The decision to move away from home is not a difficult one. It’s pretty easy actually. You just imagine for a few moments the thought of leaving your home, which in my case is Ireland, and experiencing something new. All of a sudden you’re ready to pack your bags, and mentally, you’re already on your way to the airport.
However, going can be a little more difficult. The thought of moving away to a new and exotic country sounds exciting and adventurous, but it’s more than a little scary when it’s time to actually go. So what was it about moving away that was sending chills down my spine? Was it the thought of moving to South Korea? The fact that I hated change? Or underneath it all, did I simply not want to go? It’s not that I had anything in particular to keep me at home. Sure I had family and friends, but going away for a year wasn’t exactly going to affect or change my relationships with them, was it?
I had finished college a few months earlier. After four years of hard work, sweat, blood, and tears; I graduated with a 2:1 and where did it land me? In a customer service job where I spent half the day getting yelled at. So really, when you think about it, why was I apprehensive about leaving? I’m not sure I could articulate it, but one thing was for sure, this move to South Korea was going to push me to my limits.
During the many deliberations that occurred in the months before we moved, I asked Chris if when we got to Korea we could live in a smaller town outside one of the big cities. I myself come from a small town with approximately five thousand people, how could I live in a city of ten million? I’m someone who’s afraid of her own shadow; Mrs Worst Case Scenario. Seriously, I’m the girl that makes a mental note of all the emergency exits when she walks into a room in case there’s a fire. Chris thinks I’m paranoid and he rolls his eyes at least ten times a day, but I think that this more demure and helpless side of my personality secretly goes a long way to reaffirming his manhood. In fact, I think most men, if they were honest, prefer when our genders refer back to our simpler archetypes of ‘hero’ and ‘damsel in distress’. Modern feminists would hang me for even mentioning that one.
Admittedly South Korea was an unusual choice; it was all his idea. To be perfectly honest, it wasn’t even on my list of places to visit in my lifetime. I mean, the language, the food, the culture, the food! I am what some people might describe as a ‘picky eater’. My first meal of the day has to be some sort of breakfast food. I only like peppers hot on a sandwich, never cold, and the very sight of tomatoes make my stomach churn. But most of all, I abhor seafood (crosses arms into an X shape “NOTHING FROM THE OCEAN”). I bet if you’re a guy reading this, the thought “I could never date you” just crossed your mind. It’s okay, I wouldn’t date me either.
Chris talked about moving to South Korea for about two years. Research told us that South Korea offered the best saving opportunity for English teachers. He, like myself, had taken a little detour through college. We had both started out doing college courses that were wrong for us, quit, and began all over again. This minor mishap put us about two years behind in our life plan than where we felt we should be, professionally speaking. It meant that we were still at college when our friends were graduating, and most of all, it put us into debt. Correction, it put him into debt. Although, as his girlfriend it affected me just as much since it meant that if he couldn’t afford to go on holidays, then I couldn’t go either. It was a depressing situation. It turns out, life is pretty dismal when you don’t have money. Who knew?
So we packed our bags and went to the airport. I cried the whole way. Actually, I cried the whole night before, on the drive to the airport, and on the plane, but just for the first two hours or so. But there I was, and soon, there I was fast asleep; he slipped me two sleeping pills. Did I mention I’m afraid of flying? Anyway, two plane rides and twenty hours later, we arrived in Seoul.
The English Academy that hired us paid for a week in a hotel so that we could attend training every day. There were about seventy trainees in total and everyone was incredibly friendly. Too friendly, actually. It was like they’d all known each other forever. Instant friendships were blossoming in front of my eyes. I should have been thrilled, but it only made me feel more isolated and alone. I’m not someone who can instantly connect with people. It’s always been my experience that true friendships take time to develop and they can’t be artificially created. Besides, I’ve always believed that you don’t need a lot of friends, just a few great ones. But I seemed to be alone in that belief, and I felt it one particular morning. All of the trainees were sitting around talking, laughing, and sharing ‘inside jokes’ (we’d known each other two days at this point) when a guy sat down next to me. We were sitting in silence for about a total of sixty seconds when he turned to me and said, “You’re so quiet”. That was it. Three words and he had summed me up. How do you respond to that? I thought I didn’t know what to say, but as I sat there contemplating my response the words had already left my mouth, “I’m not quiet. I’m Irish”. Did I just explain something? The confused look on his face suggested otherwise. It’s true that the Irish are friendly, but we’re not overly- friendly. Overly friendly we interpret as disingenuous. But I wasn’t going to start explaining this to a total stranger. So we sat in silence until he made an excuse and politely got up and left.
So the first week had been a little bumpy but I had survived, although, my brain officially felt like mush. I couldn’t believe I was expected to be a teacher on Monday; I barely understood English anymore. But there I was en-route to a true low point when something happened that changed what was turning into a dim view of life in Korea. I made a friend. The first time I met Rachel, she was sitting on a bicycle, smiling from ear to ear, and telling me all about her travels around India. I was standing with a few of my new colleagues when she said that if we didn’t already have dinner plans Chris and I should come out to eat with them later. She was warm, friendly, and sincere.
It’s funny. Although Rachel and I would go on to become good friends, we weren’t incredibly close. We never got the chance; she left after six months and unfortunately that was it. That’s one of the downsides of this way of life. Sometimes you meet great people and make wonderful friends, but your paths only cross for a short amount of time. There are friends I made in Korea that I would classify as ‘best’ and ‘lifelong’ and while she may not fit into either category, she was incredibly significant. All of my worries, all of my anxieties; it’s funny how little they seemed to suddenly matter, and all it took was the making of one friend. Or perhaps I’m underestimating the importance of friendship? Maybe I’d even taken it for granted when I was in Ireland.
Rachel would become one of the many friends I would make in Korea during my first year there. That’s right, I stayed for the entire year. In fact, I stayed for four years. And friendship was something I would come to value very much. I could lie and say that life in Korea was always easy, that there were never problems, or that I never thought about packing it all in and flying home. Believe me, there were definitely days like those. Teaching is not an easy job, especially when teenagers are involved. I don't have proof, but I think the devil may be a fourteen year old girl.
Living in Korea turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences in my life, and when I look back at everything I gained from my time there, of everything I could list, the friends I made are at the top. I quickly learned that in the absence of family, friendship is paramount. It’s something that in our fast paced, technology driven world has a tendency to get over-looked. Of all the things I’d considered when moving to Asia, friends hadn’t even occurred to me. That has all changed. Now I have an incredible appreciation for the fact that even the worst day can be turned around by a beer and a friendly game of darts.
Watch out for my next blog post on Tuesday 22nd March, Friendship: Can you really 'go home' again?