“What places are part of who you are?”
I have thought about this question so much over the years but had never seen it verbalized until just the other day.
I just read an amazing book called Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson. The author hitchhiked from the very bottom of Japan all the way to Hokkaido in the far north, following the Cherry Blossom Front. The book is more about his experiences with the people he met along the way than the things he saw. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
Anyway, he is picked up by someone who asks him about how his travels have shaped his life and in turn, Ferguson asks this question to his driver. What places are part of who you are?
I loved this question, as I’ve never really thought about it before. But without a doubt, the place that is the biggest part of the person I am today is South Korea. I always get nostalgic this time of year, as I left Korea in late August. Every year I am gone I miss it more, and every year away reinforces just how meaningful my year there really was. I’ve blogged about how homesick I was for Korea, and all of the things I miss about Korea and what it was like being teased by coming back for one night. Following in that tradition, I’ve been thinking about all of the ways Korea became a part of who I am.
It brought me out of my comfort zone in a big way.
Before going to Korea, I had never been away from home for longer than two weeks. I’d traveled through America, Europe and Latin America, but I was completely unprepared for life in Asia. It was overwhelming at first. Crowded, busy, and so utterly foreign. Walking around downtown Daegu was like walking through a kaleidoscope, full of flashing neon lights, strange smells, and blaring pop music coming from every store.
I grew to love it.
I feel so at comfortable in big Asian cities now. No matter how long it’s been since I was in Asia, I get there and feel like I’ve arrived back at home.
I learned to embrace other cultures and realized that ‘our’ way and ‘their’ way doesn’t mean one is right and one is wrong
The cultural differences in South Korea were enormous. Having to adapt was really hard. Even something simple like going to Costco was an interesting cultural clash. Same with school lunch. I spent a good chunk of time hating it, to be honest. In the end, though, it made me realize that just because Koreans do something different than we do doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Similarly, I understood that they looked at us the same way. More than anything, living in Korea was a lesson in tolerance and acceptance and I am a better person for it. I had my share of clashes, and ultimately I wish I had been more open minded the whole time I was there. I’ve carried that lesson with me wherever I’ve gone. Although it can be maddening having to live and travel and work with people who are from different cultures, I try to approach every situation with warmth and grace.
I fell in love with Asian food
Asian food is a huge part of my life. I love it all. I love the bold flavors, intricate ingredients, the different textures, the savory aromas. I love eating new Asian food and learning to cook Asian food. And to think that, before Korea, I’d only ever had Thai, sushi and Chinese takeout. My stomach went through some upheaval as I got used to new spices and oils, but now I can’t get enough of it. I could honestly eat it every meal of the day-just ask poor Husband!
Korea helped me take my love of travel to the next level
Without Korea, I would have never had the courage to travel the world as I’ve done. Korea taught me that I was tougher than I thought, that I was braver than I ever knew, that I loved the world and all its cultures more than most anything else in my life. It also gave me the funds to travel the world and to move to Australia for a working holiday the next year. Seriously guys, without Korea I would never have been able to have done any of that.
I learned to be comfortable being alone
Before Korea, I had never lived alone or traveled alone. Then I came to Korea, where I lived alone on the outskirts of a big city, but sometimes felt miles away from everything. I was fortunate enough that I could walk 20 minutes and get to the little city near my house called Chilgok, or I could hop on the bus and be in downtown Daegu in 40 minutes. At first, I hated it. I envisioned myself living in the middle of a huge city, leaving my house and finding dining, shopping and entertainment all on my block, but that was so not the case in my dong, or neighborhood. There were a few scattered restaurants, a couple convenience stores and a Wednesday farmer’s market. That’s it. Then I began to explore my surroundings, the lush, verdant green rice paddy down the street, the mountains that I could see from my classroom window, the tree-lined streets that were literally the last bit of civilization until you hit the next town over. I craved the solitude of the rice paddy, loved taking three hour walks each evening when the light was soft and the weather refreshing. I went to movies alone, out to eat alone, all prepping for my eventual RTW adventure I planned for when I left. I started to listen to my voice inside me, and I liked what she said.
I became a lot more patient
If you’ve ever taught children, you know the number 1 thing you need to have is patience. I am not the most patient person in the world, but I learned that I needed to work on that A LOT. Sometimes I wanted to lose my temper, but I couldn’t. Sometimes I wanted to quit and leave Korea, but I didn’t. Sometimes the kids were rambunctious, lazy, and unmotivated, but with a lot of patience, I eventually would get through to them and it was awesome to watch their English skills progress. I didn’t realize it at the time, but teaching was the most rewarding, fulfilling job I’ve ever had, and I learned why patience is a virtue.
I learned not to take myself and life so seriously
I wish I had learned this a lot earlier into my time in Korea. I spent so much time taking myself seriously and not enough time having fun and making irresponsible decisions. Once I decided to stress less and laugh more, I realized that life is so much more fun. It’s hard sometimes to stop and smell the yellow flowers, but when you do you’ll be much happier.
My heart healed
True confession: the #1 reason why I went to Australia is because my heart was so broken that I needed to leave where I was to do something radically different. It was the only way I could think of to heal. And it worked. Oh it worked! But not overnight. Being alone gave me a lot of time to brood on what had gone wrong in the past, and led to me writing some sad posts about the person I thought was the one that got away, But the more I did, the more I lived, the more I traveled, the more I immersed myself in Korea, the more my heart healed. I can’t lie and say I never thought about him by the end of my Korean life, but I realized I’d turned an emotional corner and my heart smiled again.
I learned there is always light at the end of the tunnel
Winter was hard for me. I lived 20 minutes from the closest bus stop and when the mercury dipped below 40 degrees (or 4 Celsius) I couldn’t bring myself to leave my house. I got depressed and it was really bad. That was also at the height of my black mold problem in my apartment, so I was always sick. My childhood cat had just died back at home and some days I didn’t know how I would even get out of bed, let alone work and socialize. But I did. Somehow. But eventually the sun came back out, the trees blossomed, and my depression lifted. Even today, when I feel like I am in a bad place, I remember those dark days in Korea and I know that this too shall pass.
While every place I’ve lived and been has shaped me in some way, I know that Korea had the most impact. Korea is where I grew up, became an adult, the woman I am today. I would be a shell of the person I am right now if I had not spent a year in that funky little peninsula in Northeast Asia. I had no idea when I boarded the Asiana flight to Seoul that I was going to experience what I did, the good and the bad, and that I would return home a stronger, smarter, kinder, more open-minded human being. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Korea, and the lessons I learned about love, life, the world, and myself. Thank you South Korea for making me who I am.
So readers, what places are part of who you are?