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On fear, travel, and coming to Korea

blue dot
Jun 22 2013

I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned it on here, but the main reason I first came to Korea was to force myself to confront fear. Actually, this is not a particularly unusual reason; I’ve met a few people who’ve had similar epiphanies and ended up in Korea because of them.

At the time I had been working from home and living alone for nearly two years. For an introvert this can be an appealing way to arrange your life, but in the long term it’s pretty dangerous to your mental health. For me, I was fine with that for a long while, and then I wasn’t fine anymore, and things fell apart for a bit. When I pulled myself back together, I had as a key understanding that I needed to do something radical with my life; something that would shake me out of my slumber and re-introduce some risk, because I had made things perfectly safe for myself, and that had become a problem.

Shortly after that, I was looking through job advertisements in the hope of finding something different to do, and came across an ad for teaching English in Korea. It was far more “different” than what I had consciously been looking for, and I was immediately gripped by a realization; that the idea was terrifying to me, and that it was also absolutely what I needed to do, and that if I didn’t do it, my realization about what I needed to do with my life was phony, and I was just a coward.

So I started going through the process, and in less than three months I was in Korea, and it was probably the best decision of my life.

Now I am not, despite appearances, a brave traveler. The thought of the unknown is scary to me; the idea of being lost in a city where I don’t speak the language, with nowhere to stay for the night, is and continues to be a great fear of mine. So it wasn’t easy for me to make the decision to come to Korea, but as with most such decisions, the brave option is the better one; it sure beat the hell out of another year of living alone and working from home.

Before I came, I got two pieces of really good advice from two friends who were experienced travelers. The first was from an Irish backpacker I worked with for a little while. I think I specifically asked him for advice, and he told me this:

“Just take every opportunity that comes to you.”

The second piece of advice was from one of my oldest friends, whose bravery when it came to travel had always induced awe in me. She had, for example, once gone to Africa with some friends, landed in a city, and with no more specific plans bought a truck and driven it across the continent. That sort of travel takes balls, and I asked her how she did it. I told her that travel scared me; that I didn’t know how she could do that.

“Here’s the thing,” she said to me. “It scares everybody. It’s scary for me, too, you know. But it’s the thinking about it that’s scary.  You just have to do it, and when you’re actually there, it’s not actually so scary or difficult.”

They’re both great pieces of advice, and I’m happy to repeat them to anyone who tells me they’re scared about coming to Korea. In actuality, it’s not all that scary once you’re here. You see the transformation all the time when people first come. At first they’re nervous, and want advice from everyone about everything; but after a couple of months, they’re old hands, and have a certain swagger when they say things like “Let’s meet up at entrance 2 at Myeongdong around five, and we can just go from there.” If anything, they become arrogant and overconfident and a little bit smug; usually, around the five month mark, they’re excitedly awaiting the arrival of the next crop of newbies, so that they can impart all the wisdom they’ve learned in their first months. (I was absolutely like this too at that time. It takes a while to realize that there really is a lot you still don’t know about Korea, and actually understanding it completely might take forever.)

In my first year I was really good about following those two pieces of advice, and I had a great time. But the tendency in me to withdraw into comfort and isolation is strong. In my second year I wasn’t so good about it; I passed up lots of opportunities. And in my third year, I feel like I truthfully haven’t done much except work and come home again, and occasionally go out for meals and drinks with other ex-pats. And that is not good.

And although there’s not much for me to be scared of in Korea anymore, when I do that for too long a certain existential fear does start to build up. Not of anything specific, but just a tension that comes from living in another country, surrounded by a language and culture you only partially understand. And I can start to become defensive. And I have to be careful about that, because that way lies bitterness; that way can lead you towards being one of the many foreigners here who perceive Korea as a hostile place.

It may be coming time for me to shake things up again.

(This was actually supposed to be part of a longer love motel review, but it turned out the love motel and the trip there didn’t actually interest me very much, so for once I will leave it with just this short, bloggy entry.)

Waegukin wrote these 993 words on June 22nd, 2013 | Posted in Best-of, Living |


3 comments on “On fear, travel, and coming to Korea”

  1. Eyagee says:

    T ahis is some of the most practical advice I have read for those coming (/already here) to Korea. Having been here nearly 3 years myself, I am always amused and amazed every day at what i see and experience here. I wrote a post that should be considered follow up to this, last month (although I wrote it without ever reading this, funny how I’m seeing more people do this now, writing practical advice on traveling to Korea) and titled it “Why are you in Korea?” http://eyagee.wordpress.com/2013/06/24/why-are-you-in-korea/

  2. The Waegukin says:

    I read your blog entry. You make a point I agree with wholeheartedly; I really am baffled/appalled by the number of people who come here and go home again with nothing to show for it but facebook photos of them drinking in foreigner bars. I also like your example of walking down the street, following traditional Korean music, and finding a demonstration. The palaces are nice, sure, but the culture is everywhere if you open your eyes.

    By the way I edited one word of your comment due to a really unfortunate autocorrect 🙂

  3. Sarah says:

    Glad to find an introverted Aussie who recommends teaching and living in Korea 🙂

    Totally get that ‘living alone’ thing, I’ve done it for about 7 months now, but am thinking it’s time to get out of my comfort zone. Will be applying for the EPIK program for the Fall 2014. Thanks for all the great advice on this website. Really enjoy all the ‘speciality’ articles, like how to choose the best canned coffee!

    Just wish I had a slave (err… admin assistant) to help me get all my application documents in order.

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