in any moving vehicle. The thing that struck me most about my Air Canada flight to Seoul was how terribly little legroom I was provided, how jampacked the overhead bins were, and how despite my excitement for the trip, I was quick to judge other passengers sitting nearby. Will get into more detail about that shortly. 

Of course, blessed with the middle seat, I was sandwiched in neatly between two smallish Asian women. Usually sitting next to petite passengers is a blessing in its own right, but we were all forced to place our personal items under the seats in front of us, restricting the amount of viable leg space even more. The woman to my left was a short Filipina who had a massive backpack that the flight attendants wouldn’t allow her to put in the overhead bin. I didn’t think much of it until about an hour in when I realized she was infringing upon my middle seat legroom, basically playing footsie with me to vie for space. She also was hogging both of her armrests, a big no-no for anyone who knows travel etiquette. In my mind, I kept thinking, “who is this fucking lady?” and “doesn’t she realize I’m like double her size?”  The woman to my right was folded up and staying in her lane, so why was this other woman man-spreading like nobody’s business? At one point, she had crossed so far over into my space (while half-asleep or in a stupor) that I jabbed her leg with mine to send a signal like, “Hey! Don’t you realize what you’re doing?!”

I normally don’t get angry at people easily, but personal space is one of my most sacred boundaries and I wasn’t having any of it that day. Later on, after about eight or nine hours had passed, I think the woman could sense my negative energy that I was throwing her way with stabbing mental waves. She got my attention and started some small talk. Oh no, she was humanizing herself. How could I stay angry at someone who so kindly apologized and then told me her life story about moving from the Philippines to Canada and now she’s getting married?  Then the woman on my right also woke up and the three of us started talking about everything from life in Korea, to immigration, to having kids and job security. The other passengers probably weren’t happy that we were the only ones talking on the plane, but I could live with that. It’s not every day that people actually step out of their shells to talk to strangers so candidly. The icing on the cake was that the Filipina woman then gave me a Snickers bar and all my prior judgment just seemed so harsh and unnecessary. It’s fascinating how much you can dislike a person before actually talking to them.

After disembarking in Korea, my reflection became even deeper and I focused on why I was back in Korea in the first place. Sure, I had to close my bank account and get all my money. Sure, I had to visit the phone store and cancel my LG U+ contract. I had to go to my school’s graduation. Visit my homestay family. Visit my friends. But overall, I needed the validation that I had made a good decision to stay in Chicago and not return to Seoul for work. My two years in Korea are so special and I’ll always consider Korea my second home, but maybe the feeling would be different now. Everything in the airport felt familiar, like dug up memories. I was tired and cranky from the long flight, so when my phone wifi wasn’t working and I couldn’t access my friend’s address to write it on the Customs form, I got a little snippy with the Customs lady. 숙소 주소가 왜 중요해요? Why is the address even important? She insisted it was, told me to go to the back of the line (THERE WAS NO LINE), and then I literally wrote down a fake address and strolled back through customs. Oh Korea.

            Once out in the airport lobby, I started to feel at home again. Hearing Korean everywhere and speaking it when buying a bus ticket felt utterly normal. My Korean was rusty, but I didn’t feel awkward much. People tend to stare a lot at me in Korea, especially when I speak Korean, but it’s a feeling I’ve gotten used to. The society is so judgmental and I found a way to make it seem like they were only judging me for the good parts of myself. On the bus to my friend’s apartment in Gimpo, I remembered what it was like to survive in Korea three years prior without phone data. I remembered seeing English everywhere on signs and being surprised by that. I remember people treating me like a baby because of the language barrier and then me becoming self-sufficient in so many ways from living there. When I met Yongmoon for dinner, I remember what it was like to build so many positive relationships over two years in Korea. I smiled a lot remembering these feelings. I was also a little sick thanks to my parents bringing their germs into the house, but let’s focus on the gushy emotional feeling. I went to bed that night exhausted, but at peace with my decision to revisit and my overall life decisions. Everyone was excited I was back and I had a lot of adventures to unfold over the next two weeks.


2. Dear Stranger,

January 31, 2020 was not such a normal day for me. I started the day on a 13-hour flight from Chicago to Seoul, South Korea. You may be wondering what took me there, so I have to go back a little bit and provide context.  I first moved to Korea in the summer of 2017 and lived there for two years teaching English at a public high school. I moved back to the US in the summer of 2019 and decided to stay in Chicago for work. It was a tough decision because I had developed so many relationships abroad and leaving them behind was not an easy decision. I also recently started a new job in Chicago and it felt strange to start it and then immediately take an extended vacation (not PTO hehe), but that was something that couldn’t be avoided. On long flights, I tend to get restless and pass the time by catching up on all the movies I didn’t see throughout the year. I also like to stretch and move around a little, but this time I was trapped in the middle seat and actually quite peeved because the passenger next to me kept encroaching on my personal space. She would move her feet into the space in front of my seat until I shuffled my feet around and forced her back out. This tug of war for space seemed to last almost the entire flight, but I thought without a doubt that I was entitled to that space. Most of my thoughts during the flight were about how shorter people should never man-spread and how bad “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was.  Eventually, I ended up having a friendly conversation with both of my fellow row 35 passengers and despite my former feelings of disdain and anger toward the legroom thief, I realized I had rushed to a hasty judgment of her.

Upon landing in Korea, I was flooded with feelings of nostalgia and flashbacks. Being surrounded by a language that I’d adopted and seeing such familiar words and brands and sights brought me back to my former life there (even though it wasn’t that long ago). I felt the familiar, not positive or negative, gaze of curious Korean people and even more so when I opened my mouth and spoke their mother tongue. I was taken back especially as I rode the bus to Gimpo to visit my friend Yongmoon, remembering my first few weeks in Korea the first time around. Everything was familiar and yet foreign because I had already adjusted to being back in the U.S. for six months. This day was especially conducive to reflection because I spent most of the day stuck in transit with hours to think and think and think. And when I finally emerged from the plane with options for places to go and things to do, I immediately had to adjust to the new non-plane environment and was flooded with thoughts that I might not encounter on a normal day. I can only hope that each new day and each new month continues to bring these types of novel thoughts and room for growth and introspection.


3. My life has been in flux over the last six months after I moved back to Chicago from South Korea. A lot of my time and energy was invested in the move and my readjustment. I had to find a job, make a plan for the future, and reconnect with loads of people here while figuring out how to stay connected to people far away as well. In general, I am very proud of myself for how I maintain relationships in my life and the amount of energy and interest I put into these relationships. I feel like I am able to make time for people even when others might use the copout of being ‘busy’ to avoid making or following through with plans. I am still trying to find a balance in my work/life time and I hope to find better ways to stay energized to do exercise, hobbies, and other day-to-day items without feeling like the next day of work is looming. There are certain activities that I want to reintroduce into my schedule like yoga and cooking that are important to being autonomous and functional, so that is a priority for me. Let’s see where the year takes me and just how many things I can accomplish.