Deciding to movie halfway across the world was the easy part. I soon confronted the reality as the 747 touched down in Korea after an excruciating 15-hour flight. That was nine months ago.
Here's what I've learned:
1. It's much easier to reject a new place than to embrace it.
When you first arrive in a new place, it's obvious that you will encounter a series of seemingly strange realities. One that immediately struck me was the toilet paper waste baskets. That probably sounds weird, but hear me out. When going #2 here in Korea, it's not uncommon to find a small plastic basket in the bathroom stall that is meant for used toilet paper. A bit gross? I know. In the states, it's standard procedure for the toilet paper (along with other unwanted materials) to go in the toilet. It turns out the plumbing systems over here are not as sophisticated, so toilet paper could cause quite a backup.
Another glaring difference is the attention paid to foreigners. As I often find myself as the only waygookin (Korean: 외국인) on the entire subway car, it's normal to be stared at by curious passengers. I've also had total strangers strike up a conversation with me just because I'm the only white guy around. In fact, one day I was on the subway when an older Korean man motioned for me to take the empty seat next him. Reluctantly, I walked towards him and sat down, completely unaware of the ridiculous scenario that would ensue. As soon as the man opened his mouth, I could smell booze on his breath. Here we go. I also noticed a can of some type of peach soft drink that he had in his hand. He begins chatting with me in broken English, and he tells me he's on his way drink wine with his friends downtown. Looks like you're off to a solid headstart, I think to myself. I politely engage in conversation, and then he asks for my phone number. WHY, WHY, WHY? At this point, some of the other passengers take notice of this strange interaction. As he is fumbling with his phone, he proceeds to spill his peach drink all over my lap. The onlookers react with surprised gasps and what appeared to be sympathy. To make matters worse, the man pulls out a handkerchief and begins drying my soaked pants. Looking back, this has to be the awkwardest moment in Korea to date.
At first, these strange occurrences bothered me, but now I try to accept the fact that I'm in a new place instead of immediately rejecting it. Currently, doing my duty in Korean toilets and constant attention don't bother me—as long as they don't happen at the same time!
2. We are all alike.
Although all countries, cultures and people differ in their own unique ways, there is no denying the fact that at the end of the day we're quite similar. We're all humans with basic needs. We're all interested in activities that bring us joy, and we want to spend our time doing these things with other people. We're social creatures after all. These friends are important to us, because we discuss our daily battles, struggles, worries and successes with them. While living abroad, your friends become even more important since you're away from the familiarity of friends and family back home.
There are countless ways that we can become divided. The obvious ones being race, gender, nationality or political views, but at our essence, we are exceedingly more alike than we are different.
3. A year is a long time.
When I first applied to teach in Korea, I thought little about that fact that one year is a significant chunk of time. At a glance, the weeks seem to fly by, but overall, I feel like time has gone quite slow for me here. I think this is combination of missing my friends and family from back home and my current anticipation to travel Southeast Asia when my contract ends in late February.
Previous to this, my longest time living away from home was four months in Australia. While this felt like a solid amount of time, it seemed to fly by. Of course a year is three times as long, and it has certainly felt that way. Usually we associate time going by slowly with something that is not fun or enjoyable. In this case, I wouldn't necessarily say that this is true. I've had a ton of fun, but spending a lot time alone and going to work every day tends to make time creep by.
Even though a year can feel like quite a long time, in no way do I regret my decision. Teaching isn't quite my thing, and I miss home a bit more than I anticipated. The important thing is that I've learned this by choosing to embark on this adventure. Also, I've been able to place a lot of my focus into what I want do with my life. This has been invaluable.
4. Conversations are key.
In my humble opinion, one of the most underrated things is a good conversation. I'm not talking about small talk or some heated political debate— I'm talking about deep conversations where you connect with someone and attempt to truly understand them. This type of conversation is quite rare, and that's why they should be cherished when they do happen. Topics typically include future goals, philosophical thoughts, fears, anxieties and worries. As social creatures, we all know that internalizing these things is detrimental to our health.
While I knew that I highly valued conversation before living abroad, it has revealed itself even more as something that I seek and hold dear. The best way to increase the likelihood of having meaningful conversations is to constantly reassess the quality of the people that you're choosing to spend your time with.
5. Time is our most valuable asset.
Forget about money. Forget about anything material. Time is always against us, which is why it's so valuable. Every passing hour, minute or second is a reminder that our expiration is getting closer. I'm not going to sit here and spew some cliche bullshit about "enjoying every second of your life." That's not real. The fact is you will not enjoy every moment of your life. We find true clarity and understanding through our struggles and hardships. Those hard days make good days a possibility. Avoiding the temptation to focus too much of our energy on the past or future is the recipe for making the best use of our time.
If we learn to appreciate the present moment, then we hold on to the precious time that could otherwise be lost to regret or worry. Ironically, we must take the time to discover how to do this in our own way so that we can savor all the days that we have left.
Break Your Boundaries.