This post is based on an email I wrote to a friend/colleague back in the US. We belonged to a group called the American Leadership Forum (ALF); this program is designed to create leaders in the community. Our particular faction of ALF was also charged with promoting positive change within Oregon’s juvenile justice system. I’m not sure how well we succeeded in doing that, but I left that program (early, to begin my travels) with a better sense of who I am, what I can be, and what it means to be a part of something.
Thanks for reaching out. It feels odd to be so removed from the ALF community without a sense of closure. My last meeting was when we were at Mark’s church. When it ended, I sort of thought to myself, “well, this is it; I won’t really see this group of people again.” I started to cry and I left quietly. I don’t think people really realized it was my last time. I had mentioned it but didn’t dwell. No one said goodbye. I tried to get back into the church assembly area — the place where Mark would presumably hold his sermons every Sunday (how horrible I don’t even know the right term for that room – but the place were people have service and pray), but it was locked from the outside. So I walked home. I don’t know what I would have done once inside anyway since I don’t think I have prayed since I was a child, and even that was just reciting some rote speech and bedtime.
Since that day, I have had a couple of email exchanges with another ALFer about the meaning of life (seriously) and had brief communication with a couple of others. Just some email hellos and nice to hear from you. I follow two members on Facebook. I miss you, too.
So far, I have been in Sacramento, Denver & Taos (for just a few, but meaningful days), Toronto (I LOVE that city!) back to Oregon to spend holidays with family and friends, New Zealand, Australia, and now South Korea. Next month Dave and I go off to Vietnam for May and June. This time away has been a truly amazing experience and I am grateful for it. To be honest, I don’t want to go back.
The time away in different settings has allowed me to do so much thinking — the luxurious kind where big thoughts are allowed in and all answers are acceptable. I think about what my career means to me, what makes me happy, and who I am when I am not surrounded by obligation and responsibility (not sure if that is the real me, but it’s certainly a different one!). One topic that keeps coming up for me is community. Living in different places for only a couple of months at a time, I don’t really form friendships, but I do meet people and develop routines that allow me to get to know some people better than others. In Toronto, I played trivia once a week with a group of people who were sincerely fun to be around; we also would karaoke every other week. Conversations never ran deep, but I looked forward to their company; not company in general, but their specific presence.
Here in Cheonan, I “know” the lady who owns the coffee shop, a kindergarten teacher who frequents the park I do, a woman who I seem to run into on the street all the time (she goes to the coffee shop, too), the people who work at the corner 7-11, the pub owner, and a woman named Annie; she’s Chinese Korean but lives in South Carolina and is visiting her father. I see these people around and, with the exception of Annie, the language barrier prevents me from doing more than smiling, nodding, and saying hello. But they are still familiar faces and a part of my life now. They won’t be when I leave next month.
Even though I don’t know many, more certainly know me. Dave and I live in a more remote area of Cheonan (pop. 500,000). The downtown is pretty bustling, but out here it is pretty remote. We stand out quite a bit, needless to say, and people know us a lot more than we know them. The bus driver for Dave’s school told Dave that he saw me waiting for the bus the other day. I have no idea who this person is. Once when we went out to dinner, people came up to us and knew which school Dave worked for. I go to a nearby park to exercise daily and a couple of people brave enough to try their English (I know about 30 Korean words) say they know where I live and where Dave works. It’s sort of weird, but understandable. People are curious and it’s not hard to figure out who we are if one were to ask around. Their community is different with us Wegukin (foreigners) in it.
I have also spent a lot more time with family (mother’s side in Toronto, father’s side in Auckland) — family that I don’t see that often because of distance and demands. It has been amazing (re)connecting with these people who really were only related to me by blood until I got to spend quality time with them. Thanks to those visits, I have experienced more of where I come from and how that has formed the sort of person I am. I am related to these people as my family now. And, my family members are pretty awesome people so that’s a huge plus :-).
I then closed my letter by saying that I hoped to be at the ALF reunion in July and to stay in touch. I am still pondering what communities I belong to now – especially when one considers the online world – and which ones I will be connected to in the future. Travel before the internet was completely different. Without email and social networking, one was completely separated from friends and family with the exception of letters; and those were only possible if one stayed in a place long enough to receive correspondence. Now, I chat with friends daily, see what others are up to online, and still maintain employment with my university (albeit part time). I have grown closer to some people. I don’t really talk to some others, but I believe that when I am back in the US the bonds will be just as strong. If not, that’s OK; some connections are meant to be more temporary and/or situational. Being away from any sort of true home base has allowed me to consider the meaning of community, friendship, and connection – related but very different concepts. And all beautiful.