Coming off of a very long Saturday and an even longer week, I was grateful to have time to sleep in this Sunday. After spending some time at the office preparing for class and taking an hour to catch up with my parents, I wandered around to corner to a restaurant I had previously visited with some of my coworkers. A detail I had forgotten, this restaurant was a favorite of the locals. With no English to be seen and a staff that spoken exclusively Korean, this cozy little eatery was the full Korean experience. Though glad to enjoy the delicious food of this nation, I am always a bit anxious about dining alone because I know I am doing something wrong. Today was no exception. Recognizing half of the name of a dish different from what I had eaten the last time, I did my best to sound out the name while ordering. In response to a follow up question from the waitress, I did my best to politely tell her that I did not understand. Assuming it was a question about wanting another food item, I answered in the affirmative.
When the meal arrived, I realized that it was completely different from what I had expected. Noticing my confusion, the waitress tried to explain what I was supposed to do with the array of dishes she had laid before me. No less confused, I timidly picked at the bowl of plain lettuce, bowls of boiling stew, and set of side dishes. Recognizing that some people at other tables had begun to notice my ineptitude, I resolved to start eating quickly to finish as quickly as possible. However, after only a couple minutes, an elderly man came by my table on his way to the register to pay. He gestured at the different bowls until I took the correct action to put these unfamiliar foods together. Seeing that I understood, he smiled kindly, nodded, and turned back to the register to pay and leave without another word. This helpfulness has become all but incessant since I arrived here. I came here to learn, and the Korean people have done their best to teach me.
Despite all of this welcoming kindness (and perhaps because of it), this week has been the first week that I have felt the emotional challenge of being abroad. My mind has been constantly wandering back to the comfortable life I once lived. Even the life in Florida that I could not wait to escape has been flashing nostalgically with emotions of longing for return. Images of pulling on my flight boots, watching Pearl Jam in New Orleans, sitting in front of our lit Christmas tree, bringing Langley to the dog park, and meeting VIPs at the Confucius Institute’s inaugural dinner on Pensacola Beach. Even images from my lonely new life in the fall – running to the gym before sunrise, watching movies alone on Friday nights, spending hours in the kitchen with my culinary experiments, and falling asleep on a slowly deflating air mattress with Napoleon on my chest – have infiltrated my consciousness on a daily basis. Though prominent when my mind comes to rest, even in the middle of leading a class, these flashbacks derail my train of thought. At first, it was benign. However, now that I have been pushing them away for days, the emotional baggage they carry has begun to pile up. Even here, while writing in a busy coffee shop, I had to stop for a minute or two after writing each moment mentioned above for fear of having a complete emotional breakdown here in the cafe.
I will not try to deny that I enjoyed my life before moving out here. Things were good. Often, they were very good. Yet, this life of adventure and new experience is exactly what I had dreamed for so many months. Now that I am realizing, I cannot stop thinking about the life I left. Even though I recognize that I could never have that life again, my irrational desire infects my conscious mind with a longing that sucks like a parasite on my happiness.
All of these moments share the attached feeling of comfort. These were the routines and simple moments of my life in the United States. These were the moments in which I felt relaxed because I could do them without thinking. These moments have been nearly unseen since my move to Korea. Even when I have met with Americans or other English-speaking expats, my introverted anxiety keeps me from finding those moments of comfort. Though I have cleaned up my apartment, I am still not completely comfortable there. Teaching remains an ever-changing challenge, and my athletic releases have either required the creativity of finding ways to work out in a new city or the conquering of my lack of confidence on the soccer field. Even writing and playing music have their unsettling nuances. Everything in my life is new. Nothing is familiar.
This is exactly what I asked for. I have cast off from that comfort. I have set my sails toward new horizons over which I expect all to be new and nothing the same. To learn is my objective, and it is through this immersion that I will do as much learning as fast as I can. It feels like I have so little time to see so much in this world. To settle in the comforts of a home is to sit still, watching the seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years tick away while my biological clock slowly winds down to its end, devoid of mind-opening experience upon which my soul feeds. Chris McCandless, brought to fame in the novel and film Into the Wild, once wrote, “The core of man’s spirit comes from new experience.” I couldn’t agree more, Mr. Supertramp. Though I feel anxiety, I feel excitement. Though I struggle with the stress, I feel resilient. Though the work fatigues me, I feel alive.
I have traded my comfort for adventure, and I refuse to look back. Sooner or later, I will need to deal with the emotional pile-up that is taking place in my subconscious, but even then, I will know that this is the price I pay. This constant adjustment, subtle and not-so-subtle anxiety, and the continuous struggle of learning are all part of investment I am making in a fuller and more meaningful life. Tonight, I am hosting another pair of backpackers. When I look at them, I see the constant change that is in their life, and I know that I am not far behind. Perhaps by the end of my year here in Korea, I will have found places and moments that feel comfortable, but this time next year, I will be off again into the unknown. It is my life for the foreseeable future, and learning to accept it will be part of the growth into the person I want to be.