I’m not sure that I can even remember my first few thoughts on moving to South Korea. It was definitely a mix of emotions I had never felt all at the same time before. Of course there was excitement, and I do remember being so nervous that I would cry once a day for the weeks leading up to the move. I would have to do it privately; in the car when I was driving alone, in my bed before I went to sleep, or my favourite– in the shower at the end of a long day. I couldn’t have anyone thinking that I had any doubts or they would try to provide me with a way out, “You know you don’t have to go if you’re scared,” or “You should take a little more time to decide if this is really the right move for you, I mean… South Korea?!”
I kept telling myself that everything I could ever want was on the other side of fear, in fact, I’m still telling myself that today. Of course, I did the big scary thing. I moved to the other side of the world where I didn’t know anyone and hardly knew anything about the culture, country, or language. Sometimes I look back and think, “Wow, I must’ve been crazy,” but when you’re stepping out in faith you have to be a little crazy.
It was everything and nothing like I had imagined it would be. The funny thing about going to a place you’ve never been is that you suddenly forget that most places have the same essential things; trees, roads, stop lights, malls, etc. So much so, that when you see them you’re surprised… like how else were you expecting people to get across the road?
When I got to my little town in the countryside off the West Coast of the peninsula, South Korea reminded me of another country that I’m more familiar with, Jamaica. The people have a certain leisure to them, not easily rushed. They take their time in everything they do, they don’t run for buses or trains, they know the people around them and address them with respect and kindness.
When I first arrived at my apartment, it was difficult to imagine it being my own little abode for the next two years. It was entirely empty, not even a roll of toilet paper or a single spoon. I was grateful to have curated a space I could call a home. Someplace I felt safe, entirely comfortable and welcomed upon opening the door. Initially of course I had only planned on staying a year, so I had no intention of over-spending on interior decorating. But when you’re so far from home and all by yourself, your safe space is worth the investment. Eventually my home became the hangout spot for all of my friends and served us very well, especially during the beginning stages of the pandemic. Though that was much later on.
I went to my new workplace for the first time and met the students that would soon be the focus of my life in South Korea. They were shy and nervous, bowing as they met me and hardly making eye contact. My co-workers welcomed me with gracious smiles and curiosity, taking a genuine interest in my hobbies, my likes and really wanted to know all about me.
I fell in love with my classroom, the instruments, the bright colours, all the student artwork posted all along the walls. I had been so intimidated about being a first-time teacher, so worried that I had no idea what I was doing that I had almost let the intimidation trump the joy that comes from working with kids. I had almost forgot about the learning and growing that occurs when seeing the world through a child’s eyes, as if everything is brand new again.
Now I don’t want to make it seem like it was all sunshine and rainbows, I still had no idea what I was doing and was so worried that I was going to get lonely and be a terrible teacher and want to go home. I was sleeping on the floor of my apartment because I had no bed for almost a month and there were times I couldn’t buy groceries because I didn’t get paid until almost two months after I got there. But at that point, my problems couldn’t compare to my gratitude and the more I focused on the good, the more good there was to focus on. I had made a core group of new friends and got out to explore Seoul a few days after my arrival.
I was in for such a surprise when I got to my first club in South Korea. They were playing all American hip-hop and rap songs on the TVs, people were drinking and smoking and there were more foreigners in the club than South Koreans. A group of large Black American military men were quick to approach us and offer us drinks. If I hadn’t known any better I would’ve thought I was back in Atlanta.
The whole first month I spent every weekend in Seoul from Gangnam to Itaewon, but mostly in Hongdae going out to eat, shop and party. I was spending money, constantly on the go, but had no regrets because I was having the time of my life. Though I hadn’t had many expectations on what it would be like, arriving in South Korea, it was not what I expected. To be honest, it was way better.