Sunday, August 19, 2012

Small World in a Good Way

This will be a shorter post. I haven't taken any trips since my last post. That, of course, does not mean that my week was not filled with blog-worthy material . In fact, I just returned from a lovely dinner with a group of my colleagues (including Sarah, whom I've mentioned quite a bit in previous posts but will now mention by name, since she offered her permission). Yet tonight I want to write about last Saturday. And to set up last Saturday I really should return to early last decade in southwestern Illinois.

My family had recently completed the first move of my life, which consisted of heading about five miles south from my hometown (population around 6,000) to the adjacent town (population around 10,000). In our new neighborhood lived a Korean woman and her family. I didn't know them very well, but her son was a classmate of my younger brother. That summer her nephew was coming to spend the summer with her family just down the street.

We lived in what I considered a rather idyllic neighborhood for a kid, in that there was little traffic and lots of young families with kids in grade school and middle school, so you could roam the streets and backyards tracking down playmates for a daytime game of backyard baseball or touch football in a cul-de-sac, and subdivision-wide nighttime games of "jailbreak".

I spent a lot of time that summer riding my bike around and exploring the still-being-constructed parts of the subdivision with the older kids. My two younger brothers played a lot of baseball with the younger neighborhood kids, including the neighborhood boy and his Korean cousin. I joined them on occasion for a game of kickball or home run derby, which consisted of lobbing a tennis ball (from a semi-safe distance) to a kid with an aluminum bat and seeing how far he could launch it.

It was on one of these occasions from which I retain what may be my most vivid memory from that summer for sheer uniqueness and poignancy. The neighbor's Korean name was Hyun-ho, and while his English was a work in progress, I can still hear him consoling my youngest brother after something transpired in the game to bring my brother nearly to tears.

"No cry, Dylan."

My mind may have embellished this memory in the ensuing years, as I notice I've done with some others, but when I replay it I see Hyun-ho hugging my brother to make him feel better. I think the combination of sympathy for my brother, wonder at the sweetness of this boy to try to make him feel better, and the excitement at having someone different around in a town that is about 98% white combined to really burn that memory in my mind.

At the end of the summer Hyun-ho went back to Korea and I figured I'd probably never see him again, unless I happened to catch him if he returned to America sometime. The distance between home and Korea felt so insurmountable to me at the time, however, that I figured a trip between the two was a very rare and difficult event. It still sort of feels that way, though much less so. At the time I never dreamed of going to Korea. I hardly even imagined leaving the states, except for perhaps taking another road trip into Canada. All the travel I could remember doing up to that point in my life had been done on the roads, so I never even really thought of going to Europe.

Lo and behold, over a decade later here I am:
Cooling off in a Starbucks in Sangmu
And here's who came to see me in Gwangju last Saturday:
Hyun-ho showing his Cardinals pride
(whilst showing off his frappuccino so I could taunt Dylan with it via Twitter)
After I decided to come to Korea I contacted our Korean neighbor back home. She was excited to hear of my plans and met with me several times to give me ideas of how to prepare for the move. I'd planned on trying to find work in the southern part of the country, and the first time she talked with me about it she said that was a good idea and that she was from the southern part of the country. After I lined up the job in Gwangju and told her, she told me that was her hometown, and the town where Hyun-ho had lived when he was young.

So, at the age of 25 (Korean age 26), I moved from southwestern Illinois to Gwangju, Korea. When she was about the same age she moved from where I am now (same part of the city where I live, actually) to the states. Hyun-ho actually made the trip to the airport in Incheon to meet me when I first arrived (he lives somewhere around Seoul now, I believe) which was a real blessing for me. It turned what would have been a very nerve-wracking moment of entering a new country into a reunion of sorts, since I hadn't seen that sweet kid who befriended my brothers for a summer in over a decade. We had a smoothie at the airport while I waited for my bus to Gwangju, and he led me to the bus stop and everything.

Last Saturday he came down and we met up to go get lunch at a delicious restaurant a few subway stops west of my neighborhood, and then we came back near here and sat in a Starbucks for a couple of hours while he waited for the time to catch his bus at the terminal. We reminisced about roaming my old subdivision that summer, and about watching the Cardinals, exploring Forest Park, and the pure joy that is a Ted Drewes concrete.

On my last night at home I went with Dylan and my cousins Eric and David (also my best friend basically since the day he was I was best-friendless for the first two months of my life) to Lion's Choice for a roast beef sandwich, and then to Ted Drewes on Chippewa for one more banana concrete.

And less than three weeks later I was in Korea hanging out and reminiscing about how wonderful it is with the kid who came from halfway around the world and played backyard baseball with my brothers (and sometimes me) for the summer so long ago.

P.S. I'll take more pictures this week for next week's post. I can't believe I didn't take any this week. Serious oversight on my part.

In order to add a sugary dose of faux-cynicism to this post I should admit that for a couple of days that summer David and I told Hyun-ho that we were former MLB players and "enrolled" him in our training camp in my backyard. We really thought he believed us and were pleased with ourselves for pulling one over on him. Eventually I realized he probably didn't know what we were talking about and was just happy to have a couple of older kids who would take turns throwing him batting practice. We weren't quite devious enough at the time to think of trying to convince him to pay us for our expertise.

P.P.S. Hyun-ho, if you read this, thanks for all your help buddy! I felt so much better coming over here knowing that, as your aunt says, I have family here to look after me.

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