On Saturday morning I took the subway to Incheon Airport, handed over my Alien Registration Card, boarded a Manila boud flight, and said goodbye to the place I called home for the past two years. Possibly forever.
Korea changed me. This country forced me to grow up a little bit more. It forced me learn to about myself. It forced me to become a stronger person. When I was sitting aboard an Asiana Airlines flight almost two years ago to the day, I hadn’t the faintest ideas what the next 730 days would hold and I couldn’t have guessed even if I’d tried.
Coming to Korea in February 2011 was a fairly rash decision. I’d quit a job I hated in September and moved back in with my parents. Except my parents had also moved, from my childhood home in Michigan to Kentucky, so I was in a city where I knew absolutely no one save my mother and father, had no job or social activities to force me to meet people or leave the house, and had no clue where I was going or what to do. I applied for countless jobs around the United States, still unsure of what I wanted to do, and either heard nothing or found myself reading a rejection email a few weeks later.
In January I had a promising job opportunity at an exciting company and traveled to Chicago for a final round interview. When I found out a couple days later that I hadn’t been offered the position, I laid in bed crying for a few hours and then emailed my friend Danielle who’d moved to Seoul to teach English a few weeks earlier. She said she liked it so far.
That was all I needed. I immediately started contacting recruiters and gathering the various documents needed for the visa. About a week later I was signing a contract.
I landed in Seoul on February 27, 2011 with a bunch of suitcases and zero expectations. The only Korean words I knew were kimchi and soju. A school employee drove me to Gangdong-gu, handed me a bag with a bottle of water, roll of toiler paper, and package of cookies, and left me in an empty apartment. I had no idea what the hell I’d gotten myself into.
A couple of days later I found myself standing in front of 12 six year olds, their eyes wide, ready for me to do something. My palms were sweaty and my voice shook as I spoke. But somehow, 12 months of really long days later I sat on the floor of an auditorium hysterically crying as I said goodbye to the small children who had somehow taught me so much despite their lack of years. I moved apartments and changed jobs, ready for the second year in Korea that I’d never planned, not yet ready to say goodbye to this place or the people I’d met.
Teaching, working, and living in Korea, the good and the bad, changed my life and who I am. Yes, it’s a huge freaking cliche and you probably heard it from all your friends after their junior year semester abroad, but it’s true. Living in a foreign country allows you to fully examine who you are because you are placed in this completely new environment with people you don’t know.
What did I learn about myself in Korea?
1. I am an introvert who is somewhat shy and reserved…
I can be shy. I have a hard time sticking up for myself or making my opinions known, especially in work settings. I’m also an introvert. I could easily spend days by myself reading, writing, and screwing around the Internet. I mean, I like going out with my friends and doing things, but I also need some time to decompress.
I’ve known this for a long time but I always thought it was a bad thing that I wasn’t the bubbly, outgoing girl that I thought the world wanted. Through growing up and meeting other, similar people I realized that being a shy introvert isn’t bad. It’s just me.
2. …but I can assert myself when necessary.
As a foreign English teacher in Korea, especially at a hagwon, it can be easy to get taken advantage of. I spent a year working for some of the most inane people I’ve ever met and it forced me out of my shell. I learned to stick up for myself and to say no, something I’d before been horrible at. When our directors suddenly changed two weeks before my contract was due to end and my end of contract flight money was in jeopardy, I made it known that I was pissed.
Before I had been scared to stick up for myself and be assertive, but now I know that it actually feels good to let your opinion be known in situations that really matter.
3. I can speak in front of a group of people without hyperventilating.
I’ve always been terrified of public speaking. You know the first day of classes in college discussion sections when you have to introduce yourself? I’d have heart palpitations before saying my name, hometown, and major in front of 15 of my peers. One of my biggest fears about coming to Korea was having to stand up in front of people and talk all day. I soon realized that with kids, it’s pretty easy. But then open class happened.
Open class is a day when parents come and watch their children’s classes. They then fill out evaluation forms about the teacher. So I basically had to put on a show for 12 stoic faced Korean mothers who were paying a lot of money for their children to attend to this school while they judged me. It was horrifying.
After about four of these, though, I realized I could get through it. That even though they were judging me, they weren’t complete insane people with little regard for other humans. I’ll probably never like public speaking, but I can do it if absolutely necessary without having a panic attack.
4. Bad things suck, but good people make them better.
My first year in Korea was this strange mix of not great and so awesome. My job was a disaster (except for my amazing students). I worked nearly 11 hour days, with little vacation time and no sick days. My bosses were unorganized and inept. They had unrealistic expectations and very little managerial strengths. And did I mention I was teaching 8 or 9 classes a day? There were many days I spent my lunch break on Delta’s website contemplating buying a ticket home.
But the people I met that year made staying worth it. I was lucky to have an amazing group of coworkers turned friends who were all in favor of going to 7-11 after work for beers and bitching. Which turned into whiskey shots, 5 am Burger King trips, and cab rides debating over whether or not it is okay to start a sentence with the word and.
These people made my time in Korea really memorable and taught me that with a lot of good people in your corner, you can make it through a lot with a smile on your face.
5. I want to write.
This is probably the most important thing that I learned in Korea, and it’s funny because writing is what I wanted to do for the first 18 years of my life. From a young age I always had my nose stuck in a book and first dreamt of writing the next Great American Novel before turning my aspirations to being a sports journalist. Once I got to college, a huge college without a journalism degree, I got lost. There were a lot of paths I could’ve gone down to achieve my original goal, but for a lot of reasons, I didn’t.
Then I got to Korea and started blogging. I realized again how much I like to write. People started to read. I got some good feedback (okay, it was mostly from my family). I realized I needed to get over my fears of not succeeding or not being able to write well and actually make this happen. I want to write.
I am excited for what’s to come, but I say goodbye to Korea with a somewhat heavy heart.
안녕히계세요 and 감사합니다.
What have you learned about yourself through travel and life abroad?