The bus came to a halt. The driver turned and looked back at me, a mixture of frustration and confusion crossing his face. I stood, looking around in confusion. Grabbing my bus ticket from my shaking hand, the driver shouted in my face “you missed your stop.”
It was my first night in Seoul to teach English in Korea. What on earth was I doing here?
Let’s back up.
Six months prior, I’m sitting in my apartment in Los Angeles staring despondently at indeed.com. It’s February 2012 and I’m 23 years old. I’ve got a newly minted Bachelor’s Degree and it’s feeling pretty useless in the spare job market of the early 2010s.
As I scroll through each entry-level job available in Los Angeles, I feel my will to live slipping away from me. With each click on yet another mundane job description (“Must be flexible, self-motivated, and willing to cope with just a touch of sexual harassment”), my desire to get a job in America withers.
What was I going to do? I had no money, no skills, and I doubted I could convince anyone that I was a driven and organized person with great communication skills using only a cover letter and my rather empty resume.
I was never going to get a job. Never.
Then I saw the ad. It was one of those paid-for things that pop up on the side of a search result. The sort of thing your eyes pass over, reading the information without storing it in your brain.
Only, this one stuck out to me.
“Want to try something new? Apply to teach English Abroad! Positions available in Japan, South Korea, and China!”
Well, I thought to myself, why not?
I sent over a copy of my resume, cover letter and a photo of myself. In less than a week I had a reply asking me if I was available for a phone interview. I agreed quickly, afraid that if I hesitated they might realize they’d made a mistake.
Over the course of the next four weeks, I had two phone interviews and was asked to send a few writing samples. Shortly afterward, an email arrived in my inbox offering me a position teaching English in Seoul, South Korea.
A sense of relief washed over me so intense I nearly sank to my knees like an actor in an old Hollywood film. Someone actually wanted to pay me for my time. My job search was over.
Needless to say, I accepted immediately.
The fact that this job was on the other side of the Pacific Ocean in a country I’d never seen where they spoke a language I had never heard was something I didn’t want to contemplate. I shoved the facts of the job deep down, hiding them from myself as best I could.
Had I ever contemplated living in Asia before? No, absolutely not. Had I ever lived abroad before? No, don’t be ridiculous. I hadn’t even traveled by myself before.
It’d be fine. I’d moved from Boston to Los Angeles for college and that was pretty tough. How much harder could South Korea be, really?
Time passed by in a flash and before I knew it, I was back in Boston, picking up my visa from the Korean Embassy and making last minute trips to Target to buy shampoo and conditioner because who knows if they even sell that in Seoul. (Spoiler Alert: they sell shampoo in Korea).
The night before I left, my parents took me out for a final dinner. We ordered a bottle of wine and to be perfectly honest I was so nervous about moving to Korea I barely remember the dinner at all. I know they asked me lots of questions and we laughed a lot, but mostly I was focused on not feeling anything, not thinking too much about anything. There was a flood of emotion waiting somewhere in the depths of my soul and it took everything I had to keep it at bay.
Having drunk probably a bit more wine than I should’ve, I got home that night, threw my clothes into the washing machine, and promptly fell deeply asleep. I woke up at 5am when my dad knocked on my door, “You all ready to go?”
No, I wasn’t ready to go. My clothes were wet and in the washing machine. My bags were not even a little bit packed. Those shampoo bottles and razors I’d purchased at Target were still strewn about my bedroom in white plastic bags.
It was 5am, and my flight took off in 3 hours.
That’s when the adrenaline kicked in. I grabbed my wet clothes and stuffed them into my bag, hoping they wouldn’t grow too much mold on the flights from Boston to Seoul. I shoved the target bags on top and sat on the suitcases, yanking the zippers closed.
Packing light was still an undiscovered art form at this point in my life. I had my two suitcases and two carry on bags filled to the absolute brim. That’s four fully-packed bags.
As the adrenaline receded and my hangover came to the fore, I stumbled downstairs and into my dad’s car. We were off.
Arriving at the airport, I pulled my bags out of the car and arranged them so I could handle all four at once. Then I looked up to say goodbye.
Tears were streaming down my mothers face. My heart came to a shuddering halt.
What the hell was I about to do?
My mom reached out and pulled me into her arms. We aren’t the most emotional family in the world, so this was one of less than five times in my life I’ve seen my mother cry. As I started to sob into her shoulder, she pulled back, reassuring me that, “it’s going to be great.”
I gave my dad a hug, squeezed my mom into an embrace one more time, then laboriously maneuvered my four bags into the airport.
The first flight went from Boston to San Francisco. As the plane landed at SFO, I looked out the window longingly at the California hills rolling into the distance.
“You don’t have to do this,” I told myself in a moment of weakness. “You can get off the plane here. You could make it work in San Francisco. You could stay in California.”
I almost did it.
What gave me the bravery to continue onward into the unknown, I have no idea. Perhaps stubbornness, a sense of adventure, or just a fear of letting other people down. Whatever caused it, I got onto my plane bound for Seoul, South Korea.
“Boarding my flight to Seoul. Adios America.” I cavalierly posted to my Facebook wall, hiding the fact that I was being slowly overwhelmed by a cascade of fear that I’d been keeping at bay for months now.
That flight from SFO to Seoul, I barely remember. I know they gave us some meals. I don’t think I watched any movies. I’m not even sure if I slept. I was so highly strung you could’ve played me like a guitar. Time simultaneously flew by at light speed yet crawled like a tortoise. It was the longest and shortest 14-hour flight of my life.
Off the plane, through security, got my bags, and bought a bus ticket for Seoul National University of Education. Because that’s what the email from my new employer said, “Buy a bus ticket to Seoul National University of Education from the Airport Bus counter. We will meet you there.”
It was all incredibly organized and easy. In no time I was on the bus and getting my first view of Korea. I gazed out the window hungrily, determined to soak in as much as I could of my new home. I knew that the airport in Incheon was an hour away from Seoul so I was prepared for a long bus ride, but I hoped to get a sense of this foreign land from the bus window.
After about five minutes, I fell asleep.
An hour later, I woke with a start as the bus announced our arrival to the city. I hadn’t missed any stops. I was fine.
Each stop we passed through, the bus announced the name in Korean and English. Excellent. There was no way I could mess this up.
Please keep in mind, I had never traveled by myself before. Ever in my life.
We passed stop after stop. At each one, I looked down and double checked my ticket. I listened studiously but didn’t hear anyone say “Seoul National University of Education”. So, I stayed on the bus.
And then the bus came to a stop. We were at the end of the line and I was still on the bus. This situation was not ideal.
The bus driver ferociously informed me that I had missed my stop. He didn’t speak English but just kept pointing behind us. I tried to ask him what I should do but he just shook his head and got back on his bus. The whole ten-second interaction was a real crash course in intercultural communication.
It was about this time that the flood of emotions I’d been keeping at bay was unleashed. Triggered by this one missed bus stop, months worth of tension, worry, stress, and fear came gushing out of me. Standing on the side of the road, in the middle of the night, in the center of Seoul, South Korea, I cried my heart out. I felt as if I were facing the greatest challenge of my entire life. College? Fine. Get a job? Fine. Get off a bus at the wrong stop in Korea and get back to where you need to go? Forget about it.
What was I doing in this country? Why had I thought that this was a good idea? I should’ve stayed in LA, I should’ve tried harder to get a personal assistant job. I should not have gotten on a plane, completely alone, and flown to this strange country with a writing system I can’t read and a language I can’t speak. What was I thinking?
Just as I was caving into despair, I heard a young Korean woman’s voice behind me say, “where do you need to go?”
Wiping my eyes and trying to stem the flow of salty tears, I turned and showed my ticket to the young Korean woman.
“Oh,” she replied, looking at it, “Gyo Dae. That’s just a few stops back.”
Gyo Dae is the Korean name for Seoul National University of Education. The bus had announced the stop for Gyo Dae. I remember hearing it. Relief and horror poured through me in equal measure. I knew why I’d made the mistake now, but still didn’t know how to fix it.
“I’ll help you get a cab.”
The young woman stuck her hand out and pretty soon a sleek silver car had pulled up next to the curb. She leaned in the window and said a few phrases in Korean to the driver then turned back to me. “You’re all set, he’ll take you to Gyo Dae. Have a good year!”
Surprised, I thought about asking her, “how can you tell I’m here to teach English for a year? Then I realized, Koreans probably see this sort of emotional circus show all the time.
I hopped into the cab and within a few minutes, was standing on the sidewalk at Gyo-Dae, shaking hands with Adam, a representative from my new job. He grabbed my bags and led me into my new life.
I had made it. I survived the journey to South Korea.
The real adventure was about to begin.
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