I still remember hauling those four bags through the international terminal at DFW. Two large suitcases, one duffle, and my camera bag, all filled to the brim. After nearly an entire year of anticipation, it was finally real. I was moving to Korea, and I intended to stay twelve months.
I had no idea what to expect of the culture, other than that my pescatarian diet would be challenged. I didn’t know where I’d be living. Hell, I really had no idea what the job would be like. But I needed to fulfill a years’ worth of festering curiosity, so I boarded that 777 to Seoul.
The first ten days were exciting. Shuttled straight from the airport, to a university dorm, the EPIK orientation process provided a comfortable, if not sheltered, introduction to Korean life. I was given a small, but comfortable modern room, in a brand-new high-rise dorm. My neighbors all spoke English. “Western” meals were served downstairs in the cafeteria, with subtle additions of Kimchi and Bulgogi.
From 8:30-4:30, with an hour break for lunch, orientation training was primarily aimed at preparing us for classroom life, with bits of cultural lessons to keep us intrigued. I believe it was on the fourth day that we left campus for a tour of a nearby historic city. But, as I fell into the routine, I began to worry that this wasn’t for me.
“Why’d you choose Korea?” It was a common icebreaking question, and as I asked and answered it throughout orientation, I realized that my motivations were quite different than the majority of those around me. “Well, I started watching K-dramas a couple years ago, and I really want to learn the language.” “My mother is originally from Korea, and I’ve always been fascinated to learn more about the culture, and my own family history.” Others spoke with passion in response, where as my primary answer was “I saw it as an opportunity to travel, and to save money.”
Once placed at my schools, in that dark studio apartment, in a secondary city, I found myself extremely isolated. The people I’d met at orientation were scattered. A few across the city, and others across the country. At first the job was overwhelming, but after just a few weeks, I realized what was expected of me, and allowed myself to get by with mediocrity. For a month, I lived out a wild and unlikely romance. It ended abruptly, and then came the unrelenting pain of reality.
I’d gone to Korea to make money, and to travel. Due to a strict and in my opinion, outdated, view of vacation, I found travel to be unlikely. There were of course the two main breaks. One of eight days, in August, and the other of ten in December, but outside of that, I was expected to be at my desk, even if the kids were at home on break. I’d heard of desk warming before going, but I never imagined it could be so frustrating. As for saving money, with an apartment provided by the school, and few other expenses besides food, I was able to save about $1,000 per month, but it wasn’t nearly enough to warrant the misery.
My time in Korea was complicated. From the outside, I can see how it could easily be perceived as a failure, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. Yes, I intended to stay there for a year, and I left before even completing month three. But the memories I created during my time there, have served as inspiration, and I love that I went and fulfilled that curiosity.