South Korea was never just a country for me—it was aurora coreanus, a constellation of light, hope and opportunity. It’s impossible to say where I would be if it weren’t for South Korea taking me in back in 2002, a broke, depressed, drunk and drug-addled 25-year-old shit who couldn’t get a job at Starbucks, never mind at the newspapers or magazines I was trained to work in. I’ve explained before what Korea meant to me, and I won’t go through it again, except to say, it’s meant a whole lot. But now it’s time to go.
Indeed, it’s been time to go for a while. I never intended to spend 14 years here (including those week-long, month-long, yearlong breaks for travel). The country has moved on and so have I.
First, teaching is no long the lucrative career it once was. People used to literally offer us teaching jobs on the street—the assumption being that if you were white, you were a qualified English teacher—and we revelled in white privilege like swallows in a birdbath. But most Koreans have since wised up, and jobs are not as plentiful as they once were.
Second, my journalism career has also hit a wall. For the last five years I’ve been exploring all the exciting, weird and disturbing facets of this exciting, weird and disturbing country. I interviewed former sex slaves, spent two months “worshipping” at the world’s largest church, delved into the heart of Korean racism, wrote about the country’s nascent punk/anti-K-pop scene, rode local transit throughout the nation and, somewhere along the line, became one of the country’s leading English-language experts on soju—or at least I’m the barbarian who’s written about it the most.
But there’s only so much more I can do. When I referenced my lack of Korean skills in an article on local transit co-published by Roads & Kingdoms and Slate, I was kindly asked on Twitter, “What kind of JERK spends FOURTEEN YEARS in a country and doesn’t learn the language?” Fair point.
After I wrote an article for Foreign Policy criticizing President Park Geun-hye’s authoritarian tendencies, some organization called “The Center for Foreign Media Monitoring” sent me a questionnaire the length of Middlemarch asking exactly how I was qualified to write about the issue. I’m perfectly qualified to write about it, but I would need to attend a year of intensive Korean classes before I could reasonably defend myself.
And when I spent two months intensively researching and writing an article about Korea’s leading bible-based cults—including one whose leader is just finishing up a 10-year sentence for serial rape—it was kyboshed by the country’s leading English-language magazine for being too controversial and likely to get us all sued and/or jailed, thanks to South Korea’s medieval libel laws. My latest article on HIV stigma in Korea has been embargoed—by me—for the same reason.
So it’s either language training and the long process of applying for South Korean permanent residency, or the Departure Lounge. We fly out Monday.
We would have gone sooner, three years ago even, but fate got in the way. A series of layoffs hurt, but it was when my wife Jo got diagnosed with cervical cancer that we realized a postponement was in order. One radical hysterectomy later and she seems to be in permanent remission, but she still has to do an alphabet soup of tests every three months or so. Some involve her being injected with dye, others being fed into an enormous magnet, all of them very expensive.
Then there’s the issue of Jo’s immigration status. She’s from New Zealand, which is pretty much identical to Canada—ex-British colonies in the middle of nowhere with ultra-violent national sports, cranium-melting cannabis and a large, loud neighbour you both can’t stand and desperately depend on.
Despite these similarities, Jo has had to fill out a novel’s worth of paperwork to immigrate to Canada. Every year we get older, every year it’s less likely the Canadian government will grant her permanent residency, despite the fact we’ve been together since 2004.
So it’s back to Canada we go. But we couldn’t do it without just one final push, one last attempt to see the world Canada is so far removed from.
It’s been Jo’s dream to see Europe ever since I’ve known her, and after she spent a year realizing my dream of waltzing around China and India, it’s time to fulfil hers. But why catch a flight to London when you can fly to the other side of the world instead, and then take the bus, train and ferry 22,000 kilometres from Bali to the Arctic Circle to the coast of Morocco?
So that’s what we’re going to do. We’ll stop to explore, to appreciate, to write, to eat, to take pictures and to get Jo her tri-monthly pelvic scans. But we’re going to do it while visiting four oceans, three continents, the Equator, the Arctic Circle, mountain, desert, jungle and valley, in a six-month long trek from 8.6705° S, 115.2126° E to 33.5731° N, 7.5898° W.
Aurora coreanus is now aurora casablancis, if that’s what the Latin for Casablanca is. In the next six months we’ll be posting twice a month with Outpost to report our adventures, and you can keep up with us on Twitter and Instagram by following #4oceans0planes. In the meantime, we hope to see you on the road – unless you’re a doctor, a libel lawyer, or an official with Citizenship and Immigration Canada.