I keep thinking about what I’m going to tell people back home when they ask “So how was Korea?” I assume they will want only the quick and dirty and not the long form mundane reality of what actually was. And I want to be honest, because I feel like so many people aren’t really honest about their experiences in Korea. Whether they exaggerate the quality of life or bitterly bash the culture, I find honest impressions of Korea are few and far between. And this has as much to do with peoples’ desires to sugar coat things as it has to do with the fact that everyone has really different experiences in Korea.
So, if I were to think of two words to sum up my ten-months-and-counting in Korea, in earnest, they would be: interesting and anticlimactic.
“Are you glad you did it?” they may ask, confused.
And as the true uselessness of this question as a measuring tool of experiential value washes over me, I will reply like those before me, “Yes. But I probably won’t do it again.”
But this isn’t accurate. It’s factually accurate, I guess, but it lacks context. Without the context, it’s misleading.
Yes, I’m glad I did it, in the sense that this is my life and what has come to be is what I apparently was meant to experience. There is no point in regretting what has already happened, and I know in my head that I am lucky to have had such an opportunity. I am grateful that it wasn’t terrible, that things went relatively smoothly and my life wasn’t ever threatened. Yes, there were highlights and yes I see the infinite good of having my previous world view demolished and rebuilt on a more solid ground. I’m all the wiser, and this is incredibly useful and eye opening. But I can’t say that i wouldn’t have gained equally mind-opening and useful knowledge living anywhere else in the world for a year.
I’m not glad that I contracted a case of pink eye that altered my vision, or that it seemed for every prejudice I put to death, another one cropped up to replace it. I’m not glad that I feel more reserved, that I have lost the ability to socialize casually and comfortably. I’m not glad to have witnessed domestic abuse and student suicide attempts and to have been the target of racism. This much isolation was probably not good for my psyche. I take responsibility for how my experience went. I could have sculpted a different experience, but I didn’t. I just sort of went along with the experience that came to me.
I’m bummed that my debt is virtually the same as it was when I first came here, despite scraping by on a bare bones budget after sending all of my wages home in hopes of paying it off. I’m confused about how that has happened.
Would I do it again? Probably not. I may do it again under completely different circumstances, yes. But I have a feeling that returning to the U.S. will be a whole other adjustment period and it’s likely I will want to move on to other cultures and experiences instead of returning to Korea. I could see myself returning as something other than a teacher. As a journalist, for sure. But the thought of signing on with my current employer for another year-long contract never even entered my mind. And this is for many reasons that have nothing to do with Korea, but it is also because being a foreigner in a country that hasn’t made up its mind about whether or not it likes foreigners, and still regularly refers to them as “waegookin” (literally meaning someone from another country, an “other”) instead of their name or their nationality is exhausting. And I’m lightened by the idea of coming home.
Now, I’ve studied a good amount of Korean history. I know why the culture is distrusting of “others,” with outsiders. I know my own country has contributed to this. But knowing this doesn’t make it any easier to not take it personally, or to not feel uncomfortable feeling like the gossip juice of everyone on the subway. Being an ambassador for one year has been mind-blowing. But I’m tired of being a certain way all the time. I just want to settle into myself and be.
And it’s funny because I know coming home will require me to reinvent myself yet again. There will be new plans to make, new goals to reach. There will be Sacramento’s dried up job selection. There will be long lines and unsafe night streets. But there will also be the irreplaceable spirit of California and bikes and friends and awesome thrift stores and the best food and wine. There will be the river, and the old bar and coffee haunts. There will be charming Victorian houses and the sense of social freedom and diversity and art, everywhere, just art out in the open. There will be all of these things and probably plenty of mistakes scattered about. But I am really looking forward to being just another person trying to make sense of life. Also, to eating a real sandwich. And wearing better clothes. And reading the paper. And drinking some real coffee. And making a good salad.