Reflections on One Year in Korea

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The country I knew nothing about before arriving on an airplane, one day in June: South Korea.

Before I left for Korea, I had little idea what I was getting myself into; actually, let’s be honest, I had none. I thought that by learning Hangeul ahead of time (the Korean writing system) and just being a flexible person would get me through whatever I needed to handle. I even read a book about Korean culture, which turned out to be barely helpful. While I’ve survived, clearly, a lot of those assumptions that I’d have an easy adjustment were oh so wrong. Korea is a roller coaster that’s been rocking my world for the past year… and will be for another six months, at least.

Looking back, one of the biggest slaps in the face has been learning the language, Korean. I thought that if I worked hard and had the passion for communicating with people, it would work itself out without toooo much pain. Learning Spanish was a breeze in 2011. Going from zero to hero (aka conversational) in 5 months planted unrealistic expectations in my head, though, and when I jumped in with Korean, I had no idea just how deep the water was. This past year has certainly been humbling: Korean is a monster. But it’s taught me a lot of work ethic, determination and to let go of “failures”, which are often just unrealistic expectations for myself. I have a huge respect for those who go and tackle Asian languages successfully in a relatively short amount of time. Even though I’m still working on my Korean, I’m still far from where I’d like to be before I leave Korea. This year has taught me just what a challenge my goal really is.

Since coming to Korea, I’ve also changed a lot simply because of my environment: I live in the countryside and there’s not much to do. At Universities, this usually leads to a huge drinking culture (what else is there to do?), but living alone with nothing to do has done the exact opposite of turning me into an alcoholic… instead, I nearly stopped drinking altogether. I could drive and meet my friends in town for drinks, but the keyword in that sentence is drive. So you might see why that wouldn’t work out so well. Instead, I’ve started picking up all kinds of solitary hobbies. I’ve knit a scarf, spent serious time developing this blog, read through the entire Wheel of Time series as well as a boatload of other books, self-taught myself the photography basics and rescued a puppy. Pretty productive, wouldn’t you say? I can’t say whether it’s my age, my solidarity in the boring countryside or a combination of other factors, but my liver and brain are thankful for the adjustments I’ve made… and, mainly, the alcohol I’ve not ingested.

(Maybe this helps too: Korean beer tastes like butt, wine is expensive and rice wine is its own kind of monster.)

The reality of Korea wasn’t done with me just yet, though. One of the toughest storms I’ve had to weather since I moved here, and will continue to fight, is the reality of losing friendships. Despite modern technology, instant text messages and streaming video chats, there’s something about the miles that really drives a wedge into even solid, “forever” friendships. I’ve lost friends that I thought would always be in my life and those have been some of the most painful experiences I’ve ever gone through. I’ve drifted apart from some who’ve done their “duty”, so to speak, but the messages, the videos, all the communication didn’t amount to the same connection that we used to feel in person. On the flip side, I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by friendships that proved to be solid and haven’t let the distance take a serious toll. Now, those friendships are the ones I treasure above all.

Let’s talk about teaching too; after all, it’s my job! I’ve learned a bucketful of professional skills from teaching middle school kids and an entire ocean’s worth of perspective. The teaching system itself has been so interesting to learn about, especially compared to Western education. (But I’ll save my judgements for another day.) I’ve learned that I don’t actually hate children, I just dislike being responsible for their well-being and bedtimes. Other than that, kids are pretty cool to spend time with, provided I can leave when I’d like. Teaching is probably not the career I want to pursue, but I’m really glad that I’ve tried it out and am giving it my best shot. To all the professional teachers of the world: respect. Because I am really looking forward to the end of this job contract in December.

So overall, living in Korea this year has been hard at times, it’s true. I was absolutely blindsided by how tough the Korean language continues to be and the serious heartbreak that comes along with losing close friends. I would have never pegged myself as a puppy mama before coming to Korea, nor would I have predicted the complete demise of my alcoholic intake. Yet, despite all of the rough roads that I’ve endured this year, I’ve had amazing experiences, seen beautiful things in unexpected places and changed my life for the better in a multitude of ways. I’ve met interesting people and I’m more actively than ever pursuing creative parts of my personality that make me happy.

I’ve still got six months left in rural Korea and a lot of unknowns to follow, some of which could involve Korea, round 2. We’ll see what lies ahead. But, whatever it is, I’m fairly confident that it’ll be less difficult to handle than Korean and its 1 million verbs. For real talk: that shit be cray. Cheers, here’s to a year gone by in a land strangely obsessed with spicy, rotting cabbage!

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