musings

Thoughts & Reflections of a (now) Upper 20-Something Year Old

Well, folks...

The days where I can say I've lived a quarter of a century have officially come and gone.

In the blink of a flippin' eye, 365 days have passed and I've somehow fallen over the hump and into the dreaded "upper twenties" category... Or is it dreaded?

I'm honestly not so sure... because my 26th birthday was pretty flippin' epic.

D731EB01-C655-4741-AB32-0553DE2B8E77.JPG
image 4.JPEG

The past year has been filled with more than its fair share of ups and downs.

I came home from an incredible two month backpacking trip... almost immediately started working two jobs... and quickly realized that settling in North Carolina just wasn't in the cards for me... at least not yet.

I returned to Asia (perhaps a bit prematurely), spent Christmas at home with my family (after passing out on the plane) for the first time since 2015, then, at the start of the spring, moved from one horrible Korean private school to another (...though the one I moved to is probably worse... more on that later).

I attended the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, gained a new best friend, and fell in love with what might be the greatest human on the planet - (this is not an exaggeration... I'm tellin' ya... he's a gem).

As my 25th year of life came to a close, I dove headfirst into an attempt at vlogging, scored my first big name hotel partnership, and, early in the morning on the Eve of my birthday, headed to Malaysia with Andrew (the aforementioned gem) to explore Penang and write a review for the DoubleTree Resort (coming very soon).

Flash back a little over a year ago - I was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the last leg of my Asia adventure before returning to the states indefinitely (lol). After weeks of hostels and cold showers, I splurged on a hotel with an epic view of the Petronas Towers (and hot water... and room service).

I decided to write a review on the property, despite my stay there not being sponsored - (I later would write several other unsponsored reviews... because practice makes perfect, ya know).

After posting one of my photos taken at the Kuala Lumpur hotel on Facebook (a good ole' GoPro, screen-grab selfie), an old high school classmate commented saying "I thought this was a Hilton ad."

18193074_10155190108893290_3430688296583922120_o.jpg

I laughed then... but, flash forward... less than 13 months after my indefinite departure from Asia and, plot twist.... I'm still not making Hilton ads.... but I am back in Asia... and I did score a complimentary birthday weekend stay at a Hilton hotel in Penang, Malaysia.

The irony does not escape me.

Long, sentimental post short... life is unexpected. It's tough... rub some dirt in it... get a helmet... no pain no gain... or whatever motivational quote you can most easily identify with. Despite it's inevitable challenges, hard work eventually pays off. In all this hard work, I've found that the (aka my) key to a happy, fulfilled life (coming from a barely upper 20-something year old) is finding a challenge you enjoy... and to always, always, always keep going for it.

This time last year, when I was back home slaving away at two restaurant jobs, my dreams of travel writing (and Asia) seemed, again, like a far away pipe dream... over 7,000 miles away  to be exact.

Looking back, somehow, the daily little baby steps have amounted to one big step in the right direction.

I'm not an expert or a professional (like.... at anything... honestly).

I do, however, have one thing... and lots of it. Passion.

My trip back to Malaysia was filled with a handful of brilliant, inspiring little creative sparks (and lots of much needed R&R)... and all together, this rekindled a fire - a burning desire to keep setting foot on new ground, to keep creating, keep meeting people, keep making mistakes

...to keep learning from them and getting better... becoming better at my hobbies and becoming a better person.

The great Albert Einstein supposedly once said, "Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving," and I couldn't agree more.

Now, I don't know exactly what the next year of life will bring... but I do know one thing... I cannot wait to find out.

A BIG thank you for all the birthday wishes, and an even bigger thank you to all the people who support and push me towards fulfilling my goals and dreams all the other days of the year.

Here's to another year of life, (albeit a year in my upper twenties)...

...365 days of experiences, changes, and growth... one baby step at a time.

1572C5BD-35B3-4493-BF7D-9F9BB83EDC52.JPG
savingPNG 2.PNG

Some Days it Hits You (ep. 3)

Some days... when you're packed like a sardine on a crowded subway car, or walking down skyscraper lined streets filled with flashing neon lights... it hits you.

Toto, we are not in Pleasant Garden anymore.

21764728_10155652960818290_7027678720598135615_n.jpg

You snap out of what has become your routine, and, in a moment of shock and realization, picture exactly where you are on a map... exactly how far from home.

Some days it hits you... when the only conversation you have is in broken Konglish with the lady at the 711... that this life is pretty lonely. You miss your friends and your family and your dog, and all of the other things that can make any old place feel like home.

Some days... when you're running from one job to another, spending all night writing and editing and coding and emailing, or building pages that may never get seen... you question whether it's all worth it. You think about how far you are from reaching your goals, and you wonder if you'll ever get there.

Some days... when you see photos of family and friends celebrating birthdays, holidays, and engagements... you start to wonder if you made the right choice by leaving. You've been gone so long, that the photos hardly look like anyone's missing.

Some days... when you're surrounded by coupled off Koreans in matching outfits... you think about the two year relationship that ended on a good note, but ended nonetheless. You think about all of times since that you'd tried and failed to find someone who meant something... and you wonder if you ever will.

Some days it hits you how much everything has changed... and not just your location. You've changed... in all this wandering, you got a bit lost.

Some days... when you're in your favorite quiet, cozy, little cafe and a huge group of foreigners rolls through all laughing and having a good time... you realize how much you miss having friends around that you can count on.

Not the type of friends you can count on to be down for drinks on a Friday night... the ones who are there the days you hit rock bottom with a shoulder to cry on. Not the type of friends who use you, replace you, spread lies about you, and then dish a shallow apology email months later. Real, true, deep, and honest friendships. You really miss those.

 

Some days it hits you... that, at one point, this was exactly what you wanted. 

You look back on your childhood when you spent hours spinning a globe, marvelling at airplanes flying overhead, always dreaming of far off places... and you realize that these dreams are no longer dreams. You're living it. No, it's not as glitzy and glamorous as you imagined it'd be... but you're doing it... and you've changed in the process - good changes. You're more self-sufficient, more motivated, more bold and daring.

Some days... you meet a stranger in a hostel, a random cabbie, or a bartender... and you have a conversation that absolutely changes you and life as you knew it. No, you may not have as many solid friendships in your city as you did back home... but you have made beautiful connections and met incredible people from all over the world.

Some days... when you're in the middle of a lesson or a workday... it hits you - No, you may not love your school or management or the hours... but you love teaching, and you love these kids. You realize how lucky you are to even have this opportunity as a native English speaker.

Some days... after spending hours catching up on FaceTime with family or friends... it hits you how fortunate you are to have these loving and supportive people in your life... even though they may not be around physically.

Some days... when you're on a rooftop over the city watching life go by, taking in a sunset on an empty beach, or watching the sunrise over ancient temples... it hits you that this planet is beautiful... and you can't believe that you get to see these mind-bending, awe-inspiring, tear-jerking sights with your own two eyes.

Some days... it hits me like a freaking freight train... that this long-term expat, serial traveller, life is not as easy as I thought it'd be. But if it were easy, everyone would do it.

As with anything, you can't have your cake and eat it to... you take the good with the bad. Some days are filled with literal sunshine and rainbows and some days are mind-numbingly cold and lonely. I'm learning to accept these bad days and the negative emotions that accompany them - to allow myself to be sad or angry just as I'd be happy on my best days. To feel these emotions... but to also let them pass.

Though there's ground to be covered still in the pursuit of my wildest goals and dreams, I realize how much I've already accomplished. I picture exactly where I am on the map, and can't believe I'm actually doing the things that I dreamed about so many years ago.

It's a hard and complicated life, but it's rewarding too... and it's what we wanted.

So let's be more understanding... more supportive... and, on these bad days, let's keep it moving... always one foot in front of the other. Onwards and upwards.

The Honesty Chronicles (ep. 2) - Make Social Media Great Again

On Episode 2 of The Honesty Chronicles: My Thoughts on Instagram.

Yes, Instagram.

The app everyone (especially with the recent, and constant, algorithm changes) loves to hate. What follows might be a rant, or.. appreciation...? I'm not really sure which, to be honest...

I, like most other Millenials, am guilty of spending maybe a little too much time on Instagram... but, here's why... Hear me out.

For one - from a business standpoint... Instagram is a great way to market yourself and your skills... and I'm not just talking photo skills.

Maybe you're really in to exercise, cooking, or writing. As a matter of fact, much of the traffic to this website comes from Instagram, allowing me to target a relevant audience and to greatly increase the reach of my writing and videos. This has led to both collaboration and job opportunities that I wouldn't have had otherwise.

Two. Unless you're just carelessly snapping and posting any and everything you see, Instagram is an art... and, yes, it is self expression.

What we see on our tiny screens, more often than not, is not reality... rather, it's someone's ideal vision of their observations... cropped, edited, and filtered to portray a place or thing that, when experienced, sparked their imagination and creativity. It made them want to pick up their camera to snap a photo - to freeze a moment in time.

Your way and my way of seeing things are not the only ways to view this world... and I think it's pretty cool that, via Instagram, we get to see the world through each other's eyes. I have come across some pretty amazing photographers on this app. They take the kind of photos that truly capture life... the type that make you feel something... that make you add a new place to your bucket list, just so you can see it with your own eyes... if only once.

Three. I've also met some pretty amazing people (and also some shitty ones, but mostly great ones) because of Instagram. No, seriously... like, in real life. I even collaborated on one of my favorite projects with an Instagram friend.

You see, if your time on Instagram can best be described as mindless scrolling... occasionally double tapping your "+1heart" of approval, well... then you're doing it wrong. It CAN be just another stupid, life-sucking, time wasting, app that leaves you more disconnected... or, it can actually be SOCIAL media. Again... Yes, I’m serious.

Story time.

Last fall when I travelled to Hong Kong, I met up with a local photographer, and London native, to do some roof-topping. Well, I'd originally intended to meet up with a different Insta-friend... but when he wasn't able to make it, he suggested I go with his mate Thom instead.

So there I was... in a country that, despite visiting a couple times, is still very foreign to me... about to meet up with a complete stranger to climb around on a roof. This could have ended very poorly... I know. But it didn't - because, believe it or not, the world isn't such a scary place after all, and people are mostly good.

Meeting up with a stranger, no matter where you are, is a bit nerve-racking at first, but the awkwardness always goes away after the first few minutes (or beers)... and if it doesn't, you run... like I ran from my last Tinder date when he told me he was a psychopath. No seriously... among other things, he said he was a psychopath, compulsive liar, and a sociopath... and after giving him one too many opportunities to say he was joking, I left an unfinished margarita AND guacamole on the table... and went home... It was that bad.

Anyway, unlike my unfortunate meetups with Tinderfellas, that evening in Hong Kong wasn't awkward at all. 

3D7702B5-324C-4B28-8B5C-0F5E2C52C4BF.JPG

On a random rooftop by the harbor, we watched the sun go down and the city light up. We drank a few beers and had a great chat. At first it was the normal, "Where are you from?" "What do you do here?" "How long have you been in Asia?" get to know you type of chat... and then we talked about literally everything that you're not supposed to talk about the first time you meet someone - politics, exes, travels, and dating in Asia which, for me, is a literal nightmare... (*reference previous paragraph for psycho Tinder date*). 

Well... There was one slightly awkward point in the evening.

Remember that beer we'd been drinking? As luck would have it, it went straight through me... so there came a point in the conversation where I had to tell this new friend (who had been a complete stranger a couple hours prior), "I have to pee."

So, we came down from the roof and he proceeded to find a hotel close by that let me use their bathroom. Such a gent. By the end of that evening, once our feet were back on the ground (and I'd broken the seal) I'd say he knew me better than some friends I've "known" for years.

Flash forward to Winter Break.

I got a message from Thom, who was on Holiday in Japan, with a link to someone’s Instagram profile who he'd met in Osaka. He asked if I knew her and said, “She's American, lives in Korea, and likes roof-topping too.”

All three of those statements describe me, so, though I didn’t know this girl at the time, I decided I needed to. And now I do.

Shot by JANELLE SOTO - SEE MORE OF HER KILLER SHOTS AT  ADVENTUROUS_JANE

Shot by JANELLE SOTO - SEE MORE OF HER KILLER SHOTS AT ADVENTUROUS_JANE

Turns out, though she didn't live in Seoul, she's here just about every weekend. So after failing to hang out twice because of bad weather and unexpected events, we finally met one evening to go snap rooftop photos and eat knock-off Chipotle. 

Third times the charm.

(Side note, knock-off Chipotle, aka Cuchara, is actually pretty good. If you live in Seoul and get the occasional Chipotle craving, you've gotta go... Gangnam Station. Exit 8. You're welcome). 

We sat above Gangnam snapping photos and enjoying the silence... save for a few (hundred) honking horns. We watched life go by below us - the cars, pedestrians, and people wiping out at an iceskating rink - and watched what I guess was a sunset... or, rather, what we could see of it through the thick layer of pollution covering the city.

And, just like that, not one but two friendships were made. REAL connections, sparked by one simple message that triggered interactions between four people... in three different countries... and two real life friendships. And that's how "engagement" should be.

BCB086B7-4B70-4237-ACD9-067445FFBA3B 2.JPG

Nowadays, with Instagram, you have to pay to win - (And... for the record, no Instagram, I will not promote this photo though "it's doing better than 85% of my recent posts").

Thanks to the new algorithm, engagement is dropping and the accounts of the little guys aren't growing. Many people aiming to "beat the system" are willing to pay for follows from empty accounts, just to make it look like they've got a larger audience. While, yes, it would be nice to have loads of followers, as it would mean having both the swipe up feature (WHICH I WANT!) and likely more collaboration opportunities, what good is it if these "followers" aren't even real?

When you get wrapped up in the numbers, you're missing the point... because behind all of these accounts is a person... not a potential like. Not a number... a person... who you likely have more in common with than you think.

Shot by JANELLE SOTO - SEE MORE OF HER KILLER SHOTS AT  ADVENTUROUS_JANE

Shot by JANELLE SOTO - SEE MORE OF HER KILLER SHOTS AT ADVENTUROUS_JANE

We have the world (and many of its inhabitants) at our fingertips... We have an opportunity, unlike ever before, to express ourselves, our passions, and to let our voices be heard. In this sea of voices, let's not always try to shout over everyone else... using this platform solely to boast about our own accomplishments, travels, or possessions.

Yes, it's a highlight reel... but let's keep it real. Let's be vulnerable. Let's collaborate. And let's connect - in real life.

Though I've already made many friends thanks to Instagram, I truly hope to continue making more... to keep connecting with and, if I'm in the same country or city, meeting incredible, like-minded, absolutely talented individuals. That's what it's all about.

Screw the algorithm. Let's make social media great (and social) again.


So, about those genuine, talented, individuals...

Here are some of my favorite people on Instagram... in no particular order.

What's the Opposite of Sunshine and Rainbows? - and other fun travel truths (ep. 1)

Every now and then, I get messages from strangers or friends back home complimenting me on how together I seem to have things... how beautiful, and fun, and great it must be to live and travel abroad long-term. I try to be as transparent as possible on social media... but it is, after all, still a highlight reel... and I guess some people don't read the closed-captions.

Among my goals and promises to myself for 2018... (I'm not even calling them resolutions anymore because then I'd have to break them)... is more transparency... which is why I'm writing this post... and likely a couple of posts thereafter.

The last few weeks of my life have been AN. ABSOLUTE. WHIRLWIND. I'm talkin' teacher burnout, travel burnout, jetlag, holidays, and bigggg life decisions. And soooo, without further ado, in an effort to stay true to my transparency promise, I give youuuu, The Honesty Chronicles.

Here's Part 1.

4C4D6FFA-6B2C-432C-AE17-EAC1BB5ED967.JPG

When my winter break began, I was completelyyyy fed up with my job, fed up with winter, and fed up with Korea. I cleared my bank account and packed my bags for home. I realize this all probably sounds very dramatic, but it isn't... Truth be told, I'd already planned to return home for the holidays, and I needed to take extra money to put in my U.S. bank account anyway.

My journey home, on the other hand, was actually a bit dramatic.

The flight started out GREAT. I was one of the only (young) foreigners on the plane, and the flight attendant, Jack, a very Parisian, very middle-aged man, clearly enjoyed having another English speaking person onboard. When he offered me whiskey (WHICH I LOVE) I could not refuse... because who can? Later, he brought me chocolates... a bit odd since no one else got chocolate... but I love chocolate too, so I didn't ask questions. Free whiskey... free chocolates... I was feelinnnnn' the Christmas spirit. Sounds great, right?

Well, it was... unnnntillll, *enter drama* DUN DUN DUNNNNN.

You see, I occasionally do this thing on long haul journeys where I either get reallyyy light headed, or pass out all together. This time, I woke up mid-way through the flight feeling horrible and knew it was about to happen. I reached for the remote to find the flight attendant call button, but, thanks to my already blurring vision, had no success. Knowing that I had about 10 seconds before it was lights out, I decided to try my luck with walking to the back of the plane for help instead. Good idea, right?

Bad idea. I didn't make it.  

I took a bit of a tumble with a few rows left to go and smashed my head on the arm rest of some poor guy just trying to catch some ZZZ's... a scene which wasn't funny at the time, but is definitely comical to picture now.

Anyway, there I was... on Christmas Eve... on the floor... in the back of a plane... once again, sucking on an oxygen tank over much of Canada. I'm not sure why this happens... but I sure do wish it'd stop. (WHY CANADA?! This has happened in your airspace twice now!)

Once I arrived home, my time there was both good and bad - Bad because I had extreme cases of mental and physical jet-lag. Those who have travelled to a vastly different time zone know it can be hard to adjust to the time... Expats who have travelled home know it's hard to readjust to life there when you know you'll only be around for a few days.

On the other hand, going back was good. I was able to spend the holidays with family for the first time since 2014(!). I caught up with friends and old coworkers, and, most importantly, finally addressed some things that I've been ignoring and putting on the back-burner for years. I was able to hit refresh - and to remind myself why I chose to go back to Korea in the first place.

Way too soon, it was time to leave.

Early in the morning on New Years Eve, after pulling an all-nighter, I headed to the airport with my mom and younger sister. We watched the sun come up on our drive down I-40, which was VASTLYYYY different than how I spent the morning of New Years Eve the year before... (I spent it in a hot air balloon over Melbourne - see below photos for evidence).

IMG_4293.JPG
95E37568-765F-402D-9EE7-9AD3E3CD040F.jpg

What was even more wild is that on that morning, thanks to snapchat and instagram, I was already seeing my friends in Oz and Asia beginning their New Years festivities. (Fast forward - During my flight from Newark to Beijing, I purchased the inflight wifi... and from over 30,000ft in the air, proceeded to watch 2018 begin for my mates in Sydney, Korea, Bali, Thailand, Ireland, and, finally, the States. I'm tellin you, the Instastories and snaps were better than any of the inflight movies. But it was also very strange. Time is weird... aka time is a man-made phenomenon that doesn't actually exist...).

Anywayyyyy, rewind...

When we got to the airport in Raleigh, it was no surprise that my bag was overweight. Bronzer isn't a thing in Korea, and neither are my mixed girl hair products, soooo I had to stock up. Also, FYI... some cosmetics in Korea contain bleach (because everybody wants to be pale), and, as I'm not trying to take my chances, or pull a Michael Jackson on anyone, I continue to buy my makeup from the States. 

By some New Years Eve miracle, they didn't make me pay for my overweight bag. Instead, their solution was to give me a loaner bag to redistribute some of the weight in to.

I checked both bags, said my thank yous to the gate agents, some teary goodbyes to my family, and, completely unsure if I was ready to return to Seoul at all, began the 24+ hour journey back... a journey which, again, was not smooth sailing.

Since doctors can't quite figure out why I faint on flights, I've been told to alert the airline that it's a possibility. I had never done it before because I don't want flight attendants hawking me on 14+ hour flights. On this day, however, I was feeling a bit uneasy, and after my fainting was handled so poorly on my the home, I decided it wouldn't hurt to give them a heads up. Good idea, right?

Wrong. Bad idea... again...

I was nearly refused boarding... and that made me feel even more uneasy - thanks United!

I called my parents who, initially, told me I shouldn't fly... and my sister (a nurse!), who also told me I shouldn't fly. I told them all that I had to... and felt pretty good about it... after all, I had to get back to work... and my luggage was already checked through to Korea. I really felt like I could do it... until I boarded the plane and started thinking about justttt how long 14 hours really is. I nearly fainted right then.

If we had taken a second longer to taxi out, I would have gotten off of the plane. I had already been scoping out the overhead bin my bag was in AND planning my exit - That's how freaked I was. When the plane finally began to move, I took some solid advice from a friend and did all that was left to do - took a few deep breaths.

I have flown SOOOO many times, and aside from fainting a few of them (which is really weird, I know), I have NEVER in my life been as nervous as I was that day.

I kept myself up for the entire flight. I got up to walk around more times than the parents with infants. The worst part - I didn't have a SINGLE glass of the free red wine. *Eye roll* - such a waste.

FINALLY FINALLY FINALLYYY, we arrived in Beijing... and I had yet another hellishly long layover with my BFF, the great firewall of China. Got some cool photos though... because when you can't aimlessly scroll the insta-feeds of busy strangers, might as well take pictures of them, right?

image 12.JPEG
7C5AFDDC-7DDD-484A-8730-3B98936BF7E4.JPG

After SIX hours, it was time to board my final... and sixth flight in less than a week.

A couple hours later, after 24+ hours of travelling, and seeing all my friends in literally every time zone ringing in the new year, I arrived back in Korea. Surelyyyyy, it would be smooth sailing from here, right? 

Wrong. I was there... but both of my bags weren't.

Remember that loaner bag I mentioned? The loaner bag that contained nothing but a Christmas gift bathrobe, some socks, a pair of shoes, and some random toiletries?? Well, that was the bag that arrived... with THREE WHEELS. My other bag... you know... the one with the coat I planned to put on because it was below freezing outside...? Yeah, that bag. Well, that bag wasn't there.

By the time I'd finished filing my missing luggage paperwork, and CARRIED my three-wheeled bag to the train, I knew there was no way I was going to make it all the way to my station in eastern Seoul before the metro stopped running... and I didn't. Just before my final transfer, the train reached it's last stop, and I had to get off to catch a cab... which took a while (as everyone else who was riding the train was trying to catch one as well). I wouldn't really have cared, exceptttt I didn't have my coat... it was below freezing... and was almost 1am... on January 2nd... and I'd been wide awake and in transit since December 30th.

I wouldn't wish how I felt that day on ANYONE - not even my dearest enemy... (You know who you are... I'm certain you're reading this... Yes, not even YOU).

There are certainly sunshine and rainbows to travelling... but whatever the opposite is... there's that, too.

Speaking of the opposite of sunshine and rainbows... I quit my job this week.

Wanna know the truth about living and teaching English in Korea? Read all about it in Ep. 2 of The Honesty Chronicles... coming soon.

(Edit - Episode 2 is my rant on Instagram. Read all about my experience teaching English in Korea here - Why I loved it… and why I left).

The Art and Encumbrance of Coming Home

Home is where your story begins...

...And, though Home may also be where your story ends, it definitely isn't your whole story... At least not for me.

21751823_10155642404448290_4530735161550612553_n.jpg

People say it's harder to come back home than it is to leave, and, in the four months I was there, I can say that this is completely true. Don't get me wrong... coming back home for more than five days (for the first time in nearly two years) was as heartwarming and wonderful as you'd think it would be. Everyone is happy to see you... they're happy to hug you, and to have a conversation that's not on a screen.

When you meet your friends after months of poorly timed text convos and missed FaceTime calls, they're all buying your drinks, and interested to hear your stories from the road. It's like you never skipped a beat.

Then, eventually, the novelty of you being back wears off... but, there you are... still back. Home is still home, and you're still you... except... you're not.

Unless you've done it, not many people can fully understand what it's like to touch down in a new, unfamiliar place... A place where you don't know anyone... where you don't fully understand the language, the currency, the transportation systems... and where the simplest tasks become a challenge.

You've learned to love foods you couldn't quite pronounce the names of, and played weird drinking games with strangers who turned in to friends. Sometimes your heart was so full, you felt like it could burst... and other times, it did... it absolutely shattered. You slept on floors, slept with bugs, and even slept in an aircon-less hut, in the middle of a random Thai island... where you fell in lust with a Spanish dive instructor... and you fell in love with life.

Unless you've done it, it's impossible to fully grasp the impact of all this... All of the beautiful souls you've met, the places you've seen, the things you've done, and the experiences that changed you.

After awhile, you stray away from telling these stories at all... because talking about "your favorite place in Thailand" or "that one time in Myanmar" just feels, well... pretentious.

I realize that I am so lucky to have had all of these experiences... and I know that not everyone can, will, or even wants to. I don't think I am better than anyone else, but there were times at home when I felt like I had to downplay the person I'd become... with old friends, new friends, and, sometimes, even family.  (Excuse my French), but F that. I worked really hard to get to where I am, and, as much as my parents have supported me, the life I've led was not handed to me... I made it happen for myself.

I quickly realized that watering yourself down is THE most self-deprecating thing you can do...

Because when you have to be excessively modest, to belittle your accomplishments, and to downplay your dreams JUST so everyone else in the room can feel bigger, well, then you have left little to no room for your own future growth.

After completing two overseas work contracts, two months of living out of a backpack, nearly two years of non-stop travel, and three days of being home, I did the gut wrenching, but inevitable, thing that any long-term traveller eventually has to do. I got a job... and a few days later, I got another job. I was back in the service industry, and back to my old home antics... Working non-stop. Almost immediately, my personal growth came to a screeching halt.

One of my main reasons for returning home was to see family, but because I was constantly in a server apron taking orders, or behind a bar pouring drinks, that never really happened. And when I wasn't making people's drinks, I was consuming them... sometimes at alarming rates (because, well... days off were hard to come by... and when we had one, we went all in).

I wasn't growing, I wasn't changing. I was working myself in to the ground, but I wasn't working towards anything. I had hit a standstill, and I damn near started moving backwards.

Two months flew by, and by the end of June, I couldn't stop thinking about Seoul. I missed the city that never sits down. I missed teaching, my students, my sushi mom, and the incredible subway system. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I hadn't been ready to leave because I wasn't finished with this city yet... or, rather, the city wasn't finished with me. My purpose here hadn't been fulfilled, and I hadn't quite finished this chapter's transformation.

Coming back to Seoul just made sense.

It's somehow been nearly a month, and I am loving this city even more than I did the first time around. I've reconnected with some old friends, made some new friends, and even get to see some of my old students. My new neighborhood is awesome, my new kindy kids are adorable, AND I GET TO HAVE WEEKENDS! AND HOLIDAYS (which, you bartenders know is un.heard.of)!

Overall, I'm focused, happy, and, to put a long story short, I am truly living my best life.

For whatever reason, I thrive in the unfamiliar... but, this time around, Seoul isn't completely unfamiliar. I've figured out just enough to where the city isn't totally daunting. I'm comfortable here, and don't feel completely out of place... it feels a bit like coming home.

In a city where next to no one knows my name, I have an easier time remembering who I am... and more importantly, who I want to be...

...(And don't worry, they whole "Impending North Korean Nuclear War" thing is TOTALLY being blown out of proportion by the Western media. It's fine... I'm fine).

Burnout and Heartbreak in Siem Reap

 
 

Travel burnout is a very real thing, and, after a month of nonstop travel, it hit me like a freakin’ wave.

Things had become rocky with the person I’d travelled with in Indonesia, and I can now attest to the many horror stories I’d heard about traveling with close friends – (10 out of 10 would not recommend).

I was exhausted...

Tired of airports. Tired of living out of a backpack. Tired of not knowing when I’d be able to do laundry. Tired of not being understood... And I’ll tell ya what, this exhaustion and burnout could not possibly have come at a worse time.

Cambodia was about to rock my world.

 
 

 

Before visiting the country, I saw a lot of your typical, travel blogger-esque photos. You know the ones I’m talking about… Pretty girls wearing pretty dresses, and probably a sunhat of sorts, strolling through temple ruins. Based on these and these alone, Cambodia looks picture perfect.

I still wonder where people go when the only thing they have to say about Cambodia is how beautiful and amazing it is. Sure, the temples are breathtaking... And, yes, the lights and competing Top 40 tunes blaring from Pub Street’s booze carts make for a fun night out… That is, if you get drunk enough to overlook the barefoot kids begging tourists for money late in to the night.

After having been there, I’ll say this… Yes, it is a beautiful, amazing country, as rich in history as it is in heartache. The poverty and hardships still faced by much of the population were indisputably visible… and, as someone who wears my heart on my sleeve at all times, I found it hard to come to grips with this gruesome reality after witnessing it first-hand.

 
 

Here’s a little history lesson for ya...

Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians through execution, forced labor, and starvation. This (very recent) genocide resulted in the loss of a quarter of the population, including many of the country’s doctors, politicians, teachers, scientists, and anyone else who was viewed as a threat to the regime.

Families were separated, and, instead of going to school, children were put to work or trained to fight. The devastation that took place under Pol Pot in these four years has had lasting negative impacts on the Cambodian people, and millions of undetonated landmines and ordinance still litter the country today.

 
 

After reading up on the history of Cambodia, I knew it would be a tough country to visit...

...I had no idea just how tough it would be, or how much it would break my heart.

I knew I wanted to do something… anything… to give back while I was there, and, though it was only a small gesture, I opted to send my old teaching supplies to Siem Reap versus leaving them behind at my school in Seoul.

While researching reputable organizations, I read numerous articles about scams in Cambodia – Schools, orphanages, and even “non-profits” that, to put it simply, are not legit, and take advantage of tourists’ bleeding hearts. I made sure to find one that was legitimate… the Angkor Legacy Academy, located in the heart of Lolei Village, about half an hour outside of Siem Reap. After spending ₩150,000 on expedited shipping, and raising money to donate to the school’s community food program, it was finally time for me to make my way to Lolei myself.

Though I’d planned to volunteer at the academy and teach a morning English class, I woke up that particular day with a horrible stomach bug… and, if I’m being totally honest, an odd sense of anxiousness.

Cambodia was doing a number on me, and I was beginning to question whether or not the school in Lolei was like the ones I’d read about. I decided to sleep it off and headed to the school that afternoon instead.

Later that day, after shaking off whatever funk I woke up in, I hopped in a tuk-tuk with my driver Buffalo and we headed to the school. As hordes of tourists went in their vans and carts toward Angkor Wat, Buffalo and I turned down the road and headed in the opposite direction. For half an hour, we drove through absolute nothingness… empty road and empty fields for miles. Finally, we took a left onto a narrow dusty street marked with a sign for Lolei. We tuk-tuk’d along a little bit longer before stopping in front of a big, open air classroom.

As soon as the cart came to a stop in the drive, a dozen kids immediately rushed towards us. Unlike many of the other children I’d encountered on the streets of Siem Reap, they weren't asking for money or trying to sell me souvenirs. They were all politely smiling, introducing themselves, and asking my name. Two young girls reached for my hand as I got out of the tuk-tuk, and led me into the classroom. Then they spotted the big box Buffalo was carrying from the cart and their eyes lit up. The kids all crowded around, likely curious as to what was inside.

After figuring out who the teacher was, (which took a while, as she looked no more than 18 herself), I asked if I could speak to the director, Sovannarith. We’d been communicating back and forth for a month or more, and I’d called him earlier that day to let him know when I was on the way. Oddly enough, he was nowhere in sight.

The teacher gave me a confused look, (which I figured just meant I’d butchered the hell out of Sovannarith’s name), and went to get the director. The shirtless, potbellied man who walked out of a back room was most definitely NOT Sovannarith. He exchanged words with Buffalo in Khmer… and then Buffalo turned to me and said, “This is the wrong school.”

 

 
 

Of all the things that broke my heart in Cambodia, this damn near ripped it right out of my chest.

I apologized profusely, explained the situation, and did the only thing I knew to do. I opened the box intended for the other school, and emptied it of half its contents. The sheer gratitude for simple things like new pencils, notebooks, whiteboards, hair clips, and stickers was heartwarming... and also heartbreaking, because I wished that I could do so much more.

I said goodbye to the children, and Buffalo and I headed down the road to the other school. In the smaller, more rundown classroom, the kids gleefully went through the remaining contents in the box. Though they didn’t know the difference, I felt horrible that I’d given away half of the supplies. While they drew on their new white boards and emptied the box, I emptied my wallet. I gave Sovannarith the $100 I’d raised for his community food program, (and the rest of the US and Cambodian money in my wallet).

 
 

Just when I thought Cambodia had finished mentally and emotionally rocking my world, I had a chat with a volunteer who was teaching at the school and staying with Sovannarith’s family in the village. I told him what happened, and found out about an "orphanage" in the area.

At said orphanage, the kids were known for rushing to any volunteers who showed up in the drive. They would greet them the same way they greeted me. I put quotations on the word orphanage, because, supposedly, at this orphanage the orphans are actually kids who are bused from their homes... and their parents... to pose daily as orphans.

Like I said before, I'd done research on these types of places, and made sure to find a reputable school. Yet, as luck would have it, a fake orphanage is, possibly, exactly where I ended up.


I still have not fully processed the range of emotions I felt during my visit to Cambodia. I was in awe at the Temples of Angkor. I was happy to reunite with friends I’d met in Vietnam on Pub Street. I was heartbroken every time I gave money to kids on the street, and every time I turned them down.

That day in Lolei, I felt helpless, stupid, sad, and even a little angry. At the same time, I thought, who the hell am I to judge?

Whether or not that open air classroom, of a potentially fake orphanage, was filled with orphans or children with families, at least it gave these kids a safe place to play and to learn. If that’s their only option, or their best option, then who am I to say whether it’s right or wrong? Since I’m not sure about the legitimacy of this place, I’m really glad Bleeding Heart Kirst hadn’t given the director any money. I’d just given things that, hopefully, have been used and enjoyed by those kids… and I would do it again.

 
 

Siem Reap broke my heart... 

...and, all of a sudden, the global gallivanting I’d saved for and carefully planned for months began to feel really selfish.

I witnessed first-hand something I already knew, but that hadn’t quite yet hit home. The world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and travel isn’t as glamorous as Instagram makes it out to be.

If you’re anything like me, visiting Cambodia will be overwhelming.

Though you may feel hopeless and powerless, remember there’s always something that can be done to give back. I don’t know about you, but I’d take helping on a small scale over doing nothing any day… and, while in Siem Reap, I found a number of places and ways to do just that.

If you're planning a trip to the city, and are interested in finding out how and where to give back GET IN TOUCH.

For a better understanding of Cambodia and it's history, I highly recommend reading First They Killed My Father, a powerful memoir written by Loung Ung, a survivor of the Pol Pot regime.

Thoughts From A Stalled Speed Boat in the Bali Sea

Let me paint a picture for ya…

When I originally wrote this, I was sitting in the back row of a stalled boat in the middle of the Bali Sea… stuck somewhere between Lombok, Indonesia and Padang Bai.

We apparently hit a piece of drift wood, which in turn broke one of the propellers on the back of the fast boat...

 
 

 

Lots of people are freaking out… one girl is demanding another boat be sent to pick her up so she doesn’t miss her flight… another girl is yelling at the staff for laughing with one another while they work to fix it. An Indonesian girl finally translates what is going on for the rest of us on the boat… which still doesn’t keep the shouting blondie from literally losing her mind. She’s stands up to record the “incident” on her phone, and starts asking the rest of us why we aren’t speaking up about not feeling safe.

Though I did have many words to say, I only spoke up long enough to tell her to calm down and stop yelling at the men so they could do their job. Perhaps I was just still in an island state of mind, but I felt fine… and I’ll tell ya why.

 

Let me put the situation and their reaction in to perspective.

Though we were asked to get to the boat company’s office at 2:45 in the afternoon, it wasn’t until around 5pm that we actually boarded a boat. I was fine with all this… it gave me time to chill on the beach and grab another smashed avocado toast from Banyan Tree, (which was conveniently located just across the road from where we were waiting).

I can’t say that other people felt quite as relaxed. The same girl recording the boat incident… we’ll call her Blonde and Boujee… had been shouting at the guys from the boat company before we even left the island. At 3 p.m., when our boat hadn’t arrived, she wanted to know exactly what time that we’d be leaving. I’ll hand it to her… it is a bit frustrating having to wait around without knowing an exact time of departure… but, like most things in Bali, the boats run on island time… Meaning they get there when they get there.

 

If there’s anything I learned from the two entire days I spent getting to and from Gili Trawangan, it’s that it’ll most likely take an entire day to get to or from Gili Trawangan. Booking a flight for the same day, or expecting that you’ll be able to make it to your destination an hour or two after the quoted departure time is just not realistic… (and very poor planning).

No, it is not ideal to rush to get to the beach early for a boat… I scarfed down my delicious lunch, rushed back to check out of my villa, and then sat and waited around for hours before it was finally time for the boat to depart. No, it’s also not ideal to be on a boat that breaks down in the middle of the ocean as the sun is going down... But here’s the deal… shit happens. And when it does, you deal with it.

 

The men on the boat quickly responded to the mishap, and got to work fixing the back propeller. So what if they were whistling while they worked? They were likely joking around and making light of the situation so as to not alarm anyone on board. When asked when the boat would be fixed (by the girl who feared she’d miss her flight) they responded with “Waiting… Ready… Go,” and I don’t think I could possibly describe “island time” any better. Their candidness was totally counteracted by the various bitching blondies who quite successfully raised my very chill blood pressure a few hundred points.

Within the half hour, the men had the boat running smoothly and we were breezing (quite quickly) over fairly choppy ocean waters. It made me a bit nervous (thanks to my raised blood pressure), but it wasn’t my first boat ride and we all arrived to Padang Bai in one (slightly stressed out) piece.

 

Overall, if you plan on travelling by boat to and from Bali’s surrounding islands, remember these few things...

  1. Keep your "timeliness" expectations low.

  2. On that note... Be flexible

  3. Take your pills - (both your sea sickness meds and your chill pills).

  4. Relaxxxx. You’re on a flipping island (or commuting to/from one).

 

This was not the first time I found myself on a non-functional boat in the middle of the water on my Asia trip. No, it's not the most picture-perfect scenario... but I've found that real, RAW travel rarely is.

If you can’t enjoy the ride, despite the curve balls or driftwood that may come your way, ya might as well just keep your uppity ass at home.

 
 

An Open Thank You Letter to the Parents Who Gave Me the World

Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving, is one of the biggest, most widely celebrated holidays in Korea. The celebration of the Autumn Festival is a time for families to come together, visit ancestral homes, and, of course, to feast. For many expats in Korea, the long holiday is also a chance to get OUT of Korea.

After a seemingly long two-day work week, I headed to Taiwan for what has been an incredible solo adventure. Despite multiple typhoons in Taiwan this weekend, I have had the best time. While sitting at temples in the rain, gazing at the intricacies of architecture, and soaking in the beauty of the Northern coastline, I have had several moments of pure clarity. I have been left totally speechless, and, on more than one occasion, stunned to tears because, after years of dreaming about seeing Taiwan, I can’t believe that I’m actually here.

This Chuseok, I am thankful for the opportunity to travel the world, and for the once in a life time experiences I’ve had doing so. Though I couldn’t spend the holiday with my family, they have been constantly on my mind. Whenever I go to a new city, I can’t help but to wish I could share it with them – Pictures very rarely do a place justice. They show how it looks, but never how it makes you feel.

In the spirit of being thankful, I would like to say the ultimate thank you to my parents. Thank you for giving me a gift that is second to none. No, I’m not talking about the gift of life… Though I am obviously very thankful for that, I think that’s more God’s gift to you. (Admit it... Life would be pretty boring without me).  ;)

The gift I’m most thankful for was a bit of a package deal. The first part was roots… and the second was wings.

 

Mum and dad, you both did your fair share of traveling before settling down and starting a family, so I think it’s safe to say that I have you to blame/thank for the incurable travel bug I’ve had since I was a kid. Thank you for understanding my insatiable desire to see the world, to meet people and learn their language, and to live life on the edge… (oftentimes in quite a literal sense).

Thank you for instilling in me a solid set of morals - because our values are the most valuable things we have.

Thank you for teaching me to keep an open mind; a mind ready to be filled with all of the new sights and experiences it would encounter. Thank you for instilling in me a solid set of morals – because our values are the most valuable things we have. You taught me how to treat people… not by telling me, but by setting the ultimate example. You showed me how to stay strong in tough times and how to fend for myself. You taught me to chase my dreams and, at all costs, to never ever stop running. I learned to be accountable for my actions, and found that if I'm not satisfied with the way my life is going, I am the only one to blame. These are lessons I carry with me wherever I go.

Though I was far from being the worst kid growing up, I wasn’t the best either. Thanks for never giving up on me and for always making sure that I had a great childhood. Thank you for my roots - for giving me such a beautiful place to call home… And thank you for letting me leave. In doing so you have given me the opportunity to grow, change, and realize my true potential in ways I never could have by staying at home. You gave me wings and your blessing to pursue the life of my dreams – a life of wander, wonder, and adventure. You gave me the world.

I’ve noticed that the world could use a little more “thank you’s”. We may be grateful, but we so rarely openly express it – unless of course it’s almost the fourth Thursday of November. Mum and dad, you’re amazing, and I definitely don’t tell you enough how much I appreciate you. I don’t know if I’ll ever truly be able to express how thankful I am to have you, but hopefully this is a start. I love you always.

I'll be home for Christmas... in July

As a hagwon teacher in Korea, you’re typically only guaranteed two lengthy vacation periods per contract. By lengthy, I mean one week in the summer and one in the winter… and, by one week, I mean five work days. Given that these breaks are not frequent, anytime a long-ish weekend does come around, I usually go somewhere – either outside of Seoul or to a nearby country, (and there is no shortage of epic destinations to choose from).

Bali, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Guam, Singapore... These were among my top tentative summer vacation destinations, and, with a solid week off, I could have easily visited one or more of them. I never, (and I mean never), imagined that I would spend my week off going back to North Carolina. It seemed silly to go over 7,000 miles for such a short amount of time. Then, one night, I had an all too vivid dream about home. I woke up the next morning in a huge funk and immediately started searching flights back to North Carolina. They were expensive, but I knew that I could make it work.

I have always been a family oriented person, and, even though, (like most families), we have stupid, trivial disagreements, being away from them for so long is the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced. Now, despite living on the other side of the globe, my family and I are surprisingly closer than ever. I’m so grateful that they’re supportive of my travel and career goals, but a year is a long time to go without seeing the people who matter to you the most.

Though I have missed home this year, I’ve also had a truly incredibly time that is, quite honestly, difficult to put into words. I’ve had some pretty culturally shocking experiences, but nothing could have prepared me for the reverse culture shock I experienced when I came back home.

The thing they don’t tell you about traveling is how strange it feels to go back to your old stomping grounds. When you leave home, it’s like you’re removing yourself, a single piece, from a puzzle. While you’re gone, you grow, you change. You become a bigger, better, more colorful version of the person you once were… and become more of the person you’re meant to be… and when you go back home to that puzzle, you will likely find that you don’t exactly fit there anymore. Home is the same, but you’re not.

Going back home for a week cured my homesickness in more ways than one. It was so nice being able to spend time with family and friends, but I was also reminded why I started this journey in the first place. About mid-way through my trip home, I got really sad about having to leave so soon. Then I went to have lunch with my mom at the restaurant where I used to bartend. It was dark, dead, and filled with employees and managers that I didn’t recognize. They all looked pretty miserable, and I was reminded how lucky I am to finally have a job that is both rewarding and challenging.

There is a time and place for everything, and I had my time to live and work in my hometown. It was an awesome place to grow up, and I miss it all the time… but there is so much more out there to see and experience, and I am enjoying the hell out of doing just that.

It’s cliché but oh so true that the world is a book, and those who don’t travel just read one page. Maybe home is the best damn page in the whole book, and, like I said, I love my hometown… but if you never leave and experience anything else, how will you ever know? How can you ever truly appreciate it? Leaving home and living abroad has been the best choice I’ve ever made. I now have a greater appreciation for other cultures and for the place I call home.

While I was at home, a lot of people said things like, “Wow – Asia… Must have been quite the culture shock going there,” and, yes, it has been, yes. I told them funny stories about couples’ outfits, squat toilets, and convenience store hopping. What I didn’t tell them is that the real culture shock had been in coming home.

The biggest reverse culture shocks were

1)    The lack of Wi-Fi.

I got bored on the plane and linked up to United Airlines’ Wi-Fi service… so, I literally flew all the way from Asia to America surfing the web and checking in with family and friends. When I landed at the New Jersey airport, my American SIM card wasn’t working and there was not a single open internet connection to be found. Given that, in Seoul, you can link up to wifi on the subway, walking down the street, and in just about every coffee shop I’ve ever been in, the fact that I couldn’t connect in an international airport was a bit ridiculous.

2)    All of the English.

HOLY COW. I landed at the airport in the states and I could understand EVERYTHING that people were saying around me… which is more strange than you may think after a year of living in Asia. I kind of didn’t like it to be honest. Though Asia can be sensory overload with all of its flashing lights, new sights, and different smells, I found that being back in the states was an overload of English. I was unintentionally eavesdropping on everyone, and my brain was working overtime.

3)    People not knowing the difference between North and South Korea.

I had a long layover in Jersey, and approximately $0 USD, so I made my way to a currency exchange stand shortly after arriving. I didn’t see it on their exchange rate sign, so I asked the girl working the stand whether or not they exchanged Korean won. She responded, “Which Korea – North or South?” AS IF I HAD BEEN ON SOME SORT OF LEISURELY VACATION TO HANG WITH KIM JUNG UN. I was baffled, given a very quick reality check that I was back in America, and that's all I have to say about that.

4)    The bars. They close early… And you have to tip.

Even though I used to be a bartender, I’ve gotten really accustomed to not having to tip in Asia. Thankfully, I didn’t buy many drinks back home. I only went out a couple of times at home, but the nights ended way too early due to the 2 a.m. closing time.

5)    What public transportation?

Speaking of going out, I had forgotten how hard it is to get around in the States. Thank goodness I had a little sister to be my chauffeur for the week... except for that one time my dad was my DD. 

After a year of living in Seoul, I’ve also become accustomed to just hopping on the train or in a cab at the end of a night out – but the subway doesn’t exist in Greensboro, and Uber rides from Greensboro to Pleasant Garden will cost you a limb or two. I was super grateful when my dad offered to pick me up after a night out at Jake’s (a laid back Greensboro bar, whose floppy chips I have dearly missed). At the end of the night, he came and picked me up – like walked into the bar and everything. The Kirst of the past would probably have been MORTIFIED by this, but I was extremely excited and introducing him to my friends. Shout out to you, dad – you’re the best.

 

In addition to these “reverse culture shocks,” seeing the political circus that is the American presidential campaign, via the US media, was enough to make me not too sad about leaving for another year abroad.

Despite the long journey back to the states… (which involved passing out in-flight, spending about an hour over Canada on oxygen, barely adjusting to the time zone, going to a year’s worth of doctor visits in a matter of days, and turning right around to come back to Seoul), and the reverse culture shocks… I am so glad I took advantage of my summer vacation to go home.

Don’t get me wrong: I would have loved to sun bathe in Bali or sightsee in Hong Kong for a week. I’ve still got an extreme case of the travel bug, and love flying off to new places as much as the next person, but sometimes it takes leaving to find out there's no place like home. Words really can't describe how thankful I am for the time I was able to spend with my family this summer. Playing darts with my dad, chatting with my mom on our back deck (and actually being able to see the stars), taking on Target with my sisters, celebrating Christmas (in July), baseball games with old friends, eating all the Bojangles I could handle, and hanging out in my cozy living room watching RedBox movies with my family and my dog was EXACTLY what I needed.

The truth is, places will always be there. Bali isn’t going anywhere, and home isn’t either… but people won’t always be around, so you have to take advantage of the time you can spend with them. I’m so thankful to have family and friends who made the trip so worthwhile – see you all soon… maybe for next Christmas in July.

The Kylie Jenner Year: 7 Things I've Realized in 365 Days Abroad

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.