When I decided to teach English in South Korea, I had this romantic notion that everyone would be nicer there than in New York. I truly believed with my whole heart that I would have better friends there and that South Korea would solve all the problems of my life in the United States. I really thought that when I got there, everyone would roll out the red carpet for me and welcome me with arms wide open.
But these were just the thoughts of a young, naïve, and lost little girls. I didn’t realize that this was all a fantasy that helped me temporarily escape all the problems I was facing. In reality, South Korea is just like any other country on Earth. Therefore, this nation is not all good or all bad, but merely a complex amalgamation of both. As a result, this nation is home to both good and bad people, who have either good or bad intentions. And I met both types of people while teaching English as a second language.
I met people who tried to take my money, like my boss, but I also met the very people who saved my life when I needed to be saved the most, people like my dear friend Yoojin. When I was at my loneliest, she took me in, invited me to help her family make kimchi, and even made me, for the first time in a long time, feel like I was a part of something bigger than myself. I felt like I belonged somewhere and like I had people who really loved me, even though they looked and acted nothing like me. They just loved as I was when I needed it the most, and that I will never forget.
Before I left New York, I really had no idea how much I would need that type of love and support. When I signed that teaching contract, I didn’t understand that I would be totally alone, in a country where I did not speak the language and understand the national customs, values, and traditions. For the first time in my life, I would know what it feels like to be a total outsider. And that was the best and worst lesson I could have ever learned.
Yes, it felt terrible to feel completely separate from the place I called home. But, this feeling of loneliness forced me to find true friends and express to them how I really felt. I could no longer conquer the demons of my mind alone. I needed the love and support of the people in my life, and I found that because I was open and honest. But I would never have found this level of honesty if it wasn’t forced upon me by the circumstances of my life in South Korea.
I also learned what it’s like to be a minority in a country where I don’t speak the language and where people use that fact against me. I felt totally helpless and vulnerable because I could literally not understand what was going on and how to defend myself against a boss didn’t want to pay me, laughed in my face when I asked for my pay, and who abruptly told me that contracts mean nothing in South Korea.
But would I change this experience for the world? No. I became a stronger and more resilient person because of the controversy I encountered while living abroad. I now have a greater appreciation for the struggles and hardships that immigrants around the world face. My experience in South Korea shaped me into a more understanding, loving, and street savvy person, and I would not change that for anything.
Written By: Kelly Duhigg
Read more about her adventures here