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What Living Abroad in Korea Has Taught Me
Written by: International TEFL Academy
Last Updated: November 30, 2020
By: Jessica Montgomery
That's a bold title. But it's one that I'm committed to.
Teaching English in Korea has been a gateway for me. an optimistic stepping-stone full of promise, opportunity, new-found confidence, and blissful naivety; grasping at straws in an attempt to learn more. I knew that coming to Korea would be a hefty place-marker in my life. I knew that further down the road I would begin statements with "Before Korea..." and "After Korea...", but just how big of a life-changer this venture would be was yet to be determined. I came here on the thought that once I knew about this accessible, living abroad, opportunity, I couldn't pass it up, and I would live with regret if I had not pursued it. There was no way that I could have foreseen how large of a regret that could've been.
Safe to say: Coming to Korea has been the best decision of my life.
I grew up among stacks of National Geographic and Ranger Rick; dreams and aspirations of being an artist-actress-explorer-marine biologist with parental backing on all pursuits, and a more than fortunate upbringing. The thought of travel or being abroad was not a new idea. But for some reason, the realization and attaining of these dreams seemed far out of reach. Even with all the support in the world, I felt held back by my lack of confidence and worry. I thought these dreams were meant for other, more leader-like, more worldly, more aspiring, more entrepreneurial minds. More, more, more. Not little, little, little ol' me. But this first stretch in living abroad has changed that mindset. It has made me more confident and changed me in ways that haven't even materialized yet. I have learned so much and am thankful for so much: About myself, about the world, about my world back home...
These past few weeks I've been trying to compile a list of everything that Korea, traveling, and living abroad for the past two years has taught me. About myself, about the world, everything. The thing is, this list could go on and on. And, truth be told, I intend for it to. The journey is far from over. But instead of writing a verbatim list, I would rather break my thoughts down into 3 categories:
1. The No-Brainers (Things that we all know to be true deep down, but sometimes they take a little scratching to get at.)
2. The Epiphanies (Doors of thought that these past two years have opened up for me.)
3. The Shower Thoughts (The weird, the random, and the ugly.)
1) "The more I learn, the less I know."
Always true, but even more so in the context of travel and living abroad. Never in my life have I felt more small or insignificant. To some, that may sound pessimistic, impersonal, and depressing. But honestly, I find it to be comforting. The world is huge, and obtainable at the same time. The more you discover the more you realize there is more to be discovered. It's a lovely cycle.
The only pessimistic and depressing side to that thought is that we've only one lifetime to see and do it all.
It's easy to stay at home and watch documentaries and read articles and feel that you have a sense of things. And I'm not talking down or dismissing that. Educate, yes. But. Never have I had the rug pulled out from me so quickly. I will be the first one to admit my naivety and in no way do I think this has been eradicated, or ever will be. But I am far more aware of it now.
It's easy to be on the bleachers telling the team below what to do. But once you are on the field, it quickly becomes an entirely different game.
2) People are people.
The more people I meet from around the world the easier it is for me to sit back, in confidence, that we are all in this together. Language and cultural taboos may separate us at times, but that should be little to stop us. A smile (or in many instances, a beer) is the shortest distance between two people.
I've met so many incredible people these past two years that have cemented that thought, among many others, into my brain.
At times, I've felt like a lost lamb in Korea and/or when traveling on my own. There is adventure in solidarity but, even for an introvert like myself, I've found that people can make all the difference. A passing moment in a hostel bar or a lifelong friendship built out of a work-relationship, the people here have truly shaped my time here and have ultimately expanded my outlook on life and possibilities.
3) There's no place like home.
(And, in some respects, it'll always be waiting for you when you return.) No place can ever feel like, or be called home, except for "home". Home is where all your predisposed natures, quirks, and preferences come from. Home is where you can always feel safe. Home is comfortingly predictable and familiar. Home is where you can always rely and trust everything to be as warm as your Mom's home made apple pie with pastry leaf accents stuck to the crust.
Home will always be missed and never forgotten. No matter how much fun you are having you will always wish that those back home were there to share it with you.
1) There is no reason to be afraid.
In my dramatic introduction, I mentioned my lack of confidence. My friends and family would most likely say this isn't true because I grew up doing theatre and loved being in the spotlight. (I'll dance and do my best Christopher Walken impression on command if it'll make somebody laugh.) This is a different kind of confidence.
I was more concerned with and thwarted by my lack of confidence in decision making, work abilities, etc. But! Every "risk" (occupational, life choice, travel adventure, etc.) that I have ever taken, 99.7% of the time, has worked out in my favor. And those are some pretty damn-good odds.
It's true! I am an anxious and nervous wreck when it comes to 92% of the decisions I make, but once I make it over that hump... Like I said, regret would always be my greatest defeat. Obviously there is no way to substantially measure assumptions of hypothesized regret. There are enough "What-Ifs" in the world to drive anyone crazy. But it's the "What-Ifs" that result in playing it safe that are truly the things that haunt.
2) Adapting is easy and everything will be okay.
Don't resist the current. Dive in and let it carry you along. Life is exciting and meant to be lived. Don't waste it on worry and doubt. IT WILL ALL BE OKAY.
3) I'm not "settled-down" and that is, also, okay.
It's okay that I don't want that picket fence and 2.5 kids yet. And it's still okay that I may never will. Don't let cultural pressures shape your life for you. If you do want the picket fence and 2.5 kids, DO IT. If you want to quit your corporate job and make cupcakes, DO IT. I got a a lot of flack and concern for going through "art school", but I've never been happier. Falling back on an old cliche: Do whatever makes you happy and you'll never work a day in your life.
4) Pick all the weeds and keep all the flowers.
You can't please everyone and not everyone will like you. Let them go, move on, and curate the people who surround you. You are only as good as the company you keep.
5) "When you are traveling, you are what you are, right then and there. People don't have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road."
Travel has given me a freedom unlike any I've ever experienced before. Teaching in Korea has afforded me this lifestyle and I am forever grateful. Travel is a way to reinvent, let go, learn, and experience. Side note: I do loathe travel writers that glorify The Traveller. We are not 'know-it-alls'. If anything, we should be seen as the polar opposite. Like new born babies we are innocent, ignorant, and should be humble. Seeking out "the authentic" is a noble idea but it's distorted and scarce. We are still privileged not matter how much we "rough it".
Shower Thoughts and other Fun Quips
1) "We are all here because we are all a little not there."
I've often heard of the 'Expat Escape': Those who couldn't make it elsewhere and decided to run away to here. Potentially to reinvent themselves, potentially to delay whatever inevitable future is lingering back home. And that may be true for some. But why should that be frowned upon? Good for them. I may be a lil' "not there" myself.
2) I am not special. I am not a pioneer.
Even Lewis and Clark were assholes.
3) Can life really get any better than this? Have I peaked?
The answer to those two questions are "Probably not.", and, "No." I need to keep up this zeal and momentum Post-Korea. As mentioned above, this life is real and it is attainable. And I intend to chase it.
Jessica Montgomery took International TEFL Academy's Online TEFL certification class in 2012. She has been living and teaching abroad ever since. She taught Elementary school English in Korea for two years and now is in South Africa teaching adults. She writes a travel / teaching blog about all her exploits: www.thetickettheride.com
Founded in 2010, International TEFL Academy is a world leader in TEFL certification for teaching English abroad & teaching English online. ITA offers accredited TEFL certification classes online & in 25 locations worldwide and has received multiple awards & widespread recognition as one of the best TEFL schools in the world. ITA provides all students and graduates with lifetime job search guidance. ITA has certified more than 25,000 English teachers and our graduates are currently teaching in 80 countries worldwide.
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