I remember this day like it was yesterday. This girl had been chugging sweet teas and periodically bursting into tears all morning. Though I was smiling in this photo, I was absolutely scared shitless at the uncertainty of everything that was to come. For weeks I had been counting my "lasts"... My "last weekend in the states," my "last trip to Bojangles," my "last time stepping on US soil." I overwhelmed myself so much that I literally had what must have been some sort of stress induced seizure on my flight out.
Looking back, I’m not sure what I was so worried about. The last 365 days have been some of the most incredible days of my life, and the best part about this amazing journey is that it isn’t over yet. Ironically, on July 22, 2016, exactly one year after leaving the States, I got on a plane to head home… but only for a short visit. Turns out, when I left home last year, I wasn’t going on the adventure of a lifetime, I was beginning a lifelong adventure.
As I sat on the flight from Tokyo back to America, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed, but, this time it wasn't with fear or uncertainty. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. When I left home last year, I was so busy counting my "lasts," I almost forgot about the many "firsts" to come. In the last year, I have found that I'm capable of adjusting to, and living in, a foreign country on my own, I've traveled throughout Asia, and met many strangers who have turned into friends. I didn’t think it was possible, but I have an even more serious case of wanderlust now than I did when I left last July. I’ve got the travel bug… and I’ll happily be infected for the rest of my life.
Like Kylie Jenner, 2016 has been my year for realizing things. In honor of 365 days overseas, this post is dedicated to the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my first year abroad. In no particular order, here they are:
1. Not everyone is going to want to be your friend
This was one of the first, biggest, and toughest, lessons I learned after moving to Seoul. I came to Korea not knowing anyone, and I, very wrongly, expected that my coworkers at the time would be my core group of friends. I was kind of shut out by a few of them from the start, which felt pretty horrible. I had to learn to navigate a totally foreign country on my own - figuring out where to go, learning what to say, navigating the subway, etc. Looking back, my being virtually shunned was a blessing in disguise. I was forced to learn these things on my own, and, more importantly, I learned how to be alone and actually enjoy it.
Coming from small town USA, I was accustomed to people, for the most part, being pretty friendly. Sadly, I haven’t always found that to always be the case among the expat community in Seoul. I imagine the same can be said for many other large cities around the world, but, in this particular city, teeming with people, some days it feels like it’s every man for himself. Everyone is here for their own reasons, most of them for a limited time, and can be unwilling to get too attached or invested in anything. In my opinion, this makes a lot of people come off a tad self-absorbed.
I always get really excited whenever I see a foreigner in my neighborhood. Not quite as excited as I get when I see a puppy, but close. I’m curious about their story and what brought them here. While Koreans may stare so hard their eyes burn a hole through my soul, more often than not, foreigners won’t make eye contact. This BLOWS my mind. It’s like they think they have something to prove, or want to show that they’ve “more successfully assimilated” into Korean society. Just a theory.
To give you an example, one night I met a girl who was FROM North Carolina and graduated from the same university as me. I was absolutely pumped, (puppy sighting level), to meet another UNC Wilmington grad living in Seoul. Surely, we had mutual friends, similar college memories, and lots to talk about, right? Wrong. Her response to these similarities was much less enthusiastic. I got a quick, cold, “Yeah, there are lots of people from North Carolina here,” and that was that.
I’ve had a lot of interesting “friend” encounters in the past year, but they can basically be summed up as this. Not everyone is for you. Not everyone will like you or want to be your friend, and that's okay. Though there's something to be learned from every person who crosses your path, at the end of the day, if you come across toxic people who drain you or rub you the wrong way, just let them go. You set the standard for how other people treat you, so, if and when you feel disrespected, do something about it. Life's much too short for bad vibes, and in this beautiful, (densely populated) world, ain't nobody got time to be keeping bad company.
That being said, meeting the wrong people makes you that much more grateful when the right ones come along. I’m far more appreciative of the kindness of good people. Though my encounters with them have sometimes been fleeting, I’ve found that good humans, (like this adorable little nugget who shared his rice cakes with me at the library), by far outnumber the bad.
2. Be grateful for what you have (while you still have it)
Speaking of appreciating good people, I have never appreciated my hometown or family more than I do now that I’ve spent a year away from them. Oddly enough, despite being over 7,000 miles away, it feels like we’re closer than ever. Looking back, I wish I had shown my parents, sisters, and friends how much they meant to me more often. You live and you learn, and at the end of the day, all we can do is keep learning and striving to do better.
Bottom line on this one, I am so thankful to have such a nice place to call home, and to have so many loving and supportive people in my corner. Being grateful is one thing, but, I think, we should also strive to SHOW our gratitude more often. Don’t be afraid to voice your appreciation, not only for your family and friends, but also to the strangers who you meet. In this world of mostly negative feedback, we all could use a few more positive reviews – so give compliments, say thank you, and tell people, strangers or not, when they’re doing a good job. A little bit of positivity goes a long way.
Taking my own advice, I'd like to give a shout out to my thoughtful mother. THANK YOU FOR HAVING CHRISTMAS IN JULY WHILE I WAS HOME. I was totally joking when I initially suggested it, but that didn't stop you from breaking out a mini tree, Christmas crackers, and cooking Christmas dinner. You're an incredible human being and I am so lucky to be your daughter.
3. Do what you want
My previous professions though they were good money, also involved a vicious cycle of serving up drinks to other people and then going to spend tip money on beverages of my own. It wasn’t a horrible life… but I wasn’t truly happy. Though I’d received a TEFL certification, my dreams of teaching and traveling abroad took the backseat for a long time. I was so busy working my dead end jobs that I was making ZERO moves to accomplish my career and travel goals.
That all changed last June when I was in a car accident. My car was totaled, but, somehow, I made it out with just a few bumps and bruises. Thanks to a note from the hospital, I was excused from work and got my first full day off in nearly three weeks. Slightly concussed and hopped up on pain medication, I spent this time applying for jobs in Korea.
Though it was a nasty one, the car accident was a necessary wakeup call. Within a week, I’d interviewed with multiple schools in Korea. A week after that, and I’d signed a contract for the school I’m currently working for. Within six weeks, I had quit my jobs, packed up my life, and was on a plane.
I’m so happy that I’ve finally made my dreams of traveling a reality, but, sometimes, I feel downright guilty for being so far away from home and all of the people I care about… and it’s not just missing the people, it’s hard missing all of the special days; birthdays, holidays, and weddings… just to name a few. Despite the things I miss, and the difficulties of living on the other side of the planet, I’m so much happier than I used to be.
I realized that I would never be able to make everyone happy. Though it may seem selfish, you have to do what is best for you, and worry less about what other people think. When you become so consumed in missing people and holidays, you’re going to miss out on living your life. Since I started living life for me, I’ve discovered something pretty comforting. The people who matter most have never been more proud.
Quotes can be cliché, but this one from the man himself, (Jimi Hendrix), rings true. “I’m the one that’s got to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.” When I die, it’ll be me, no one else, who’s body is buried six feet under. It’s morbid, but true. Before the earth covers me, I want to cover the earth. All dreams come at a cost, and traveling, unfortunately, means not being able to see family often. I’m so thankful that I have a family who is understanding and supportive of my dreams - (and also for FaceTime and Facebook because staying in touch has never been easier).
4. It’s okay to do things by yourself
The thing about doing what you want is that, sometimes, you have to do it alone. Restaurants, bars, movies, sporting events, concerts… you name it. These were all places that I, previously, was pretty mortified to go alone. Thanks to becoming more independent, I now have zero problem, and almost prefer, doing these things solo. When you hang out by yourself, where you go is up to you, what you do there can change at a whim, and the experience you have is yours and yours alone. Don’t get me wrong, doing stuff with other people is fun, too, but for the most part, lately, I’ve found big group activities to be stressful and draining.
In addition to discovering my love of solitude, I’ve also realized that I have literally no desire to settle down and put an end to said solitude anytime soon. On my flight home, a man and woman in the row beside me were having a pretty hilarious conversation, (that I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on because it was in English and I could understand every word – which is a really strange phenomenon when you’ve grown used to being surrounded by people speaking a language you don’t understand). She grimaced at a story about his aggressively particular spouse, and said, “Happy wife, happy life?” in a very questioning tone. Bless him… And bless this fantastic life of solitude that I’m living.
To each his own, but for every engagement announcement, sonogram, and baby picture I see on Facebook, I breathe a sigh of relief… so I guess you could say that, when I log on, I gradually enter a fit of hyperventilation the further I scroll down. – (Just kidding… congratulations to you all).
Again, I repeat, to each his own. The whole “marriage, house, babies,” thing is totally cool, but I am having WAY too much fun with my newfound freedom to be thinking about tying myself down - I can book a flight to go where I want, I can buy what I want, and I can do what I want without having to consult with or wait on anyone first. Maybe it's selfish... but aren't our 20's supposed to be our selfish years?
Just ONE solo trip overseas and you’ll quickly realize that Mr./Ms. Overbearing Deadbeat from your hometown, who cheated on you and still lives at home, is literally not worth a second of your time. Now that I’ve seen just how many fish there are in the sea, I’m not going to settle for just any fish. Quite frankly, at the moment, I’m not fishing at all. I used to be so worried about finding or being in a relationship. Now, all I want is to become the best possible, whole, version of myself… not to find my “better half.”
5. Always book the flight
Since I can now go wherever I want, aka everywhere, I’ve learned to always, always, always book the flight. I guarantee, you’ll be far more disappointed by the trips you didn't take than the ones you did. If you see a cheap flight, book it. Get a credit card and start earning miles ASAP if you have to - (I recommend Capital One’s Venture card). For my first six months abroad, I always had to wait for payday before booking flights, and, let me tell you, watching those flight prices climb killed me a little inside.
Though I’ve spent a decent chunk of change on traveling this year, I've visited six (soon to be 8) different countries. The money I've spent is far less than what I would spend if I decided to come all the way back to Asia later. For most people, teaching contracts only last a year. If you don't use your week long winter and summer breaks to go new places, when else will you go!?
I pay student loans just like most other recent college grads, but I also save my money, work extra hours, and make financial sacrifices to make traveling possible. I don’t go shopping for expensive clothes and shoes, I don’t spend ridiculous amounts of money on nights out drinking every weekend, and I often cook my own meals instead of eating out. You can make all the excuses in the world, but, when you really want something - anything - you’ll do what it takes to make it happen. For me, what I want is to travel… So even if it’s just a long weekend, you better believe I’m in a plane, train, or on a bus to see somewhere new.
On that note, when you do travel, always pack light. I’ve traveled internationally with multiple rolling suitcases and I’ve traveled in nothing but my tiny work backpack. I absolutely prefer the latter. You can skip the baggage claim, hit the ground running, and not have to worry about a lot of stuff weighing you down. Less is more. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve packed a hair straightener or curling iron and not used it. Also, leave the fancy shoes at home because, chances are, you won't use them either. Sneakers or comfy sandals are your best bet.
6. No one has it all figured out
Life happens fast. So fast that, at times, it’s damn near impossible to really plan for anything. Even when you think you've got it all figured out, chances are you're wrong. A few years ago, I started talking about teaching in Korea. Originally, I had imagined I would be doing it with my boyfriend at the time… after all, everyone I’d known to teach overseas had done it with someone else. If you had told me I would be living as independently as I am in Seoul today, I never would have believed you.
Now, when people ask me, “What will you do next?” I cringe and smile at the same time. The truth is, I’m not really in any rush to figure it out. I have absolutely no idea what I will do or where I will go from here. Right now, I’m just trying to be the best damn person and ESL teacher I can be – and to eat all the Korean barbeque and drink all the soju I can handle. I find the ambiguity of “what’s next” to be quite a beautiful thing.
For most of my life, everything has been mapped out for me – kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, get your license, get a job, go to college, graduate. For many people, the obvious next step is settle down – Get a “real” job, buy a car, get married, buy a house, have some babies, etc. This well-traveled path, however, is simply not for me. Now, I can finally do what I’ve always wanted to – whatever I want. I’m seeing new places, meeting new people, trying new things, and just living life one day at a time. Most importantly, I’m finally living life for me.
I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs to get to where I am now, but each obstacle has helped make me the person I am today. Sometimes, life will tear you apart to put you back together again. Though my early 20’s have been filled with more ‘tearing apart’ than I care to recount, thankfully, the buildup has been just as frequent. I’ve found bits and pieces of my soul that I never knew existed in the cities I’ve visited, in the smiles of my students… and I’m a happier, stronger version of the person I used to be because of it.
7. Take the leap
If there is one all-encompassing lesson that stands out from the rest, a lesson that I hope resonates from this post, it’s that things have a pretty beautiful way of sorting themselves out. I have always known that I wanted to see the world, but for the longest time I was quite honestly, and rightfully, too scared to actually do it. I’d become so comfortable in my life at home that I damn near settled… and that’s how it is with most dreams, I think. We know what we want, but are too afraid of leaving what we know to go get it.
A year ago when I left the states, I knew little to nothing about Korea, and had NO clue what I was doing (refer to #6). I never imagined that I’d fall so in love with teaching here, and thought, surely, when my contract was up, I’d be ready to go back home and hop back on the well-trodden path of settling down.
The puffy-faced, sweet tea chugging me of 2015 was so afraid of the ambiguity of her life, but has found that to be more alive, you need to be less afraid. Be less afraid of new places, less afraid of strangers, and less afraid of change. Embrace the uncertainties of life instead of fearing them, after all, the only thing you should really be afraid of is living a stagnant life in which you never experience change or growth. When you open yourself up to new things and stop being so afraid, you'll find the world isn't such a scary place after all
Your dreams, goals, and everything you could ever want all lie on the other side of your fear, so make like Elsa, and let it go – (Sorry, but I teach kindergarten… and I absolutely could not resist the Frozen reference). Take the leap. Whatever it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life, and whatever it takes to make it happen, do it now.