20th Birthday in Korea: Goodbyes, Loneliness, and Getting Lost in Seoul
I turned 20 in Korea at the tail end of my time studying abroad. It was horrible.
I spent my 15th birthday in Italy, posing for pictures in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and eating tiramisu in Venice. I spent my 18th birthday in Hawaii, hiking to waterfalls and strolling on the beach under a full moon, just for me. And I spent my 20th birthday in Korea, saying goodbye to my closest friends, getting lost in Seoul with a dying phone, nearly getting stranded, and getting completely blackout drunk.
The Bittersweet Morning
I came to Seoul with one of my closest friends, Kirsten, to spend a weekend with her before she went back home to America. In Seoul, we met up with her best friend, Shion; they went to high school together in America, but Shion moved to Korea after graduation.
The last day of our weekend in Seoul happened to be my birthday. Kirsten and Shion surprised me with a tower of Moon Pies topped with two lollipops, to substitute as a cake. It was so sweet of them, but it was almost hard to enjoy, since we would all have to part ways soon: Kirsten to the airport, Shion back to her city, and me back to Gwangju. I think all three of us were trying our best not to think about it too hard.
Kirsten and I said goodbye to Shion first. Seeing the two of them hug each other made me really emotional; they had been friends for so long and hadn't seen each other in years, and now they had to leave each other again. I couldn't imagine being in either position.
Kirsten cried a little bit in the taxi, but not too much, and especially not after we started rolling her luggage down a hill to our destination—which was accompanied with lots of laughter and groans of detest for the lopsided suitcases. It was time to visit the third addition to our trio.
The Last Reunion... in a Hospital
When Kirsten and I first came to Seoul, we met up with Kayla, who had been staying in the city for a week or so. But on the second day of us all being together, she was forced to go to the hospital to examine preexisting conditions that had slowly worsened, over the course of her stay abroad.
We stayed with her during visiting hours, hearing about her experience with doctors and medication. My admiration for her grew even more; I have no idea how I would handle what she went through.
Even though the situation was really strange—one of them was in the hospital, and the other was leaving the country—we all cracked jokes and laughed like normal.
When the visiting hours came near to the end, we all started realizing that we were each going to be alone: Kayla in the hospital with her mom and sister periodically on FaceTime, Kirsten traveling to the airport to go home, and me with absolutely no plans and slight panic lingering at the back of my mind.
It seems kind of silly now to be panicking in that situation—I wasn't in the hospital with no family to visit me, and I wasn't about to travel internationally on my own. I was just by myself with the option to either stay in Seoul, or go back to Gwangju. Not a big deal.
It definitely wasn't a big deal in comparison to everything else that was going on, but I still felt sort of lost. Out of the five months that I lived in Korea, I only spent one day completely by myself, and that was a couple days after my birthday. Before that, the only times I went somewhere by myself was when I did homework at a cafe near campus, sat outside after class to write, or took the bus to visit my sort-of-boyfriend.
So, for the first time, I was about to be completely alone. I had the liberty to make decisions 100 percent by myself—where to go, what to do. I considered finding a place to stay in Seoul so that I could be with Kayla until she got out of the hospital, but she had no idea when she would be released, and I barely had enough money for my last two weeks.
Visiting hours ended and I still had no idea what I was going to do, but it didn't matter all that much, because Kirsten stood up to say goodbye to Kayla, and I had to leave the room to stop from crying.
When I came back in the room, Kayla was starting to cry, which made my eyes well up with tears. The three of us had spent so much time together over the past few months and had gotten incredibly close: weekly movie nights, partying downtown, weekend adventures to different cities... It was really hard to have to say goodbye.
At the time, I didn't know if I would see Kayla again before I went home. She was let out of the hospital within the next week, and returned to Gwangju for our last hoorah, but in that moment I had no way of knowing that, so I said a short goodbye to her, too.
Kirsten did a great job of keeping it together when we left the hospital. I was holding back all but a tear or two, which was incredibly hard, especially when a taxi arrived and she started loading her luggage. We hugged, said our goodbyes, she got inside, and I lost it. Tears flowed down my cheeks when we waved to each other as she drove away, and then she was gone.
I momentarily broke down beside a short wall in front of the hospital, resting my elbows on the concrete surface and crying into my hands. Hospital employees and visitors coming in and out of the doors gave me sympathetic looks, probably assuming something horrible had happened. But no, I just left two of my closest friends, and now I was alone in a giant city with absolutely no idea what to do. Though it wasn't as serious, it was still extremely daunting.
After a couple of minutes, I wiped my tears and took deep breaths, replying to texts from Kirsten yelling at me for crying so hard so soon since it made her cry, too. The all-caps "I MISS YOU!!!" exchange managed to make me smile.
I picked up my backpack, and opened Naver Maps to help me figure out what to do. I always dream about going to a foreign country and writing in a cafe, which is the first thing I thought of, but I had forgotten my laptop and my notebook back in my dorm. Of course.
Well, maybe I could explore. That was my second thought. But it was hot, and I was exhausted, and even though I was warming up to the idea of being completely independent, I still longed for the comfort that could be found in my dorm room.
So, I decided to go back to Gwangju. Part of me hoped the guy I was seeing would want to celebrate together, as we planned, but it was the late afternoon and he hadn't even wished me happy birthday. But maybe my other friends would be free... So, I took solace in the idea that I could plan an outing and not spend the night alone, which meant I had to get back to Gwangju relatively soon.
... Getting Lost in Seoul
My journey to the bus terminal started relatively well; I was on the wrong side of the street to catch the bus, but I got on the correct one in the end. I followed along on Naver Maps to ensure I didn't miss my stop. But, when I got off to connect with a different bus, I saw the beginning of a full-fledged rally for Trump.
Though wary, I crossed the street to where I was supposed to connect to my next bus, which is where everyone was. Older Koreans were waving American flags and holding signs, promoting the relationship between Korea and America, the Trump presidency, the destruction of communism, and the deportation of the Chinese from Korea. Yeah. The group of us at the bus stop ignored the protesters and waited for our bus, but the buses that passed were in the lane furthest from us and made no intention of pulling over.
But other people still waited, so I waited a bit longer, too. An older man who spoke English asked where I was from, and when I told him I was American, he got rather excited; he was part of the protest. A different man began recording us with a small video camera, as the first started telling me about the importance of the relationship between America and Korea. I was incredibly uncomfortable, and prayed he didn't ask me any questions; though he was kind, I was afraid that if I voiced my disapproval of Trump, he would have made a scene. I had never been in a position like that before and didn't really know what to do.
Eventually, he told me to marry a Korean boy and never leave the country, because if I did leave, "Korea would cry." He gave me a small sticker of the Korean flag and the American flag joined together, and after polite goodbyes, he and his camera man walked away. I assumed my dad would send me an email the next day about a video called "American Girl Supports Trump, Deportation of Chinese." (Thankfully, I didn't receive any emails.)
After a few more minutes of waiting, a younger man who was a part of the gathering told me in English that the street had been shut down for the rally that was about to start, and none of the buses would stop here. I asked him how else I could get to the bus terminal, and he told me to go to the bus stop across the street, so I thanked him and went on my way.
However, Naver Maps—my lifeline— didn't show any buses to the terminal from that stop. I figured a local knew more than an app, but the local didn't tell me which bus to take, and I didn't want to get lost. (I got lost anyway.)
I decided to go back across the street, and walk to the next stop of the bus I was supposed to take. I figured it wouldn't take that long, but wow, was I wrong.
Though I followed the map, I somehow still ended up at the wrong bus stop. I crossed the street since that was my main issue as of late, but still, I wasn't in the right place. I was already stressed out, and the map confused me. Naver Maps is a godsend, but it doesn't give you update-as-you-go directions—just a vague list and a path to follow. With so many narrow streets and having to guess which direction I was facing (didn't figure out that feature til later), I got turned around. Frequently.
I got back on the right path after stopping at a convenience store for bottled water, which I paid for in coins. I chugged half of one before filling up my own water bottle, and keeping the rest in my backpack.
I stumbled across a little market on what I thought was a shortcut. Though I was a bit frazzled, I tried to appreciate coming across the hidden location, and took some time to look at a couple of stalls. But, I was still hot and even more exhausted than before, so I kept going.
When I finally arrived at the bus stop, I assumed it would be smooth-sailing from then on out—there were other people lingering, so surely the buses stopped here. Wrong again.
I waited for a while, but the bus I needed to take never came, and Naver Maps barely had any other options. It kept loading the fastest route, which was the one I was supposed to be on.
Fortunately, I had two other options: another bus stop, or the subway. I figured my best bet was the subway, so I kept walking. But of course, I got confused again: It was hard to tell which entrance to go in, or if I needed to cross the street. Plus, the subway called for more transfers than the bus route, and I only had a few thousand won on my transportation card (just a few dollars). I sat in the shade for a few minutes and assessed my options, trying to ignore my dwindling battery percentage.
I am an incredibly indecisive person, which is why I enjoy doing things or traveling with friends: We can come to decisions together, or if I'm lucky, someone will make a decision for me.
This character flaw was particularly prominent when determining how the hell I was going to get to the bus terminal. I could take the subway, and risk not having enough money—I didn't have any cash to load my card, and my debit card only worked at specific ATMs, which weren't very common—or I could walk to a different bus stop, and pray it would be running. I think I walked back and forth twice before finally taking the subway.
I didn't realize how much I was sweating until I took my wallet out of my pocket to retrieve my transportation card: It was literally covered in beads of sweat. I scrunched up my nose and dared to pat my denim shorts, which were damp. Damp. (Thankfully they were dark wash.)
I could sort of relax in the relatively cool underground station, as I waited for my train. I was breathing kind of heavily from having to walk so much with a heavy backpack, and my shirt was clinging to my body from the humidity, and my cheeks were bright red, and my forehead was damp with sweat. But amidst all that, a Korean guy asked me out, and when I politely declined, he went in for a hug... which I also politely declined, claiming I was sweaty. Then I was alone again, and all I wanted to do was sit down.
My train eventually came, and the rest of the way to the terminal went much more smoothly, except for getting lost again at my final stop. The underground is a maze, and I couldn't find my way to the actual terminal for an embarrassingly long time. But eventually, I made it... only to have my card declined at the ticketing booth.
Stuck at the Bus Terminal
After almost three hours of wandering around Seoul, filled with chasing down buses and doubting myself, I had finally made it to the bus terminal! In just a few hours, I would be home! I could take a cool shower and watch Netflix, and cry in the comfort of my bed!
But no, my debit card didn't work, and the very annoyed ticketing lady was adamant on using Korean, with no hand gestures, when answering my translated questions. I walked to the self-serve ticketing machine, but I had little hope: I had tried using them before, but my card never worked. (It didn't work this time, either.)
I was starting to panic. I had no idea how I was going to get home. I ignored my low battery warnings and texted Kirsten with shaking hands, tears welling in my eyes. But I still couldn't try to relax by texting a friend; no matter where I stood, I felt like I was in the way. The lack of personal space from passersby made me feel claustrophobic.
As we texted and she helped calm me down, I decided to walk around the terminal and try to find an ATM. Thankfully, toward the end of the terminal stood a gift from heaven itself: the same ATM that I use on my campus, almost guaranteed to work. I let out an audible breath of relief when I successfully withdrew money, assured Kirsten that I could relax now, and marched back to the annoyed ticketing lady, who passed me a ticket and change with little eye contact. I used that change to buy my first meal of the day: a blueberry bagel. The best bagel of my life.
Back to Gwangju
I took the cheapest bus home, sitting next to an older Korean man who gave me a kind smile. I received a text message from one of my good friends, Wi, asking what I wanted to do for my birthday, and that our other friend Kim* would join. I was so excited. My day had gone horribly so far, and I was glad that I would be able to spend the end of it with friends, to make it a bit better.
I barely slept on the bus, which I knew wasn't a good idea: I would arrive in Gwangju at around 10, and wouldn't have much time to rest before going out. I only listened to a little bit of music due to my dying battery and memorized the route I needed to take to get back to my dorm, along with a backup route just in case.
The sun had yet to set, so it was blasting through the window, and I had to close the blinds. I really hate closing the blinds. Though it was a rather small mishap compared to everything else, I was devastated that I couldn't look out of the window. I felt annoyed and disheartened, all over again.
I peeked through a crack until the sun started going down, my mind wandering. I missed my friends already. I was so tired from getting lost for hours. I wondered why the guy I was seeing still hadn't wished me a happy birthday, or invited me to do something. He had asked me what I wanted to do to celebrate a couple weeks before, and I told him I just wanted to spend time with him. That's all I wanted.
Thinking about it made me sad, so I tried to stop. I texted other friends and asked if they were free to go out, but most of them were going on a trip early the next day and couldn't make it. Another close friend, Bethany, was leaving for the airport in the morning. I was sad all over again.
Once I arrived in Gwangju, I had to rush to the bus stop to catch the bus, because they stopped running soon. I crossed the street using the underground walkway, but of course the map said I was at the wrong stop, so I had to go back, running with my heavy backpack past briskly walking old women.
Finally, I made it to my room. I got a burger and peach tea from the convenience store, and sat down for only a few minutes to charge my phone before getting ready.
Wi and I met up by the dorms, me finishing my forgotten, lukewarm burger and he chatting with other foreign students I didn't know. He gave me a present, which I put in my room (an assortment of peach candy and a fresh peach, as a nod to my nickname, Peaches). We took a taxi downtown, where we met up with Kim, who waited for us in the middle of the main area, looking incredibly awkward. We teased him for it. He gave me a postcard and photograph kept safe in a brown paper bag, which I neatly folded and kept in my back pocket (the bag got a little wrinkled, but the presents were safe).
We drank two bottles of soju each from a convenience store before deciding to go to a more expensive club, since it was my birthday. We walked to Wi's nearby home so that he could change shoes. Kim and I played music outside while we waited.
Eventually, we got to the club, forming a group of people we ran into that we knew. We danced, drank more, and had an overall amazing time—save for the very end, when I almost passed out in my lone taxi home, started throwing up as soon as I got out, had to hug a tree to stay upright, and somehow made it back to my dorm room, where I threw up more in the bathroom and then crawled into bed.
I mostly failed to restrain myself from not drinking too much, because I had a rough day and wanted to have fun, but also, I finally received a text from The Guy. He asked if I had arrived back in Gwangju, and wished me a happy birthday. I wanted to tell him all about my day and make plans to see him as soon as possible, but he didn't text me again for days—and after just two messages, he never texted me again. But that's a topic for a different post.
In the morning, I was so hungover that I wasn't able to see Bethany before she left for the airport. She even came in my room and tried to wake me up, but I was completely out of it, and have no memory of anything before 2 PM. I still feel horrible for not saying goodbye. It was like the cherry on top of a really bad day. (I'm still thankful for Wi and Kim; without them, it would have sucked a lot more. But maybe that's dramatic.)
An Eventful Day...
I always spend my birthday with my family as a joint celebration for the 4th of July (my birthday is just two days after), complete with chocolate cake and fireworks. My 15th birthday was an exception to that, but I still celebrated it with my grandparents and friends I made in the tour group. (And got dessert.) But, in Korea, I didn't have any family with me; I hadn't seen them in four months. And after just a few hours, I didn't have any friends with me, either. And then I got lost, and then I got briefly stranded, then I officially started on the road to my first real heartbreak.
I turned 20. The moment I was no longer a teenager, I was faced with so much to overcome: saying (and failing to say) goodbye to some of the closest friends I have ever made, navigating my way around a metropolitan with a dying phone, almost getting stranded at a bus terminal, and... getting blackout drunk. I had to deal with a lot of things I wasn't used to dealing with, on the very first day of officially being an adult. I can only hope that I'll learn as much on my next milestone birthday (but I would prefer a little mercy the next time around).
* = name changed for privacy purposes