August 2012. I came to South Korea with an organization that places foreign English teachers in public schools around the country. It was not my first time moving far from home, but it was my first time stepping outside of North America. My prior travel experience was pretty tame up to that point; only a dozen or two visits to Canada and Mexico. My first week in Korea was great. The organization held an orientation where one would meet other foreign teachers who would be teaching in the same provinces as them. It was a hugely helpful transition for a foreigner, like myself, who had little experience navigating life as a foreigner.
Our orientation week was over and us teachers were given our work assignments for the coming year. All the friends I had just made were excited and full of energy in finding out they would be living together in cities around the province. Meanwhile, I was glued to the common-room computer. I was desperately trying to google where in the world this city was that I was just told I’d be moving to–realizing no one else had been given the same assignment. I asked Koreans, other foreigners, and the orientation organizers, “WHERE IS THIS ONJEONG?!” The most information I could get from anyone was that it was very small and very far away. And then the nausea commenced.
I believe I am very flexible, and a decently brave person. What I think really killed me was finding a comfort in new friends that was so suddenly taken away.
My new co-teacher and her parents picked me up to drive me to my new home 5 hours away. It was everything I had to hold back the tears that came with the certainty I’d never see my new friends again and that I was in this new chapter of life all on my own.
The car ride was nice. My co-teacher and I learned about each other. She told me about the school and the city we would work in, and even got me a little prepared for the bleak living situation I was headed for. After a nap, I woke up to see a familiar friend, the Pacific Ocean (actually, the East Sea–same difference). If I couldn’t have the comforts of home, at least there was always the ocean. Suddenly, some peace of mind.
Well, after our long journey to the other side of the country, we finally pulled off the highway. I don’t think I’d even driven through a town so small. I’m talking: one road through the middle of town, one convenience store, a busted bus station, and a sprinkling of mom and pop shops that just seemed to be dusty, decrepit, and peeling away from the road. I imagine I just stayed silent soaking it all in. Our car pulled into the bus station and we got out of the car to ask how to get to my apartment. While everyone else was occupied with getting directions, I saw this weather-beaten old drunk man stumbled towards us. Everyone noticed and kind of watched with caution as he stammered and sauntered around our group. Uhhh (side-eye) What the hell?! Then he stepped right up to my co-teacher’s father, cocked his arm back, and swung it around straight into her father’s body. Holy shit! What is this place? Whyyy? Whyyy? Is this really HOME?! Her father laughed off the attack and turned the drunk man around to send him on his way.
Well after THAT drama, the family helped me get my things in my apartment and wished me well. I would love to say I was confident and empowered to take on my new life abroad, but unfortunately that would just be so much the opposite of how I felt. I was wrecked; just so horrified to be out in the countryside. No friends, no Internet, and not a damn clue as to how to do life. I was truly alone. Fortunately, as hours, days, and weeks passed, I found my strength. And I’m very fortunate to now say I not only know how to be alone, but I know how to thrive alone. Living in the Korean countryside brought me some of the greatest treasures and for that, I will be forever grateful.