Where everybody knows your name

Originally posted on Medium.

South Korea was a whirlwind. I once described it to disbelieving acquaintances as a surreal, eternal vacation, where the hard work was trumped by the people you met, the parties, the booze and the peace.

I’m not a teacher by trade. Far from it. But I chose to teach in South Korea to heal. My life had become depressing, lonely, exhausting. I felt meaningless. I had dealt with my depression for so long, ignoring it and pushing it away for much of my life, that I grabbed the first opportunity I could grab to turn my life upside-down.

I was so determined, in those few months where my application hung in the balance, that I didn’t even dare envision my being turned down. Failure would have weighed heavily on me, might have broken me.

In Korea, people often half-joked that half of us were desperate and half of us lost. Desperate: recent teaching graduates who were victims of the vicious “need experience to get experience” circle. Lost: everyone else.

I was everyone else. Oh, how I was lost.

It took me a while to open up to the group of twenty-somethings I arrived and trained with. But once something clicked in my head (be the person buried inside you, be free), I introduced the cities of Ulsan, Busan, Seoul, and more, to the laugher, the dancer, the reader, the curious, the friend.

Halfway around the world, for the first time in what felt like forever, I finally had friends, and they pulled me out of my torpor to explore, to enjoy, to smile. To be.

Life back home just isn’t the same. Sometimes I wish I had stayed, to curse the humid cold and the muggy heat, to sit down at cafés and talk about the hoops and everything and nothing, to keep drinking my eternal Junebug and never get shitfaced, to dance the night away and fall asleep with my makeup on only to hike up steep mountains the next day, to spend entire nights at noraebangs to sing all the karaoke classics, to waste away a whole Saturday at the beach and mostly swimming because screw sunbathing, to travel around the country and beyond because if not now then when?

But also the people, and the discoveries, and the unadulterated enjoyment of being with people who don’t judge you when you’re being you. And work that mattered.

And then I remember that there were reasons I didn’t stay. Homesickness. Tired of being called an alien. Tired of being side-eyed, judged, as if I grew weed in my apartment like the hyped-up articles talking about foreign teachers said we all did. Tired of being pushed around in the bus. I felt agoraphobic, too. Way too many people and signs in the streets, all vying for attention like marketing whores. Speaking of marketing whores, oh god, the political contenders driving cars around neighbourhoods and yelling on loudspeakers whatever the hell they wanted to change. On weekend mornings.

South Korea, you were nuts in good ways and bad ways. No hard feelings. I mostly loved you, you silly jingleberry.

My family likes to call my Korea years my “college years”. I like to call them my awakening. Because all the bullshit I came back to and experience daily once more? I know I deserve better. I know there’s more to life than wasting away in a windowless office where my voice can’t be heard, where ideas are squashed, where accomplishments aren’t celebrated but mistakes get you the pointy finger, where your mental health doesn’t matter, where the ones in charge have no clue what they’re doing but god forbid they ask for ideas from people who’ve studied and have passion and experience in that field.

When will a company’s workers be taken seriously? When will they be trusted?