Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Time to go back home

Two years teaching English in South Korea has brought wonderful experiences and cured me of the depression I suffered before I left Ireland. If I was right to move, am I mad to return, asks Fergal Reid.

Tue, Aug 28, 2012, 01:00


Two years teaching English in South Korea has brought wonderful experiences and cured me of the depression I suffered before I left Ireland. If I was right to move, am I mad to return, asks Fergal Reid.

On the wall of my apartment in Seoul is a poster from a 1950s tourist campaign to attract visitors to Ireland. “Land of Legend,” it says. “Ireland Invites You.” With one week left in Korea after two years living here, I’ve been thinking about the relevance of both of those slogans to me now.

It’s quite a nice piece of art, the poster. There’s a round tower and some ruins and wooded mountains and a lake. It looks a little bit like how someone would paint Glendalough if they’d never visited in person. I fear that this twee representation of Ireland is what I’ve been carrying around in my head all the time that I’ve been here. When I think of home, I think of my friends and family. I think of Dublin’s occasional elegance, its salt air and the beauty of the little seaside village I come from. I don’t think of the circumstances that forced me to bolt from the country like a colt that didn’t want to be branded. In my memories, Ireland is a land of legend. In reality, it is not.

Call it “the emigrant’s dilemma”. It was hard to leave but even harder to stay. I’d been offered a job teaching English to Korean high school students and I was qualified to do so by the very thinnest of veneers. I remember walking down the harbour with friends on one of my last evenings in Ireland, listening to them talk about their upcoming plans; of martial arts courses, tag rugby and trips down the country. They all had futures and my life as I knew it was coming to an end with God knows what waiting at the other end of a long-haul flight to Asia. That night, I broke down and sobbed to my mother about my fears and uncertainty and how sad I was to be leaving her and my father. The cat probably got a mention as well. She looked at me sympathetically and said, “you have to go. There’s nothing for you here.”

She was right, of course. Mammies usually are. By August 2010, the economy had collapsed. I’d been unemployed and odd-jobbing for a year. I’d been to job fairs, I’d been to FÁS, I’d been depressed and I’d been to counselling. It was time to leave. I had to go. Go east, young man.

Well, Korea cured me. My time here has been the stuff of life. Seoul is the most astonishing city that I’ve ever seen. I’ve been enthralled by its ragged mountains that rise above ancient red-walled palaces, skyscrapers and thickets of neon; its nights out that end with the first subway home in the morning, its complete public safety and a breadth of activities and opportunities that were just not afforded to me in Dublin. I’ve fallen in and out of love, laughed my heart out and made the greatest friends that any man could ever hope for. My employer and co-workers have treated me well. The job benefits have been fair. My good students have charmed me to a far greater degree than the brats have irritated. I have, in short, been spoilt beyond question. And now I have to leave – again.

Fergal with his English class in Seoul

Most of us are leaving. The English Programme in Korea is deeply cutting its budget for native English teachers. In all likelihood, the experience that I have had here will not last much longer for many more people. I saw a friend of mine off to the airport last night. We’d flown in on the same plane so it seemed fitting to close the circle together. “I think we’re leaving at the exact right time,” she said. And she’s right, of course. My time here could not have been more enjoyable. I’ve gotten to briefly step across the DMZ into North Korea, visit mainland Asia (South Korea is subconsciously considered to be an island by every expat who lives here) and spend two years in the most wonderful, dynamic and entrancing country.

The goodbyes have begun. I’ve spent the last week bidding fond farewells to people that I love beyond measure. The surrogate families and friendships that emigrants form are hard to explain both in their intensity and their brevity. We’ve only been together for 24 months but it feels like a lifetime. I leave Korea in seven days. The emigrant’s dilemma rears its head once more.

That Irish tourism poster is one of the last things left on the walls of my apartment. I’m looking at its slogans again. What is it that I’m returning to? If I was right to move, am I mad to return? I’m faced with the mirror image of my uncertain future from two years past.

“Ireland Invites You,” the poster says.