Korea: As It Stands

Because I haven’t been posting, I haven’t been documenting my feelings about being in Korea, work, travel, etc., so it’s going to be tough to summarize it all here without being too long or (frankly) boring. So thank you in advance, if you take the time to read this.

Much like Marta, I’ve had some serious ups and downs here (though to be fair, she has had a much harder experience than I have). For the first 5 months, I felt…strangely comfortable in Korea. Was this really what moving across the globe is like? Because it wasn’t difficult at all. People were kind, it’s a modern country, and there were plenty of expats to befriend if miming through Korean became too difficult. I loved the food, my co-teacher was so nice, and the kids really liked me.

But by the 6 month mark, it seemed all the negative aspects about Korea came crashing in at once. Homesickness, missing Marta, a new co-teacher (who made work very stressful and unpleasant), huge work expectations, feeling like I didn’t quite mesh with the people I met (they were nice, but we had little in common…the struggle of introversion vs. loneliness), and all of the typical complaints about Korean life in general (spitting, rudeness, social hypocrisy, no freedom of expression, etc). I spent many a night in despair, and only 5 hour marathon skype sessions with Marta provided any relief. Sometimes talking to other expats helped, but those conversations always (ALWAYS!)  devolved into spirals of negativity and “I hate Korea” sentiment.

So, basically it was just a quagmire of horrible feelings. I felt like I was blanking out, falling asleep, so to say. I just wanted to wrap up under my blankets and see no one, do nothing, and just cry myself to sleep.

[I felt] … the same despair of emptiness, of encroaching extinction, like a drop of flame bobbing weakly in a pool of melted wax, its wick too short to sustain life. Just waiting for the final string of smoke to float up out of me. Already I could see it. I was just a wisp. (from my journal, November, 2013)

I felt like everyone who’d ever advocated this Korea thing as a good idea had lied to me. This wasn’t an adventure, it was just 9-5 shit, exactly what I wanted to escape, with all the added unpleasantness of being isolated on the other side of the globe. I couldn’t even be with Marta, god dammit.

[F]uck this summer camp, fuck teaching, I just want to clock my hours and go. This is so stupid and meaningless and I feel like I’m losing myself, every part of myself, I feel like I’m convincing myself to slowly let it float away. Because I’m unhappy otherwise. So it’s better to just blank out and be content than to hold onto what part of me I have left and be miserable, angry, depressed. I am miserable, angry, and depressed. (from my journal, May 2015)

Still, I had a few good friends (though I was still a little shy), and through them, I had just enough good experiences to get through work, week by week, just to hang onto those golden weekends. I had an amazing time in Tokyo, which reenergized me – THIS is why we came to Korea! – and made me feel like I’d found a bit of myself again. It wasn’t all bad. But the undercurrent throughout was private misery.

Just at this low point, Scott came into my life. The giddiness of new love, and yada yada, definitely pulled me out of the gutter and into the sunshine. It’s cheesy, but ya know. But, as we got to know each other more (and he learned of my unhappiness), well, it complicated my feelings for Korea a whole lot.

See, Scott has been in Korea for eight years. He speaks conversational Korean and has a circle of Korean friends – not just expats. He’s traveled all over Asia; worked in public, private, semi-private, tutoring, every kind of school, essentially; visits home regularly; and – this was the truly bizarre part for me – actually LIKES Korea. Like loves it and considers it his home.

This was the complete opposite of everything I’d ever heard or felt up to that point. Everyone, unequivocally, loathed Korea. One expat told me how much worse it was than his experience in Japan, another couldn’t wait to end her contract, others were hanging on with that shakey, tight lipped smile I’d come to know so well. So…how the FUCK could Scott be happy here?

When I finally walked into [the coffee shop] I said hello, set my bag down, and buried my face in my arms on the table. I felt so dejected and hopeless that I began to cry. Scott, meanwhile, was a little baffled (of course), and had been previously enjoying his book, “Hector and the Search for Happiness.” He was very concerned and asked me many soft-voiced questions, but his tenderness only made me feel more vulnerable and sad, and made my lip tremble. I kept looking at his book and thinking, “I hope there is some good advice in there, because I am totally and fundamentally sad.” (from my journal, June 2014)

Ironically, I think that was the biggest mind bender I’ve encountered here in Korea. Not the disagreeable cultural norms, not the weather or the work life. Just the concept of someone ENJOYING it here. Like, really loving it, and not just going home and gushing about how much they missed it because nostalgia had rosied all their memories.

One time he asked me, “What do you want in Canada that you don’t have here?”

I said to him, “I just want to get back to the real world.

And he said, “Korea is the real world…for me. Back home…that’s not my life anymore.”

So there I was: I felt so certain about hating Korea and going home, yet here was the living example of what I’d originally sought out to become abroad – leaving behind the old, travelling, enjoying all the little things about your host country. Except, it’s not your host country anymore, it’s your home. But why did I fucking hate it so much?

I felt bad complaining about Korea. Inside, it seemed like every outburst was another pang in the relationship. If I left, would he leave with me? Would I be tearing him from his home? Would he be chaining me to misery? Or would we go separate ways? That seemed even worse than all of those options. But I knew – I couldn’t stay. Ever.

For a while, that uncertainty lingered over us like a ghost. But Scott is a very practical guy. I think that’s what’s gotten him through so far. He knows when to say, “These emotions are intense, but nothing can be done to change the situation. So I should focus on what I can do instead.” (Meanwhile, I’m spiralling into frustrated tears because I can’t do anything, and because my emotions are so intense. I can’t just write off my reactions to things. I’m just a reactive person, okay?!)

So. He liked Korea, and I hated it. He couldn’t change my feelings or decide for me whether I should stay or go. The decision to go was out of his hands. (Which absolutely frustrated me. Just tell me what you want to do!  How do you feel about leaving? Questions which he always reflected back to me. Because of course, these were questions I was really asking myself). But we could still have a good time while we were here, and find happiness in the moment, right? That’s been his philosophy.

I’ll say now that I’m really thankful to have met Scott. At first I was annoyed. You can’t make me like Korea! Don’t write off how miserable I feel! I just couldn’t grasp the idea of liking it here, and I think he was similarly confused the other way around. If you don’t like it, why are you here? Why don’t you just go home? It’s not every day that you’re confronted with the complete, unwavering opposition to your perception of things. And it got me thinking, Why am  I here? I don’t have debts to pay – why not cut the contract and go?

Aside from the very cheesy reason (love), I held tight to so many practical reasons: money, being able to easily afford a certain kind of lifestyle that I enjoyed, travel, and (most ominously at all), the idea that back home I would never have it this good, never succeed so well (or easily) as I am now. Truthfully, these arguments still weigh heavily on my mind.

But – fine. Let’s be happy while we’re here. We started going out to do more things – visiting the zoo, going to see festivals, spending more time with friends, visiting new cities, taking on new hobbies.

Busan, South Korea
Busan, South Korea
Seoul Eulalia Festival
Seoul Eulalia Festival

Eventually, I’d been filled with enough optimism to sign a second contract (and hey, Marta was sticking it out too! We could do it together! We still hadn’t taken a vacation together, after all). And after a 3 week visit home, I started feeling really, really good. Genuinely happy! I’d gotten very close to my friends and discovered the delightful world of board games with them. One of my friends left home for America (a very sad day), leaving behind his Korean girlfriend, only to return 6 months later because he missed Korea. In fact, almost all of my friends have been in Korea at least 3 years.

I’ve noticed a pattern with those who stay in Korea: often they go home – for good, they think – then return a few months later. These long-timers know all the familiar complaints well (“Koreans are so rude! It’s so dirty!”) but never make them. Maybe a knowing smirk, an occasional laugh about it. A sort of, “Ha, typical. Well, what can you do?” attitude, which is absolutely infuriating to the newbie (and still a little irksome for me. Do I really want to allow myself to become numb to my own standards?). But mostly, it’s this: work is just that thing they do in the blank time between REAL life. They aren’t too vested in the whole “I’m a teacher changing the world” thing. Work ends and it’s completely out of the picture after hours. Sometimes hanging out with them, it’s hard to imagine that we’re all gainly employed in positions that are traditionally seen as “mature,” “authoritative,” “responsible,” or “proper.” In effect: “teacher” isn’t our identity.

I think that’s where my first unhappiness stemmed from – feeling pressure to internalize my role as “Guest English Teacher,” to become a set of standards that just weren’t me. No bare toes, don’t show your shoulders, be an ambassador for your country, be the entertaining Waygook, follow Korean codes for politeness to a T. Most of all, be deprived of what you call art, and leave that all behind. And taking on a persona 24/7? Mentally exhausting. Soul crushing. I was trying to squeeze all of me in the tiny hours between work, instead of the other way around.

I say first unhappiness, because I feel that now I’m in a second phase of dissatisfaction. It’s not so emotionally overwhelming. I don’t feel lost so much any more; more like I’ve found my way back to the road, have followed it a little way, and now find myself at a crossroads. No longer “What can I do?” but “What will I do?”

I only noticed this change from floundering to choosing recently. We had travelled 2 hours away to visit a friend in Donghae, a quiet little beach town. It was his birthday weekend, which meant a fair sized group (maybe 15) spread out on the beach, chatting, playing frisbee, frolicking in the icy water and running back with their hair on end. Of this group, I think I knew 3 people, excluding Scott. I was on a beach with a group of strangers, drinking beers and chatting away like I’d known them before. Mid-conversation it hit me: How the HELL did I get here?

Before Korea, I had such extreme social anxiety I’d often bail on social events because I couldn’t make it the whole way there. I’d be driving, excited to see friends, then suddenly struck with such panic that I’d turn around on the highway and go home, call in sick. Even visiting Marta sometimes, which sounds insane. I was that kid who desperately wished for friends to invite me to play, only to flee when they did. And I felt so lonely.

Yet here I am, meeting new people all the time and sometimes finding myself being the friendly one coaxing the shy person out of the corner, or just keeping them company. I’ve met so many different kinds of people from different places I could never have dreamed of before. Before I could barely keep up with the friends I’d already had for years.

With all these positives shining through – positive things about my life, me, myself – all the shitty things about Korea, the place, seem so extraneous. EPIK still pisses me off, but it doesn’t attack my selfhood like it once did. Which leads me to feel like maybe I confused my unhappiness with my job with my unhappiness in general. The school you work at really dictates how your ESL experience will be – if your school is tyrannical and horrible, it’ll make your time shitty. (Though to be fair to Marta, her school was great, but her environment was not). The friends I’ve made really changed things a lot. I have Korean friends, American friends, South African friends, Canadian friends, but common to them all is a wellspring of positivity and good times. A sort of outgoing personality dedicated to seizing happiness, snatching it out of thin air, even. Having someone who enjoys Korea to show you that 1) it’s possible and 2) how it’s possible has really built me up to how I feel now.

So what is this second dissatisfaction? Like I said, now I feel my problem is not with my life around me, but with my job. I don’t feel fulfilled as a teacher. It’s easy, the pay is good (i.e.: pays for travel), some students are really awesome and I enjoy interacting with them. It can be fun. But holy shit, kids make my blood boil. I can feel the surge in my veins when my blood pressure goes up. It drives me crazy. And most importantly of all, teaching just lacks that ultimate end goal, that career ambition. There’s no big picture to the work. And at the end of the day, I am ambitious. I want success.

So my crossroads is this: follow my career (writing, art, creating) or pursue work (in order to pursue a nomadic, travelling lifestyle). In many ways, I feel that I’m not ready to give up travel yet. A day job is a day job, whether I’m making coffees at Starbucks to supplement an editing position, or teaching kids to pay for global adventures. On the other hand, I have a great deal of anxiety about writing – if I wait too long, will I miss the boat? If I’m not involved with other writers (readings, small presses, editing, networking), does this choice mean just giving it up completely? There is a whole writing world, much like there is a whole expat world, and having a foot in each one means never committing fully to either.

Right now, I love my friends so much and have found new things that make me happy. Pottery, board games, travelling. Buying the ticket to Vietnam was basically me saying to myself, “Fuck it, travel is why I’m here, isn’t it?” I feel like I’ve finally found that sweet spot, I’m in the thick of it and this is what I’ll remember most dearly when I leave. The fact that all my friends are long-timers changes things too – there’s no eventual expiry date because we’re all transient. They’ve all decided to stay. I can’t just chalk up my leaving to just the natural drift of water – I’m choosing to leave them all behind because I’m unhappy about something, want something else. Much like when we left Canada. It’s a heartbreaking thing to do to people you love. On the other hand, Korea has many things that are not for me. I miss Canadian cold, open space, intellectual stimulation, English language (that is fluent and alive), French, multiculturalism, variety, food…

Anthony Bourdain, after my heart ♥

So there it is. I feel newly empowered to make my life the way I want it. But I don’t know know which direction to go in the long term. Which is my real goal, writing or travel? In many ways, I feel so conflicted about leaving forever or returning to Korea. Still, I’m dead set on going to Costa Rica with Scott in March and then travelling South America. The problem is how to fund it. Hmmm….

Thanks again for reading all of this.  2862 words is the longest I’ve written in a very long time!


6 thoughts on “Korea: As It Stands

  1. There is an enormous difference between being a tourist in foreign places and actually living there, working and trying to do all the mundane tasks of existence, as well as trying to fit in socially in a completely starting-from-scratch-scenario as to friendships. The former is like an entrée platter to taste test various cultures and enthuse about them, or be thankful that the portion is so small as you couldn’t stand that particular morsel. The latter is as if you have been told to sit down at an enormous feast and not to leave till every course has been served…this can be heaven if it is your favourite foods…hell if it turns out the meal is everything you have always hated most or found repulsive. Sometimes you can still manage to bring yourself to appreciate certain bits because they are slightly more appetizing than the rest, and you are so hungry you need something. But if you are sated, then it becomes uncomfortable if you are still expected to keep eating when you are done, no matter how much you like anything.

    When you are away from home, friends and country, you form special bonds with the people who share your adventure. No one else will EVER understand what you have seen and done during that time the way they will. Just as your college friends will always have a special place in your heart. The more often you step into new situations the more circles of companions you begin to have and cherish. Some of those interlink, which makes it even more special.

    You will keep friends and meet new ones who start out as strangers. You will likely be able to live anywhere and be able to work any job if you must. People do…they adapt in all circumstances. But if you choose to settle somewhere long term, you should select a place that makes you feel you want to be there…you WANT to wake up and find yourself there. To some that means finding themselves somewhere by the sea, others the craziness of NYC, some want Tuscany…whatever…some search a long while to find their spot (and therefore tour). But at this phase of your life you should not be trying to convince yourself to overlook things that twist your sense of self and settle for a place because of people or because the job makes it easy to travel. Those same people may or may not stay put. I did that mistake before…stayed in a job because I loved the people there…refused a great opportunity in another city because these were my buddies. Within a year they all accepted better offers and I was left with a team I disliked. So base your decisions on what YOU want. New places WILL bring new people.

    Being away has helped you bloom because you were forced out of your safe cocoon. You don’t need to weave a new cocoon around yourself to pin yourself down and simply exchange one familiar home for something that has become familiar. You HAVE changed. You grew wings…the caterpillar has evolved. Vietnam will be good for you. South Asia or South America are stretching out their arms for you. The more you trot about, the more you will begin to realize what you value most…what you want in Life…whereabouts you want to live. Sometimes it means NOT living far away…just taking trips. Sometimes it means to keep moving and explore. Sometimes it simply feels right to get a place of your own in a familiar city and focus on the creative flow. And nothing needs to be forever…you can change it up again if it still doesn’t feel right. But a place should make you feel happy about walking out the door into the new day. That is a prerequisite. It should make you smile to look around. To feel contentment. If you are somewhere where common habits and stenches turn your stomach, and you feel stifled or limited in expressing yourself, you will not be happy. Do not numb yourself to what bothers you…look it straight on and ask WHY you should put up with it.

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    1. Thank you for such a long and thoughtful reply *^^* I definitely don’t want to stay in Korea for 8 years like Scott did, but if I wanted to continue travelling in Asia, I wouldn’t strike ESL off my list completely just yet. I’d love to have a job that is more satisfying and meaningful (like writing or glass blowing), but the idea of hunkering down to do that full time seems a bit too stationary for me. On the other hand, the idea of roving around seems so exhausting. Sigh. I guess I’m just spoiled for choice 😛

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  2. bcp457 is right. The caterpillar has evolved. 🙂 You have journeyed far: geographically, culturally, professionally & within yourself. And like Anthony Bourdain, you’ve been through the grittier, rough around the edges & hangover moments. And like Scott (& Cesar Millan) happiness is in the now. And your writing? You’re doing it! You can nurture it no matter where you are. A day job which doesn’t suck the lifeblood out of you would reward your soul as well as your pocketbook. The means & the end are intertwined and can to be inclusive, exclusive or both. I am so happy that you’re finding more of your feet under you. ❤

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