Saturday, July 23, 2011

South Korea: the Finale.

On a long hike today, I had some time to disconnect and think about what I need/want to do to bring this amazing year in Korea to its bittersweet but necessary close. And like any Human Services graduate, I came to the obvious conclusion that I wanted to write about what I had ultimately learned. You know. Bring out the highlights. Put the monsters to rest. Call out the stuff I said that, after living here longer, I disagree with now.

Anyone who had the opportunity to ask me about my Korea trip one year ago would get psyched-out, pumped up answers from my plastered-on-smile face as I listed off all the reasons why I needed to go abroad (and even a few reasons as to why I wanted to). If any of those people got the opportunity to talk at length about my trip, they might see my mask come down and they might even get the impression (correctly) that I was scared shitless to go on this year adventure basically alone.

I can sum up the first 3 months of my trip in one story.

Sitting on the plane to Korea, awaiting take-off, I was in a state of shock. Everything was blurry and moving too fast, and although I was running on less then 3 hours of sleep in 2 days, the cause of my symptoms was not sleep deprivation, but utter fear. Until I left, it was easy to pretend I was just going on a vacation. As soon as the plane took off the ground, I began to sob. Do you know how silent take-offs are? It's like an unspoken agreement everyone has, lest the plane goes plummeting mid-ascent. The worst part about my particular circumstance was the seating arrangement itself. Sitting in the emergency exit row, I happened to be face-to-face with a Korean flight attendant. Strapped into my seat, I had nowhere to hide this incredibly vulnerable moment, and found it difficult to avoid eye contact with the young woman less than 3 feet away from me.

Hours later, after my episode came to its end and [I desperately hoped] everyone had forgotten about it, I needed my reading glasses. Because of our emergency exit row seating, my bag had been moved to the overhead compartment of the section in front of us, which happened to be Business Class (where none of us Economy Class dare tread). I asked a flight attendant if I could retrieve my bag and she offered to help. While we were one section up, me rifling through my things, she asked me a question that made me realize who I was standing next to.

"So, is this your first time away from home?"

It was the flight attendant from the take-off. Oh God. Fortunately, she was the nicest and most caring person who could've seen me filling enough clear little plastic cups with tears to serve my entire row. Although her sweetness and curiousity did ultimately reduce me to tears again, it was a really touching lesson in common culture and humanity. And an even bigger lesson in humility.

My first experiences here were of discomfort. I had no bed for almost a week's worth of time my first month. I didn't feel competent at my job because, with everything in Korean, I couldn't even use the computer. I accidentally ordered disgusting food I had to eat, and didn't know which way to place my chopsticks on the table when I was done eating it. I bought aviator shades because I didn't like people looking at my blue eyes. I continued to cry.

Fortunately, the feelings of 'home' started to seep in slowly as I taught myself to become literate, found some favorite restaurants, and learned to accept the workplace as a wild atmosphere where anything was possible. I was scared to say it to myself, but I actually felt confident. By the time the holidays came around, I was able to hold in tears when teachers asked me if I missed my family (by the way, asking that question to foreigners abroad should be considered a form of torture and banned globally).

Then the Christmas package came from my family and I realized how I truly feel about gifts: they're only worth receiving if you have someone to watch the joy they've brought you as you open them. Sitting alone in my apartment, I opened my Christmas presents and vowed to never be by myself for the holidays again.

Meanwhile, being a foreigner means accumulating about 1,095,807 friends you will meet for God-knows-how-long and then promptly never see again. This was becoming a recognizable pattern in my life and on a New Years' trip in Seoul, it finally clicked that we have to truly make the most of the moments life offers us and not ask for more. I can honestly say that learning this and encouraging myself to live it (because it is definitely not second nature to me) has made me a happier person.

The rest of the year was less about keeping my head above water and more about what I wanted to give myself with the time I had left here (and no, I'm not talking about a new haircut or a wardrobe of Korean clothing). I decided to take full responsibility for that happiness I knew I could now cultivate. I picked up a new instrument. I took a semester of college classes on Korean language. I saw the friends I wanted to. And most importantly, when something was wrong, I did something about it. I was suddenly starting to feel protective over myself and this 'lonely' life I was leading, and I wasn't about to let someone come in and make me unhappy unless I let them. The funny thing about all the time I spent alone is how 'not alone' I usually felt. This is not to say that we don't all have bouts of the Lonelies sometimes. But for as much time as I had to myself, I was actually enjoying it. For the first time, I was enough.

Now that I am getting ready to leave (which was not the easiest decision ever, to say the least), that nervous, anxious feeling is beginning to creep its way back into my life. I know from experience that can only mean one thing: I consider Korea to be a home. I can't even call it a second home, because it has a different schema of home to me than the place I grew up in. Korea is not only a land I love, but it's the place where I learned to be at home in myself. For that reason and many, many more, Korea will always be especially treasured.

As for being a foreigner, the clock is ticking down to 6 weeks: 3 in Korea, and 3 in South East Asia. As much as I am ready to assimilate at home with the culture I know best, I will miss my role as a foreigner, too. It was a lovely experiment. Sometimes, I was right on-- like diving head-first into a plate of live octopus my 2nd week in Korea. Other times, the lesson was more difficult: it took me a while to realize that, although it's fun to be strange, sometimes there are logical reasons to go with the grain.


For my own sanity, I am ending my South Korean adventures with this post. A little pre-mature, I know, but that's kind of my style. Not to mention, I earlier promised to post about my upcoming trip and prefer to focus on the details of that at the moment instead of prolonging the end of something so magical.

I want to extend a reallllllly big thank you to everyone who has been such a huge support of my travels this year. Please believe me when I say you have helped me get through some of the biggest personal challenges I've ever had, and from the other side of the world! From those who read my blog for fun, to my Skype and snail mail buddies, to the people who took the time to travel to Korea this year for little ol' me: thank you. Thank you readers, thank you friends, thank you family. My perspective on life has been enriched by you all this year.

As for Playing With Elephants, it is not going anywhere. Please follow me through the cities, jungles and beaches of SE Asia, and wherever life takes Cheengu and I afterward. When I'm not on the move internationally, the blog will take a rest as well. But never fear-- I'm always looking for the next adventure.

From the girl who conquered Korea (and her little elephant, too)--
Laura and Cheengu
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  1. This is such a beautiful post lady (I read it all, I’m a champ :p). You sum up how I imagine many expats feel about their time here perfectly.

    And the video is awesome, it brought a tear to my eye and think it’s a great way to sum up your year here to the people back home! I would love to see the second half too! See you soon xxx

  2. Kate said...


  3. I love what you said about gifts. So ture! Can't wait to see you.