It’s been a year since I’ve moved to Korea. This blows my mind. This time last year I was flying over 6,000 miles away from home. I didn’t sleep at all on the flight and had that exhausted nauseous feeling that was only added to as I climbed into the backseat of a cab that seemed to hurtle away from not just the airport but Seoul and into the rural country side. A lot more rural than I had expected when I had looked at it on google maps.
A lot has changed. As the new school year unfolds around me I find myself missing my old 6th graders who’ve graduated. But my 3rd graders, my newest students, rush me when they see me in a race to who can hug me first. The bits of English they know surprises me, like one says “Oh my god” when she’s surprised or trying to figure something out. And another when I ask her how she is will sit up straight and politely say “I’m very well thank you.” More than half the staff has changed this year which came as a last minute surprise to me, even our principal changed. I miss them, especially since I found out so late and was left with what felt like a cliffhanger without a chance for resolve. Because I live in such a rural area and a lot of the teachers live on the school grounds we had chances to hang out. Playing badminton after school, going to musicals, and even teacher field trips. But the new teachers are friendly and make sure I feel included and we talk more. It’s an odd feeling to miss the previous year when there’s so much good this year too.
When I arrived the first meal I had was a spicy tofu soup. I ate with my co-teacher and the 6th grade teacher right after I dropped my stuff off in my apartment and it’s strange to realize both of them are gone from the main school I teach at. (In Korea teachers have a maximum of time they can stay at one school which is odd to me coming from a country where tenure is sought after.)
Living in such a rural area has it’s ups and downs. My local grocery store doesn’t have a lot of options and there aren’t many restaurants nearby and no cafes. But this means I eat at home a lot and end up saving money this way. But if I want to see anyone or go downtown I’m stuck living a Cinderella life style of needing to rush to the train before midnight so I’m not stuck downtown. Which can be frustrating. It means I have to keep in mind how far away I am from my line and how much time I have left before I have to go home. I miss living off the red line that ran 24/7. But when I do get home I walk through the unlit parking lot towards my apartment and it’s so quiet. So peaceful. And if I look up I can see the stars. So I tend to walk with my head tilted back, walking in slow, sloppy circles trying to take it all in.
I feel like there’s a lot I’ve learned and maybe I’ve opened up more. I’ll sing with my students or do silly voices, or act for them. And I’m constantly learning what it’s like to be a foreigner, in a homogeneous society where I’m not able to communicate on a level I’m use to. Having to infer things, assume and mime can be frustrating. But not knowing at all what’s going on is even worse. When someone speaks to me in English, or tries I’m incredibly grateful, on a level I don’t think I know quite how to express. But I think living somewhere so rural adds to this. Where there’s only one other foreigner for miles. And my experience is not the same as it is for others. All of my friends are in different situations, not just from me but each other.
But all the frustrations I’ve had means that when something works out I feel so proud. Like when I went to Seoul and got my first smart phone (ever), or every time I manage to make my way home via taxi. I even figured out how to do my overseas voting which was a lot easier than I expected but was incredibly daunting.
I’ve been told I’ve changed. During one of the last dinners I had with my old principal he said I seemed happier. And while there are rough days, which is bound to happen living anywhere, but especially a foreign country teaching energetic elementary students in the country side, I am happy. I don’t know how long I’ll be in Korea. But I don’t regret all the hard work I put into getting here. I don’t regret that terribly long flight, or moving so far from home, because when I think of all the people I’ve met, the adventures I’ve had, and how I’ve forced myself out of my comfort zone, or when I sit at lunch with my students running over to say hello to me with huge grins and a teacher who works at the middle school turns to me and tells me they were so happy I re-signed for a new year makes me feel like for now- I’m home.