when i first came to korea, it was stark, cold, and gray.
i remember asking my korean friend, “is the sky always this gray?”
she casually said yes, and a lump formed in my throat as i watched the ominous blood-red sunset sink over the han river. it was hard not to take it as a bad omen.
i got sick a lot that winter.
then came culture shock, which i never expected to feel. suddenly, i was afraid of the outside world, which felt like a barrage of neon lights, glaring strangers, and totally alien characters i couldn’t even try to make sense of despite a few days’ worth of studying. suddenly, i was so easily overwhelmed by things.
i stayed inside a lot. i cried a lot. i focused on the things and people i didn’t have.
as my best friend regularly pointed out, i was in a pattern of rejection. of course, hearing this only pissed me off and as i found other bitter foreigners to gripe with, it became easy to convince myself that i was justified in my complaints and woe-is-me’s.
i remember telling myself “i don’t care what happens this year- i will not renew! i will not stay another year! no way!” and so when the offer came, i let it go.
joke’s on me. i am now looking at the meager summer and realizing just how profound of a change has come over me this year. i am realizing how fortunate i am to have been courted with a free, furnished apartment, an income, and limited work hours. i am now thinking of all the job prospects and travel possibilities and lifestyle perks and friendships i will be leaving behind. i am now garnering a new fear: the fear of reentry.
oddly enough, my transition from “is this over yet?” to “waaaah, it’s almost over!” wasn’t prompted by a feeling of being grounded or stable. actually, it started when i was upside down.
one day, in yoga, i was finally able to stand on my head. it lasted all of five seconds, but something clicked. maybe it was the joy of feeling like i had actually accomplished something over the drab winter, but i suddenly felt less inclined to shut out my surroundings. i stood at the crosswalk and let it all in. the sounds of korean chatter, car horns, the buzz of delivery men looking like mad max characters on their crotch rockets with pop-eye growls and cigarettes dangling from their gritted teeth. i thought ‘maybe i should enjoy this.’
and so in this way, a layer came off.
then spring came and things turned green and lush. the sky was blue for a while. i visited some different cities around korea, and this made a big difference. i tried to think less about money (still trying). i ate more.
i read a guide book that my friend left me and felt moved by a quote about travel. something like “you have to be deliriously and persistently optimistic.”
seeing these words in this matter-of-fact way allowed them to hit home. this quote recognized the work of travel, but still plainly stated that pessimism just isn’t practical. it is a logistical road block. so, you can erase all the sugar coated associations you have with this reality along with any guilt you may feel for forgetting about it from time to time because it isn’t about its beautification or its trendiness or your ability to ‘do it right’ or to litter pinterest and tumblr with graphic art reminders about it.
the fact remains: happiness is a choice. it just is. it’s just true. sometimes its a struggle. it doesn’t mean a lack of awareness but actually it is chosen out of awareness. it’s not a little bit true or sometimes true. it’s true true. completely true.
through accepting this truth, i have somehow come to understand and revere a culture that i once blindly shunned. i see korea as so many other foreigners fail to see her- as a true diamond in the rough. i feel her struggle between the old and the new- the pain of sacrificing the past despite it’s many turmoils- and i am simultaneously at odds with it everyday just by being here. i admire her resilience.
so i know why they call your birthplace your motherland: because culture becomes your mother. always feeding you and fighting with you. and even when you hate her you hate even more to hear someone else talk bad of her. even when she is a total butthead, she is still your butthead and so it becomes a matter of territory. and you rush to her defense when people offend her and the more you do this, the closer you feel connected to her. it’s that paradox that has somehow softened me and made me aware and pliable.
it is this paradox (and a gaggle of employment opportunities) that makes me second guess my decision to leave, that blinds me to the reasoning behind the promise i made to myself about leaving. because i realize that promise was made in vain.
so why am i leaving?
because i’ve already bought my ticket. and also, here’s the biggest thing i’ve learned so far: travel is overrated. i say this because i spent a large portion of my life believing i would not be a complete human being until i traveled and now that i have traveled i realize that is bullshit. i have met people who have never left korea and probably never will. they may lack worldliness, but they have gained other things of equal or more weight and value that brought their lives and personalities richness and character. their perspective of what it is to be human is no more limited than anyone else’s.
so, before you take out your pitch forks, i will say that travel is rad and i recommend people do it. and obviously, it was the act of traveling that allowed me to come to this realization in the first place. so right there, i have contradicted myself before i have begun. but here me out anyways:
your life is your life wherever the hell you are and epiphany and growth are both inevitable phenomenons of the human spirit. crossing meridians isn’t the only way to enrich the human experience.
at the heart of it isn’t so much the experience of travel itself but what you take from it and this same thing goes for life back home. you can travel the whole world and still be a dumb ass and still be lonely. you can sit at home and still be a dumb ass and still be lonely. likewise, you can travel the world and gain a lot and become very wise and become overwhelmed with a lot of love for a lot of people or whatever. you can have this same experience where you are at home.
i can’t say that living abroad has made me a better person than i would have been if i had stayed home, because any number of things could have happened when i was at home that could have propelled me into one epiphany or another. but i am grateful that travel did make its way into my life and i am happy to have had the chance to take from it what i could.