Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Life in Korea: Expect the unexpected

How did I get here? To this very moment in time? 

This moment of me quietly sipping on cappuccino in Jeongeup, South Korea. Surrounded by constant stares from strangers, a room full of English textbooks, and my head spinning in directions I didn't know existed. 

How did all of my choices and heartbreaks and dreams bring me here. To this very moment and this very place. 

The last 30 days have been a blur of emotions and new beginnings. A fair share of excitement and mental breakdowns and everything in between. It wasn't always easy. But the good stuff never is. 

It started as it always does. Me desperately struggling through hugs and 'see you later's' and wondering what part of this is worth the agony of these seemingly never-ending goodbyes. I didn't know it then, but my hopes were high that I'd see the worth eventually. 

The first leg of my flight was direct to Shanghai. Out of the hundreds of people aboard the flight, I was the only foreigner. Literally the only person with blonde hair and blue eyes who spoke even a lick of English. I was immediately the center of everyone's attention, and felt sickeningly like a stranger in my own skin. It was the first time that I realized how quickly my life was about to change. How crushingly lonely this move could be. How I was about to be "that foreigner" for a very, very long time. Maybe much longer than I was ready for. 

I arrived in Busan, South Korea, way too many hours later and was thankfully instantly surrounded by hundreds of people in the same unimaginable boat. Also desperately recovering from jetlag and goodbyes and with no clue of how they got here either. We quickly bonded through 10 days of orientation, lectures, dorms, learning Korean, field trips, demo lessons, and infamous subway and soju dates.

And maybe best of all was that after a long and tedious 9 MONTHS of this process, we FINALLY found out where we were going and who we would be teaching. 

My fate? 

4 days of 7th - 9th grade at an all girls Middle School.
1 day of 5th and 6th grade at an Elementary School. 
Jeongeup, Jeonbuk, South Korea. 

Everything I'd envisioned about this year quickly dissipated. My stickers and hand clappers would be stored away and instead I'd be teaching classrooms full of teenage girls. TEENAGE GIRLS. I don't know who trusted me with this, but I had no choice but to embrace it. 

Just 15 hours later we were bused from orientation to our locations and all of my new friends were now friends who were dispersed to random and mostly far away places around the country. I was dropped off at my new apartment, and though I should've felt nothing but grateful, the reality was much more grim. I was tired, and sad, and I have never felt more alone in my life. 

So, I unpacked. 
Everything I had. 

I unpacked through tears and a few brief moments of crushingly loneliness and terror. Because if I didn't unpack then, I don't know that I ever really would have. I just wanted to go back to being comfortable, to see one friendly face, and to slap myself for how wrong I was in coming here. I wanted to turn around and leave before I even gave it a chance. 

Instead though, I put on my big girl pants and wandered. I wandered to the very first coffee shop I found. I opened my email and had a message sitting there from my very first friend. She introduced me to more friends, and before the day was over, I had 14 other once lost little souls in my corner to help me through the transition. It was the first time I felt a teeny glimmer of happiness, and the first time that I felt like things might actually be ok here. 

School started just 3 days later. This is when I discovered that instead of co-teaching all year as planned, I would instead be teaching alone. No one actually told me this though, I only found out when thirty-five 16-year-olds sat staring at me and no one else showed up. On that day or on any day since. In those moments of sheer panic, I had no choice but to be confident and roll with it. To make something out of nothing. To pretend that I knew what I was doing. To pretend that all eyes on me and being the center of attention wasn't desperately out of my comfort zone. To acknowledge that this was indeed my life. For the next year. And to figure it out somehow.

But that day just a couple of weeks ago was my last really hard day here. Because every day since then has been good. Not just good, but pretty freaking great. So great in fact that I am actually struggling to remember just how sad I really was. 

School has become easier. I finally have a schedule, and books, and for some reason unbeknownst to me, the kids might even like me. They bow, frantically wave hello, and bring me gifts of food and/or handwritten letters daily. They compliment my 'pretty blue eyes', constantly tell me I'm beautiful (hello ego boost), and try their best to speak to me in English, even when they don't have the words. I also have those 150 elementary students once a week to find energy in, play games with, and a better co-teacher there than I ever could've hoped for. I really do feel like I have the best of both worlds. And I know after talking to other people, just how very fortunate I am for this. 

And beyond work, life has been more unexpected than ever. I've made more friends than I can count, experienced my first (and second...) earthquake, and somehow fell more in love with Korea than I ever thought possible. It's been a crazy couple of weeks and I imagine this is only the beginning. 

So far, it's been a terrifying, beautiful, and comical experience and a life I never would have believed would be mine. A life so far fetched from what I envisioned that I can't help but laugh at the universe for bringing me here. To this place, with my coffee, and my lesson plans, in this teeny tiny corner of South Korea.