“Travelers are temporarily homeless; they carry small articles from home along with them and perform certain rituals that confer the feeling of home on any temporary abode.”
-J. Douglas Porteous
The moment I stepped onto the plane that would take me back to Pittsburgh after a year in Seoul, the nausea of longing hit hard. Cari was already at home; warning me of the culture shock to come. Li would remain in Seoul, forever longing for London, until she got back to London and began to yearn for Seoul. Two cities had captured her heart, and she could never fully be happy in either because of it.
At the bottom of a pile of letters written by Seoul-made friends, Li’s slanted script confirmed that this transition was really happening. In four pages, each printed with an elephant-eating-apples at the top, the separation is completed.
The letter begins with a prompt “I can’t believe you’re fucking leaving me!” She goes on to preen and then chastise my never-ending want to make life easier for those around me, even at a cost. I had better not make her worry. I had better not let myself be taken advantage of. I had better learn from Li, who doesn’t take shit from anyone, and kick some mangchi arse when I need to.
Mangchi, meaning hammer in Korean, became synonymous with ‘you,’ ‘friend,’ or ‘that bastard,’ depending on the context. The Mangchis, our friends, were all separating; now who would understand?
“I know everyone is sad to be leaving,” she writes of the parting Mangchis in Seoul. For some, like Cari and I, the time for study abroad has ended, and we must go back to our colleges in the US. For others, their visas are up, and they leave to visit with family and make some money before probably returning to Seoul. We all must go back to our families and our jobs and our lives and our houses. Li stays, and “it is just as hard and heartbreaking to be the one staying here and being left behind.”
As I read these words, my seatmate chuckled and said “I thought we were done crying.” The unoccupied seat between us that I had thought barricaded me from bothered eyes when I crumbled to tears during boarding and then take-off becomes a funnel for my weak laughter. Streams of aching tears had begun to fall again, but I told him to blame my friends, who were probably somewhere in the grids of the Seoul subway system, headed back from sending one of the Mangchis to America.
Cari had left for California first; I left for Pittsburgh soon after. Li would stay a few months longer, but eventually we all went home. And when we finally arrived, we kept looking back.