118 days of legwork to get this sticker in my passport. Enough time to allow me to learn the Korean (Hanguel) alphabet and be able to sound out the words on it. Enough time to take two semesters worth of intensive French classes. Enough time to have eight skype and phone interviews. Make amazing new friends. Turn 24. Cut my hair off. Get two jobs. Run up a huge credit card bill. Pay it off. Twice.
That damn sticker is the gateway to a beautiful year in Suwon.
The visa for Korea is on the page of my passport facing the visa for Chile, incidentally still valid until May. It’s the beginning of the opposition of my two teaching abroad experiences, face-to-face, mano-a-mano. Wildly different countries. Languages. Histories. And yet some odd opposing overlap.
It doesn’t feel real yet, and probably won’t until I’m wheels up and rocketing West to go East a couple weeks from now. Each time I move to a country without ever setting foot within it, blind to the culture and language like a newborn, over my head in every sense of the phrase…it gets easier. So easy that by now, I’m not really worried at all. Not normal for my high-strung, catastrophist self.
This is despite reading a whole mess of Expat/TEFL/Whatever blogs from those who’ve gone before me, recounting the horrors of non-enclosed showers and crazed motorists. Warning me that my Hagwon will work me to the bone, never pay on time, and possibly even kill me. My apartment will be moldy and unclean when I move in. The food is disgusting and Koreans eat KimChi with everything. And worst of all, deodorant won’t be used!
It’s as if some of these teachers moving abroad never lived in another country. Most likely, they hadn’t. That’s awesome! So brave! But it’s tougher to make the transition if you have few cross-cultural adaptation skills and think that eating Outback is sampling local cuisine in Seoul.
I studied abroad three times. I lived abroad five times, once in one of the most remote regions of the world. My other career is advising university students on Study Abroad, on almost 400 programs in 71 countries. I’ve had five years of international education training. I’m motivated to learn the language.
I’m kind of a culture ninja. Plus I’ve learned not to trust the long, crazed-sounding, plaintive reviews that students and TEFL teachers alike write when their selections simply weren’t right for them (or larger issues were afoot–the “Hagwon Killing” above was the result of alcoholism on the teacher’s part). I know that 3% of my experience will be circumstances thrust on me, and 97% will be my chosen reaction to them.
This is certainly not to say that all will be easy when I move to Korea. It won’t. Things will go wrong. I will make mistakes. There will be days of homesickness. I’ll probably have at least one binge session on online Telenovelas. And there will be days when I question why I moved there in the first place.
The difference is, I can already predict those things. The process is familiar, even cozy. Transition is home to me.
My plan was always to go to Chile, return, and go to Korea. Even though the Chilean Adventure was at times overwhelming, shocking, aggravating, and/or terrifying…it was worth it to work with my kids and see 2% of what my lesson was attempting to teach actually sinking in. Those kids taught me more than I ever taught them.
I’d carried this necklace around my neck at all times since my last day at Escuela 5 in Puerto Natales, but I took it off about two weeks ago. The special education teacher, a saint, gave it to me.
“A little something to remind you that you will always be in the children’s hearts…”
She left me to open it in my classroom, amongst all my posters and games and scavenged scrap paper. I cried when I pulled it out of the bag. She fastened it around my neck.
“Bien hecho, Maestra.”
That private moment of recognition should have been what I held onto from the six months in Chile, but the encroaching darkness and stress crept in and blinded me. By the time I reached my last night in Magallanes, I was a teary, makeup smeared mess sitting on the floor of the bathroom in the Punta Arenas casino’s Skybar, looking out over the lights of the city and cursing the day I ever decided to move there. Frankly, some of my friendships didn’t survive that night. It was a dark moment.
But a tiny glimmer of hope snuck in almost undetected the next morning, a little coincidental cosmic wink to remind me that all was not lost. My last meal in the region was with a Korean immigrant, a seaweed-wrapped rice ball.
I’d tried to take a break from thinking about Chile and remove the burden of the necklace from me while I focused on other things. But these two chapters of my life are already inextricably linked. They were before I even left. And all that happens/happened with one place will guide me through the other.
The necklace is back on.