It has now been six months that I have lived abroad. Not only is this now my longest sojourn away from my birthplace, but I mark the halfway point in my life in South Korea. If plans don’t change drastically, it will be another eight months until I return to Colorado, but I will save discussion on those particular plans in hopes that I will be able to share them with you as I live them.
As my last few posts have noted, this segment of my life has been a bit crazy. I’m actually not quite sure how this situation has developed, but I seem to be as busy as I was back in college, and those were the longest days of my life until now. I can’t blame it on work because technically, I am only working about 32 hours a week. That’s a part time job. If I were as productive as so many working class Americans, I would be able to hold a parallel job. In a way, I’m trying to prepare myself for my next career, but this post is not about the future. For a few minutes, I’m going to look back.
For the past few weeks, I have been consumed by an idea. It involves a life that is effectively eons away, but that will require my constant preparation until it begins. In my efforts, I have completely abandoned one of the most important parts of progress: recognizing how far we have come. I set off from my safe shoreline not purely to run from the things that scared me (though that was part of it) nor did I seek out new areas of the world for the sake of pure curiosity. I set sail in this new life as a way to force upon myself a growth that was impossible in the stagnation of my old ways. At first glance, the changes have not been so fundamental. In fact, many of the changes I experienced during my break from the old life I led over a year ago have drifted strongly back into this one. Some of my old tastes in music have returned, my addiction to Facebook and social media is flaring up, and my tendency to find a quiet corner of a cafe to plug in my earbuds and shut out the world has become routine. These things though are quite superficial in light of the ways that my entire life has changed.
During my final year at the Academy, I had settled into a twisted sort of comfort in the routine. Wake up around 6:00 am, get dressed in the dark because my roommate was the night owl, go to formation at 7:00, go to breakfast, go to class, etc., etc., ad infinitum. It was strenuous and demanding, but it was comfortable. When I describe my life to people who have never seen the inner workings of a military college, they are astounded that I endured four years of it. By the end, though, it was just another daily routine. Honestly, sometimes I miss it.
I have started to reach that point again with my new life. I recently read my the first two posts that I published from Korea on this blog. I was still one of those outsiders, amazed by everything and unable to imagine life as a local. Though I still try to stay in that space between tourist and local, the comfort that comes with even the most draining of routines has set in. In the same way, the days are long, the weeks are fast, and the months run like water through my fingers.
Finally, the madness has stopped for just a moment. I will take this moment to look back in critical evaluation of where I have been and how far I have come.
There is a feeling associated with the two weeks of orientation I attended when I first arrived in Korea. It’s the rush of excitement slathered in pure anxiety. Over a few days of rushed, over-lectured training sessions, I had to mentally prepare myself for a life of what many people have listed as their greatest fear: public speaking. Though I had gotten small bits of practice in college, the idea of leading half a dozen classes of business professionals through lessons in a subject I never seriously studied terrified me.
As I sat on the second floor of what would become my favorite cafe in Keondae, I stared out the window at the scores of coupled college kids strolling the brightly lit street, my pulse unsteadiable and my mind ungatherable. In less than 10 hours, I would meet my first class, and I had no idea what I was doing.
There was no screaming cadre or running classmates as there had been when I arrived at my military college, and that almost made the experience worse. I’ve learned how to take a stern correction, but in my classroom, there would be no one to make those corrections. It would just be me, completely dependent on my own preparation (which proved to be useless) and my ability to improvise.
At this morning’s daybreak, I sauntered out of my apartment relieved that I would only have to speak in front of college kids, engineers, CEOs, and housewives instead of handling a roomful of kids. When I left the military, I knew I needed to learn some new skills. Language fell through, and writing is to me a basic necessity for anything I want to do. I had never considered how useful six months of public speaking could be for if not mastering, at least becoming comfortable with the task most people fear more than death.
I have also come to view money and time in a vastly different light than I had before. Sometimes I think back to my college days or even the months after, and I remember how damn stingy I was. I often didn’t have a good reason, but I was always saving for something at some indeterminate time in the future. In my life of pseudo-nomadic travel, I have learned new principles of spending currencies of both monetary and temporal value.
When I spent a semester on exchange at the US Air Force Academy, I was only 100 miles from my home. That’s about half the distance from Seoul to Busan. Yet, I was acutely aware of the fact that each journey would cost about $40 and four hours round trip. I made the journey maybe half a dozen times over the semester. I recently, without hesitation, spend double the time and money for half the vacation to meet an acquaintance whom I had met only twice before. Granted, Felix and I got along quite well, but the deliberation was somehow always harder when visiting my family and the woman whom I had recently asked to be my wife.
In the commodified world of the stable consumerist society from which I come, money was the great determiner, and time was only money’s ever-passing manifestation that must be harnessed for optimum productivity. Today, there is no such definition. Though my work, my studies, and my preparation demand me to be responsible with both my time and money, a moment of mindless leisure or a brief meeting with a friend is always worth the cost if the resources are available. Leisure should not be something we schedule around work, but precisely the converse. A jaunt across the city to see a friend for a few minutes is always worth the cost of travel because a friend who only comes when it is convenient is no friend at all.
In a similar vein, I have set myself on a path consistent with a goal I had set before I began this journey. In college, I was an exceptionally successful student. I mastered the subjects my instructors told me to, and I succeeded in just about every challenge the Academy threw at me. When I graduated, though, I may have had a pretty resume and some extra fancy pieces of paper, but was conspicuously short on friends.
In a way, I was extremely lucky to have graduated when I did. With the condition of the military, training moved slowly, and I had a lot of time to kill while I waited my turn to start. I used that time to contemplate such questions as secular morality, religious belief, and the meaning of life. I came to the conclusion that we, as sentient beings with no definitive predestination, must determine our own purpose. Though a full development of the idea is beyond the scope of this post, our evolutionary origins, modern progress, and future potential lead me to believe that our purpose is inherently social. To arrive where we have today and to go where we can tomorrow, we must have worked and must continue to work together.
When I set off, I recognized that my new life would no longer be one in which I must choose between work and society. It must be one in which one is inextricably intertwined with the other. Now that I have begun a career in education, my days necessarily lead me through hours of intimate social interaction with my students, colleagues, and other friends. My constant participation in Couchsurfing has helped me make close connections with friends around the world. An explanation is necessary and soon to be forthcoming, but my next career almost certainly will involve science education.
These days, I am constantly looking forward – I have much to look forward to – but my gaze has caused an inability to focus on the present. As has been spread through many progressive circles and as I have experienced myself, living in the present is the surest method of maintaining a satisfied and comfortable life. However, unvarying focus on the present misses out on life attributes like fulfillment and accomplishment, two things that I know make me a happier person. The best route, as in almost anything else, is balance. This has been an attempt to balance my obsession with the future with a motivational look at the past.
I have come a long way, but I have a long way to go. Soon you will read of my new direction, and in a few short months, I will be casting off for yet another new horizon. This is, though, only the halfway point in my current adventure. There will be plenty more stories to come, hopefully each one even more amazing than the last.