"Moving to Korea is the best thing I've done for myself," a young woman from Washington D.C. told me three weeks ago.
A monk was escorting our ragtag team of female expats to a few Buddhist sites in Gyeongju. As usual, I'd dove for the window seat and was staring out at the open markets and mountains, periodically drifting in and out of conversation.
Temple-hopping tends to make me rather withdrawn. But this time around I was pleased to find myself in the company of people just like me–well-traveled, resentful towards Bush, weary of the whole bar scene and in need of clean air and starry nights.
"Have you ever traveled in Asia before?" Anne asked me.
I shrugged sheepishly. "When I was a kid I lived in the Philippines for a year, and Guam for two years. But I really want to visit Thailand. My parents went to Bangkok for their 25th anniversary and they had the greatest time."
Beth, a cute brunette marathoner, wrinkled her nose at me. "Oh, you don't want to go to Bangkok. It's full of tourists. If you want a real experience, you have to get out of the cities."
Gazing out of the window wistfully, she began to tell me about her last summer, spent backpacking through India, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. I looked out at the lush trees, straining under the weight of cherry blossoms, and envisioned myself in those seemingly faraway places.
How long would a trip like that take? How broke would I get? And how long before I see my family again?
"I knew you would leave," my mother once told me when I had announced my departure seven months ago. "When you came back from Europe, you were different."
She was right. What once made me happy–driving my father's 1989 Camry to Harlequin Comics for my monthly reads, sitting in the gazebo in the middle of Ellis Lake and watching the water change colors, running up and down Stabler Lane, laughing and talking shit with old friends as the sun melted into the horizon–only made me feel exhausted.
I did not actually want to go back and do those things. I just wanted to sit back and romanticize them. I wanted to think of only the good that came with the orchards, and forget the bad.
Let me look upon my suburban life with a distant tenderness. Let me long for my parents and my sisters, and let them remember me as an adventurer–young and fearless, devout and strong.
The monk dropped us off at a beach, where a king had been buried long ago. I watched him trod through the sand for a moment before I seperated myself from the group and joined him.
He'd complimented my kicks the day before, so I felt like we held the silent but firm bond of martial artists.
"Why did you become a monk?" I asked him as we watched a young boy skip rocks against the water.
He lowered his eyes. "Never ask monk why," he said.
We stood in silence for a minute. He hesitated and said, "When I in the college I go to temple no far from here. I see painting of the Buddha and I am empty. I do not think about future, I am happy in the now. Everything is bright and good. And I go, I want learn more.
"And I cut hair and have temple life," he concluded, smiling and running a hand over his bare scalp.
Last weekend, while window-shopping with T in Itaewon, we find my roommate, who is talking into her mobile.
She flashes a gold band, her fingers fluttering before my eyes. "My darling, I'm engaged!" she gasps, teary-eyed.
I hold her for a long time. "I'm so happy for you, M."
"We were sitting in the park, just watching people walk by, and suddenly his friend takes out a camera and starts shooting away. I'm like, 'What the fuck?' And then he takes it out and proposes. It all happened so fast, I don't think it's sunk in yet.
"Pia, I'm engaged!"
T and I join K on the roof of a Canadian bar. He's been there since noon, swinging back cold beers, developing a sunburn and feeling up a married woman. "I didn't recognize you!" he slurs, forcing me into a headlock. "You're so dark now."
His companion eyes me warily before breaking out into a grin. Her husband Jon joins us and gives me a long look-over. "You must be K's tiny dancer," he says, nodding approvingly.
I smirk at K disdainfully. "I can't believe you still call me that."
He hands me a margarita. "Don't blame me. I've never even seen you dance. And thank god for that."
"Then how did you come up with such a dumb nickname?"
"It wasn't me. NYer thought of it. You got wasted and let yourself go one night."
I blink at him, confused. "He . . . What?"
"You really surprised him. He didn't think you had it in you. So yeah, the name stuck."
"Does he ever . . ." And then I shut myself up.
I finish my drink in five gulps and look out at the sunset. A chill passes right through me, and I hunch over.
He smirks at me knowingly. "Forget him. Have you gotten laid yet?"
"Please, let's not talk about that here."
"You just need to get it over with. Nobody special is coming along. Just do it and walk away."
I sit down, sipping away at chunks of ice. "I don't care if the right man never comes along. I'm not going to throw myself at the next one who looks in my direction. I'm not like that."
"Dancer, I know you more than you know yourself. And you need to do it." He takes my hand and forces it on his chest.
Three weeks ago, I sat on the beach, watching my companions. D stood in the water, her pants hiked up to her knees, looking out at a small island a mile away.
Beth dug her naked feet in the sand and peered up at the sun. Anne and her friend were talking to some locals near a convinence store. The other women wandered near the waves, unaware of the water creeping up their slacks.
I saw a lone bird in the distance, and felt a pang in my heart.
I remembered my last vision of the orchards, from my mother's SUV. The sun was setting, warming the skies in a blaze of orange glory. As we drove past, a flock of blackbirds burst out of the peach trees, squawking in protest, united in the inevitable.
As Anne joined us Beth suddenly turned to me, her eyes concealed behind her aviator shades. "A cousin of mine called the other day," she mused, smiling sardonically. "I spent a good fifteen minutes telling her about the mountains, the temples, being on my own and my travel plans.
"And you know what she asked me? She wanted to know if I was dating. Just that one thing. I told her I'd seen a few guys, but nobody special. She was so disappointed. And why?
"Here I am, having the best and worst time of my life in a country most will never know or understand, and all she wants to do is talk about my love life."
"Typical," Anne drawled, plopping down beside us. "That's all anyone wants to talk about. But you can't blame them.
"They don't understand what it's like over here, they can't relate. They just want to connect with you, and how can you discuss something that's this foreign?
"When you go back," Anne told me, "everything's going to be different. People you were once close with? It'll be easier talking to a little old lady here than your best friend back home.
"Everybody's just going to want to talk about your love life. They're going to ask when you're going to stop with this travel bullshit and get a real job and get married. Nevermind that you work more hours than they do and are doing this all on your own.
"You're single, you're overseas and they just think you're playing with a bunch of little kids and getting drunk every weekend and having one long vacation in the tropics.
"The only people you'll have to talk to–really talk to–are people like you. And those are so hard to find back home. You'll feel like a freak, a loser . . . You'll only feel right again when you come back."
"It's going to be so lonely," I told myself.
"If this is the life you're meant to have," Beth said gently, "you'd better get used to that feeling."
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