Sunday, August 10, 2014

Leaving Korea & The Long Learning Road

It's coming up on 8 days shy of the day I left for Korea, one year ago. I can't decide if time has gone by slowly or quickly. Maybe a year has flown by, or maybe a year isn't much time at all (which is also kind of scary). So now I've shipped my things home, and I'm doing laundry and packing up my stuff, ready for my journey home, and whatever else will follow.

While I wouldn't like to live in Korea again, I do think that this has been an invaluable time. First time really living on my own, by myself, and almost as far as I could possibly get from my family and friends. I realized that I am as determined as I always thought I was, and at this point, I'm pretty convinced that I can do absolutely anything. I've got my health and an eagerness that hopefully will lead me to good things. On a less existential note, this year has also taught me a lot about living abroad, and being a, hiss, foreigner for the first time. While I've visited other countries before, I didn't stand out in any particular way from the locals. It wasn't so obvious that I was a foreigner at all. In Korea? Pretty obvious. So, a list of the things I've learned about being an expat, being a waygook, and a traveler.

1.) Bring your favorite sauces/spices/other treats that you enjoy. Oh god, chamoy, cholula, all Goya I wished I could have had these things.
2.) Be open to new things and new ways of thinking: I did meet several foreigners who just really despised Korea for many, many (many...) reasons. From the people to the cities to the food, it all got to be rather nitpicky. I think this is unfair and it's imperative to your experience (and also mental health) to find the silver lining. When in Korea, do as the Koreans (kind of). It's my belief that you should try everything at least once. There are attitudes and customs that are quite different from your own (couples outfits anyone?), but that's okay, and the world spins madly on.
3.) Being open to new things and ways of thinking, doesn't mean you have to accept them all: I personally think the couples outfits are weird, and the spitting is something I just can't deal with. These are just aspects of Korean culture, for better or for worse, and I let it be. But I still scoff at someone spitting inside a building.
4.) Be fearless. Eat all the food! Unless you're allergic. But otherwise eat a lot of it! The first time I saw jjajangmyeon, I will admit that I thought it was kind of sketchy looking (it was food that was black after all). But oh how surprised I was, and it instantly became my favorite thing to eat.
5.) But not too fearless. If food seems sketchy, it's okay not to eat it. You too can get sick, no matter where you are. You know when you read these travel blogs of people that travel all the time and the best places are those small mom & pop businesses and oh I had the best _______! I have found this to be true on occasion. But I also think that this is romanticized as well. I went with a friend to Jagalchi market some months ago, and we wandered into a restaurant that had massive tanks of octopi just hanging out in front. We decided to try their fried clams and some other mollusks, and they were still alive when they got to our table. The woman at the restaurant cooked them up on our table and everything. The result? A meal that was really kind of...meh. Nothing spectacular. As we were leaving, I noticed a few rats running around near the tanks where all the seafood was hanging out. Had I seen that beforehand, I don't think I would have gone in. And that's okay. If it seems sketchy, don't do it. If you feel comfortable (or reasonably outside of your comfortable zone), then go for it.
6.) Don't get frustrated easily. Patience is key, especially in a new place, where you're not quite functional in the language. It's so important to be respectful and polite. Despite not knowing a ton of Korean, I have found that a smile and a humble attitude will get you pretty far! Sometimes (or a lot of times) you will encounter confusion in the grocery store or looking for something, etc. The important thing is to not get frustrated by your lack of understanding, but treat these situations with a light-hearted attitude and just roll with it.
7.) Guilt - When to Feel It and When Not to. Back to what I said about romanticizing travel. In many ways, traveling is terribly exciting and adventurous and all of those things people always say it is. It's a big wide world with so much to see. And living in another country is also equal parts exciting and scary. But you should not feel bad if you don't like a place. It seems to me that it feels like its almost your duty as a traveler to love every single thing about the place you are visiting. Almost like you are obligated to see only the good and say nothing but good things about it. I think that's bullshit. One of the great things about being in a different place is realizing that while us foreigners are ogling all of these new things, all the locals don't give a shit. Life is going on for them, work, school, families, friends, etc. People are people anywhere you go. And if the majesty of temples is totally lost on you, don't feel bad about it. If the greatest architectural masterpiece leaves you feeling pretty meh, you shouldn't feel guilty about that. And if the overall impression of the country you're in leaves you feeling rather indifferent, that's okay. That's the point of trying new things. I think of it as being similar to going on dates. You date different people to see if you like them or not. Not everyone can be a perfect fit, despite your attempts at adjustment. And that's okay. You ought to feel guilty if you just sat at home all day and never did anything. That's crap. But if you feel like you've given things a fair shot and still don't really like it, you're not betraying some sort of traveler's code. You are free and clear to not like a food or a place or whatever.

Overall this time in Korea has given me one very important thing, and that's confidence in myself. I think back and it all seemed so simple; I wanted to move abroad, so I made a plan and I did it. Now I think, well damn, I can just go anywhere. If I want to move to Colombia or France or Australia or wherever, then I have not a bit of fear in doing so. I recall my first days here, and feeling so terrified, feeling like I may very well just succumb to my anxiety and go home. And that feeling didn't stop for a good while. But eventually I gelled, and things became easier and I feel more confident than ever before. So far that, thank you South Korea. Sarang heyo. 


P.S. I will also miss the jjimjilbang and milk tea so damn much. Ugh, can't I bring that with me?