Why I Moved Abroad
When I was 17 I stood in the doorway to St. Peters Basilica and cried. At the time I was just overwhelmed by how beautiful and huge it was. But looking back, I think it was because I was experiencing for the first time the comforting, overpowering realization of how small one is in comparison to the world and it’s history. It was a new feeling.
My sophomore year of college I visited my best friend who was studying in England at the time. And in a rental car driving through the Scottish highlands listening French electronic music as it started to snow outside, I felt it again.
In my Politics of Latin America course where I was in the minority as a non-native Spanish speaker I learned how important it is to recognize what you don’t understand. Not what you don’t know. I studied the same material as everyone else. But what you don’t understand.
Because my classmates with families struggling to buy groceries in Venezuela or those whose parents knew people who were disappeared in Pinochet’s Chile, could understand our texts in a way that I couldn’t. And I loved learning from them.
And in recognizing that I felt it once more.
So I started studying Spanish more seriously.
And that took me to Peru. Peru was the match. Whatever sparks had been simmering under the surface, my short but incredibly meaningful experience in Peru is what lit me on fire.
Everything about living there, the exciting, the uncomfortable, the scary, and the beautiful made me fall in love with it. Everyday was a new challenge, a new chance to learn something, to understand people better, and to realize again and again how much I don’t know.
Cusco is brilliant. It will forever hold a special place in my heart as the place that gave me a glimpse of my best self. It simultaneously showed me how much of the world I didn’t understand while uncovering parts of me that even I didn’t know existed. Parts that I am now incredibly proud of.
I was not in Peru long enough for the more difficult realities of life there to settle in. So it remains in my mind and heart this brilliant, raw, and incredibly significant experience that marked a shift in the direction that my life would take.
I realize that those experiences, and more specifically that they happened when I was young, is a special thing. That’s not to say that I would have never moved abroad or become the person I am today had I not traveled. However I am not ignorant of the fact that many people don’t have the opportunity to see those kind of things at a young age and I am incredibly thankful for them.
So back in the US and at back at my university one of my friends, to whom I basically owe the entire trajectory of my life now, said to me, “Hey you should apply to teach at the ELI. I think you’d be good at it, they’re hiring now.”
I remember being terrified for the interview, terrified of the training, and terrified of the first day of class.
In retrospect that fear seems so ridiculous.
Teaching at my university’s English Language Institute was the most important thing I’ve ever done and probably ever will do in my entire life.
Just as I was starting grasp how big and beautiful world was, I was suddenly handed a group of students from every corner of the globe who acted as windows into their countries and cultures for me.
The interactions I had with those students during class, the good and the uncomfortable, did more to teach me about the world I live in than any textbook or curriculum ever could. I could use my position as a facilitator of discussion to sit with a group of people from Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Brazil, Qatar, Colombia, Chad, and Korea to talk about how they felt their culture had shaped them. What they were proud of and what they weren’t. What they liked about America and what they couldn’t understand.
And in turn I was forced to consider how did I feel that being American had shaped me? What am I proud of my country for? And when I see things in other cultures that I don’t like, where does that come from? What is the underlying assumption that my culture has given me, that makes me uncomfortable with certain parts of other cultures?
Having to explain my worldview, my culture, my country, and my language, to my non-native English-speaking friends in simple, straightforward terms helped me to understand myself more clearly.
And then outside of class, during the evening activities, they became so much more than students.
They became friends. And suddenly it wasn’t about English or these heavy cultural ideas so much as it was about boyfriends, and crazy parents, what movie are we going to watch on Saturday, and what do you want me to bring to the potluck tomorrow?
And being friends, real friends, with people with whom I seemingly have nothing in common, taught me that love is so much bigger than language and culture can contain.
So it was in the middle of this, drowning in sea of too many things that I loved, I decided to move to Korea. Somewhere in-between my TESOL internship, teaching job, a leadership position with Campus Crusade, and a research project for my Spanish minor I found myself filling out the EPIK application that would eventually bring me here. Where I sit right now at my desk in Daejeon writing this.
So to answer the original question, why did I move abroad? In my case, more than reasons, I have experiences that serve as reasons in their own right.
I am convinced of the experiences that shaped me and I am proud of the direction they have taken me.
I moved abroad because I wanted to keep learning.
I wanted to know how much I didn’t know and in the discomfort of that hopefully find new ways to see and think and experience life.
And a year and a half later in Korea, I can say with confidence that there is still so much that I don’t understand about this country. There are things that make me crazy and frustrate me to no end, but I am thankful at least for the opportunity to try to understand them.
Moving to another country can be an amazing life changing experience, but only if you can put aside for a while your own definitions of what is “right” in the work place, the home, and in society. In the end you might have been right all long. And there will be things that despite examining them from every angle you feel are wrong that you will still have to live with everyday.
But if you come into your new country and workplace with an inflexible idea of how life should be lived, then you cheat yourself out of the one of the most rewarding experiences that a person can have. The chance to understand.
When a taxi driver asks me, “Why did you come to Korea?” this answer is a tad long-winded. So for all the times I haven’t been able to explain this fully, I wanted to say it here. For you guys and whoever else might stumble upon it.
Thanks for reading.