The Many Phases of My Life in Korea
Many people who live in Korea will describe their lives here as going from phase to phase. Life is constantly changing, no matter where you live in the world. But it’s even more so in Korea. People who move here don’t usually plan to stay forever. Some do, but you don’t meet someone with this plan often.
Because we are all here for a limited time, we end up having to say goodbye to a lot of friends. Some of them you know you will see again in the future. For others, you feel in your heart that your paths may not cross again. It’s a strange feeling. Making friends here is already a challenge, but letting go of the people who make you feel safe is heartbreaking.
When we arrive to Korea, we begin our first phase. Everything is new and foreign; we are finding our footing and trying to find our way around without getting lost. We have to get used to the language barrier and learn survival Korean to make our lives easier. Once again, I have to say that I have been blessed and fortunate enough to have met many kind and helpful locals. Not being able to understand a single thing was terrifying, but through gestures and Papago (God bless Papago) we were able to communicate, and everything was okay.
After our first phase of learning the lay of the land and finding the places we need to frequent like the bank and the grocery store, we move on to the phase of making friends. For some reason, this one is sometimes scarier than the first. Opening up to people in a country that is unfamiliar to us makes us feel vulnerable. Back in our home countries, we have our constant friends: the friends that have made us feel safe for most of our lives. When we decide to move abroad, we arrive in Korea, without a single friend, and we have to learn to put ourselves out there to meet new people. Usually, most of us start with work colleagues. However, some schools do not employ that many foreign teachers and let’s be real, we don’t always vibe with all of our coworkers. I did end up having very pleasant coworkers who also became friends. So, my first group of friends were people from my academy that I got along with well and we ended up making some cool memories.
Okay, so you’ve made a decent group of friends and you are finally going out to restaurants and exploring the city. You even start to feel comfortable. Remember when I said we don’t usually plan to stay here forever? Well, the next phase we step into is saying goodbye to the friends we have made and having to put ourselves out there AGAIN. With each friend group, you start a new phase of life in Korea. You do different things with each group of friends. You feel different things with each group of friends. And of course, you learn many things with each group of friends. Some people bring out the best in you, some people bring out the worst. Some people make you feel safe, while others make you feel like a place holder while they wait to make a “better” group of friends.
This is one of the most challenging things in my 2 years of living in Korea. Making a solid group of friends takes a lot of time and a lot of my energy. And just when I feel comfortable, the season of change has arrived, and my world is kind of shaken up again. In these moments, I feel it is even more important to learn to be content with your own company. You have to learn to take yourself out on coffee dates, go to the movies by yourself, go out to eat by yourself. This solo traveling thing works out very well for some people. I have a couple of friends who I deeply admire because they have never been phased about doing things alone. Sometimes, they prefer it. On the other hand, this doesn’t always come easy for me. Because it is a country that is still quite foreign to me, I feel safer when I explore with someone else. If I am out with a friend, together we can figure out where to go and communicating is a bit easier with the combined knowledge of our beginner Korean. When I am alone, I have no one to lean on. I have to figure it out myself and that’s even scarier. I am learning and getting more and more comfortable having solo outings, but some days it’s still a huge challenge.
Yesterday I decided to go on an evening walk. I started walking down Oncheoncheon Stream from Busan National University station to Oncheonjang station. It’s about an hour long walk. It was amazing. It was chilly but not too cold. The evening felt invigorating. About halfway there, I walked past a group of young women chatting together while sipping some hot coffee and I thought, that’s a wonderful idea! I find a little coffee shop, one that has a self service kiosk to spare me from having to talk to a staff member in my broken Korean. I’m happy to be spared from the interaction, but the entire thing is in Korean. That doesn’t worry me though since I can understand the basics of the process, since I have done this many times. However, when it comes to making the payment, the machine would not accept my card. I tried a couple of times, and I had no luck. Then I try to cancel the order, but I still cannot get out of the order screen. At this point, I start to inwardly panic (for absolutely no reason, I guess) and I’m trying to figure out how to proceed. This probably doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, but this is how my brain functions. I go straight into panic and anxiety. Anyways. There was a young woman waiting for her coffee order and the barista was BUSY making tons of coffees, so who can I ask for help? I take a deep breath and with my broken Korean I say to the women waiting for her coffee, “Excuse me, how do I do this?” She took a look at the screen and tried to make the payment for me using my card. She was also having trouble. So again, in my broken Korean I say, “It’s okay, thank you.” And she says, “Maybe you should order at the counter.” I reply, “Yes, I will. Thank you.” I am telling you this story just to show you how simple little things like this can cause so much anxiety for me. It’s so stupid, I know. It’s just a coffee order, it’s just a machine, and at the end of it all, I ordered my coffee from the counter and it was all fine.
So why do these kinds of things stop me from doing things on my own? Am I afraid to look stupid, like I don’t know what I am doing? Am I worried that I’ll look lost and helpless? Do these things make me feel embarrassed? Or am I such a perfectionist that the thought of not knowing how to do things properly stops me from doing things at all? It could be a mix of many of these things. But if I don’t go out and try to do things on my own, how will I ever learn?
As I prepare for yet another change of season, both literally and figuratively, I am once again facing myself and my insecurities. I love my friends and I enjoy doing things together, but I need to learn to do things for myself. As some of my friends move away and others prepare to be away for a while to visit families, I have decided this is the phase of doing things alone. While my life in Korea is constantly changing and evolving, I want to rest in the fact that I am capable of doing things on my own, and I will be okay.