Which is more important, a beginning or an ending? Which would you prefer? Which has more value? I feel that common wisdom suggests that you should value the vast opportunity a beginning offers more than the scary and absolute finitude that an ending promises. But having lived in the comfortable confines of South Korea for over a year now, I’ve learned some things about beginnings and endings. Having said so many, I know about about hellos and goodbyes.
Just last night I said goodbye to Shelley, one of the kindest girls I’ve ever met. A tall, fiery headed gal from a small fishing village in Ireland, she led me to reflect on the value of goodbyes. We were not terribly close. Prior to this month, I would have said we were acquaintances. But two weekends ago, we stumbled upon each other at a dodgy Irish pub.
After a heavy night of debauchery while celebrating a friend’s last night in Korea, the 30 some foreigners I was with disbanded in the thin rays of the early morning sun. I slept a bit at a Korean bathhouse before clawing my way to the Irish pub for thick sausage, scrambled eggs, and sweet beans. Upon leaving, I stumbled into Shelley.
We exchanged hung-over pleasantries. When I was about to say goodbye, she asked what I was doing that day. I told her I was going to try to find a some semblance of a beach near Seoul, which is not a beach city. Her rosy face lit up with a bright smile. She nearly squealed, “Can I come!?” Being hungover and only having ever said “hello” to this girl prior to that morning, I said, “Of course!” And so we embarked on a full day of chatting, resting, and sunbathing. We had such a good time, we did it the following Sunday as well. There won’t be a chance for a third Sunday under the sun with Shelley because after our second beach trip, I said goodbye to her for what will most likely be forever.
At least 95% of expats will leave Korea a year after arriving. So if you come to South Korea, you can be almost certain that you will say goodbye to every friend you laugh with here, every friend you explore with here, and every friend you experience with here. You will say goodbye to every person whom you care about here. Either you will leave for home or they will. And a vast majority of those goodbyes are forever. Is saying goodbye to so very many people a sad thought? No. Although goodbyes have a scary and absolute finitude, they are far more valuable than hellos. And they are especially worth the loss because of what led to them.
I said goodbye to Shelley last night in a dimly lit self-service beer establishment called Beer Sale. In that goodbye and hug were the two sun-drenched days of relaxation and mutual enjoyment of the other’s company. I had said hello to Shelley over a dozen times before that morning in the Irish pub, but only one of those hellos amounted to anything substantial. However, the goodbye represented the good times we had. All the goodbyes I have said here have harbored the vast wealth of good times I’ve had here.
I met a Scottish gentleman one very late night in the “little America” district called Itaewon. The crags on this man’s face plainly told of his middle-aged years. His squat and well-held bouldered frame fit snuggly into his salmon-colored collared shirt and green cargo shorts. I at first found him a novelty not for his appearance but for his presence. You’d assume, from the lack of expats over age 35, that living abroad is a young person’s game. But when the night had taken its toll and the sobering scent of morning began to drift up from the lightening horizon, I found myself sitting outside a 7-Eleven with a good Irish friend and this enduring Scottish man, whose name I can’t recall.
Because I don’t eat enough leafy greens, I cannot remember any of what we three talked about for those three hours. I recall the buzz of steady, engaging conversation all through being caressed with threads of light from a new yet hidden sun and then beaten with the blanket of full day. I remember his charming, almost gleeful attitude while discussing the poor political outlook for our respective countries. I don’t remember my Irish friend’s attitude nor mine.
I remember thinking that this small, round, red-tinged man is a vibrant and genuinely unique character. I remember how his laughter roared through the silent Sunday morning. Most importantly, I remember clicking with him. He was one of those individuals with whom I recognize and agree, not because every word that flies off his tongue is correct but because we simply think alike. He, for me, was one of those rare people you meet and recognize as kindred. So I remember vividly the end of our encounter.
Near exit 2 of Itaewon station, we stood perpendicular to the fully risen sun. Had we remained, our sides would have burnt. We had just walked from the 7-Eleven and stopped at the exit to part. My Irish friend extended his hand slightly, and the three of us proceeded to awkwardly mix-up who would shake hands with whom first. My two friends shook hands. I shook hands with my Irish friend. Then I shook hands with my new Scottish friend. And even as our hands met for the first time, we understood it was less a first time and more a last. He said, “It was a great night boys! I’m glad to have done it.” My Irish friend agreed honestly but with a lack of enthusiasm that spoke of the toll the night took. I met my new and suddenly old friend’s eyes and said “Yaaa! It was really great meeting you. It was a really great time talking.” A slight non-awkward pause. “Have a fun ride home!” And with that, they waved and headed toward their destinations. I sat on the curb and stared up the boulevard painted by the high contrast of morning. I remember wishing then that I had gotten longer than a sunrise to connect with him. I remember those last moments vividly. I remember the goodbye, but you know, I can’t recall the hello.
Each goodbye weighs differently. One is more significant than the other. Its depth, height, mass, and volume depend on the unique relationship between the two who exchange that sentiment, that word. All hellos are equal. A hello is a zero. It is a beginning to any relationship. While offering beautiful potential, it is empty. As you move through the ebbs and flows of good times and bad times, the relationship accumulates value. And eventually every relationship blooms into goodbye.
Here is a kicker, though. A flower blooms and hopes to give life to a new plant of its breed. A goodbye is not a hello, but a goodbye can still give birth to a beginning.
My experience in South Korea began with goodbye. On a warm summer day in June of 2012, with thin yet towering palm trees slightly swaying in a cool breeze, I stood outside a security checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport. The wheels on my luggage were pointed toward the departure gate, but I faced my family. The four of them formed a protective half-circle in front of me. My sisters’ eyes began to tear. My mother wouldn’t look at me at first. I began to hug each of them. We shared I love yous. We made promises and assurances. When I reached my mother, she looked at me and began to cry. I did a bit, too. My father beamed the whole time, and he gave my the biggest hug we have ever shared. I stepped back, and we all said goodbye. In that goodbye was a sharing or exchanging of appreciation and thanks for the times the led up to that word.
Goodbye is a mutual reverence for shared lives, no matter how brief or long the relationship endured. A goodbye is a seal. It is a mutual recognition and promise of memories. I know goodbyes are sometimes sweet sorrow. I know they are often a conclusion. But I know goodbyes are always a summation. They are the accumulation of all the days hence gone by. In a way, they are the product of life. I have said more goodbyes this year than I have in the previous ten. Each goodbye has been representative of part of my life. For me, goodbyes are life itself. And Korea has been ripe with them.