My 11am class didn’t show up again. It happens fairly regularly. My one consistent student broke her ankle earlier this week, and the others are on and off. Given that it’s the short week between two holidays, I didn’t expect much. This morning, though, I had one guest. An occasional sit-in student from another class, she hesitantly crept into the empty classroom five minutes after the hour just as I was getting hopeful that I could take off early to make it to the Russian visa office in the city.
Only half prepared to give a lesson, I welcomed her and started the usual small talk. We glossed over the lesson quickly and moved on to the conversation portion of the day. In guiding was was effectively more small talk, I helped her get out her thoughts on the day’s topic of manners and etiquette. Much to my surprise, in response to a question about the transformation of manners, she told me that she thought people were becoming more polite. Growing up in a society in which complaints of rude and undisciplined youth are incessant, I had expected the opposite answer. However, she made a good point that the older generations grew up in rural areas where etiquette and decorum were unimportant while kids now grow up in huge cities like Seoul where they now have to figure out how to live alongside each other. She actually used my own hypothesis (refer to my synopsis of China) to show my initial misconception when applied to the rapidly developed countries of East Asia. She seemed to revere the ingrained politeness of Western culture, so I naturally asked if she would like to work or live abroad someday. She immediately shook her head in embarrassment.
“Why not?” I asked.
“My English is not good,” she insisted.
“Ok, let’s say that you graduated from this program, you were certified at a C2 fluency, and you felt comfortable speaking English all the time. Would you go abroad?”
“You like it in Korea?”
She shrugged. “It’s ok.”
“Where do you think it would be better?”
“I don’t know. It’s ok in Korea.”
“Why don’t you want to go abroad?” I asked, now perplexed by her contradictions.
“I don’t like when things to be changed,” she stumbled out.
“You don’t like change?” I corrected.
“Yes. I just do the same thing. Every day. That’s my life.”
“That’s your life? That sounds like death!”
“Death?! Oh no!” She laughed, starting to blush. “You like change?”
“Don’t you miss your home? Your friends?”
I paused, thinking of my positive mood, lack of anxiety, and the excitement that I have found in my small adventures.
“Yes.” I answered. “But staying there wouldn’t be worth all of the incredible, amazing
experiences I’ve had since I left. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
That is a true statement. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. This was my first attempt at casting off the moorings of my old life, and I have made landfall in the most exotic of places. All things must end though, and I do not fear those endings. They are only transitions to new beginnings.
Leaving my old life in 2014 was probably the hardest thing I ever did, but it has opened me to a new world of possibilities, and I am eternally grateful that my partner and I both had the strength to do what needed to be done. When that door opened, this new life became visible. The far side was distant and the space between clouded, but I could see that it was good. It held wishes for a future that was impossible on the other side of that door. It may be true that the grass is always greener on the other side, and the pastures I saw were full of the sweet long grass that my hungry spirit longed for.
My new direction shared little in the way of its secrets for the future, but I was certain that I would seek them in whatever corner of the globe I could reach. The choice of South Korea was one of pure rationality. Teaching English was the most viable way to leave the comfort of my home country, and South Korea offered the most lucrative jobs for my experience level. In seeking this new life abroad I had three goals: pay off my school debt, experience living abroad, and determine a new path for my life.
I am proud to state that I have accomplished all of those goals.
On a cool Sunday evening in early September, I stood hunched over my computer, shoved between the potted plants on the stairway window sill. Taking advantage of the building’s wifi that doesn’t quite reach my room, I searched excitedly for train schedules, ferries, and hostels. Flipping between pages of university advertisements and transportation options, I totaled the cost of each leg of my proposed route. With each new interesting course of study, I added a leg to the journey. This being the last in a long string of nights of this type of research, I finally reached the point at which I was satisfied that I had located all of the stops I intended to make. The route was set and the costs tallied, and now I needed to know if it was was possible. Sifting through my bank accounts and hidden pockets of money, I totaled my net worth. In a spreadsheet, I compiled all of this information: destinations, transportation, lodging, visas, penalties, and the sum of all my current holdings and incomes. In a clearly marked cell, I wrote the formula to find the difference between my current debts, coming expenses, and available funds. If negative, the numbers would turn red, and I would start figuring out how to save the rest of the money. If black, my life would change immediately.
When I hit enter, the numbers stayed black.
I stood back and stared at the screen in awe. It’s positive.
For several months, I had struggled with the weight of a profession I now know I am in now way intended for. In a matter of months, my future plans which had once stretched for the better part of a decade in which I would bounce around Asia teaching English or sojourn in Australia to work the fruit farms had deteriorated into a race to get my life back on track as soon as possible.
It was earlier this summer that a completely rational and reasonable idea overcame me. In my haste to flee my old life, I had overlooked an entire region of the pasture that laid on the other side of my proverbial door. In pushing science and engineering to the back of my considerations for building a future, I confined myself to wandering incoherence as I tried to pin down potential careers for which I was wholly unqualified. It was on a fateful day of daydreaming about a future beyond the sweltering heat of this Korean summer and pervasive anxiety from entering another classroom full of screaming demon spawn that the veil was lifted. Like the myth of the shaman who revealed to the Native Americans the Spanish ships on the horizon, a chance reading of the name of a potential graduate program opened my eyes to a field I had never considered. Now it seems so painfully obvious that I can hardly imagine my life before this revelation. Today, any of the fields I had tossed around over the preceding year seem frivolous and petty in comparison.
One day in mid-summer, T’ew and I sat lethargically at a back alley cafe on the south side of the city. Neither of us had plans, so the sipping at the melting ice of our coffees continued with deep conversation about futures and philosophical struggles. He had recently returned from a jaunt in Northern Europe during which he felt his first real desire for a place of more permanent resettlement. It challenged his moral compass in that such a life would mean modern comforts and European privilege. It weighed on him that so many of his countrymen remained in poverty, under threat of disease and natural disaster, and that he had the opportunity to escape all of it. I shared this kind of guilt, knowing that the life I have lived was only possible because of the good fortune of my birth: a stable home, responsible parents, a solid education. Most Americans do not have the combination of good luck that I had when I was born. Though I felt this, I spoke not for myself when I reassured him that he should not feel guilty for trying to better his life. He should do so by all means and take solace in the fact that his work will benefit those whom he has left behind. We whom have been graced with this good fortune ought to use it to its fullest for the betterment of ourselves and the world.
Even at the time of stating it, I was blind to the ways in which I was limiting myself. With a degree in engineering, I was looking for ways to build a life as a political scientist, journalist, or hapless nomad. It was only on a fateful day of perusing fanciful future courses of study that I became aware of my ignorance. The title of the program was International Environmental Engineering. In most instances, I would have scrolled right past anything with “engineering” in it, but this one was buried deep in a list of international policy and sociology programs. I read it only seconds before putting away my phone to get on the train. As I stood in the gently swaying car, the beats of my headphones silencing the sounds of the other passengers, the idea twisted and weaved through my mind. Why had I run so vehemently from engineering? I love science. I love creating. I dream of doing something that will impact the world. What could be more perfect?
When I got to a place where I could open my computer, I started looking, and what I found excited me more than anything I had glossed over in all my months of searching. Piles of educational and career opportunities were open to me, and they all sat square in the middle of the three traits I think any appropriate career should have: passion, ability, and salary. The fields of environmental or energy technology engineering both cut at the heart of solving our climate crisis, an issue over which I become lividly impassioned when I hear doubters spew their ignorant rhetoric. My past education has laid the foundation for understanding the systems and technologies that those in these fields have used, currently use, and are still developing. Life is not cheap, but careers in engineering continue to be some of the most dependably lucrative in the world.
It had become clear that I was now headed back on the path of engineering, and one more objective became struck through in the mark of accomplishment.
Standing in the stairwell, staring at the single number on my computer screen, I felt an impending excitement welling inside me. I forced it below as I touched the keypad again and revisited the numbers. They were all correct. My brain jumped through the logical hoops in an instant. I have now lived abroad for over six months. CHECK. I have determined unequivocally that I will pursue a career in sustainable development. CHECK. I have now confirmed that all of my debts can be paid. CHECK.
I am leaving Korea.