In college, I majored in International Affairs. People always ask me what that even means, and the reality is that I’m not 100% sure. The advisers call it an “interdisciplinary” major, which actually translates into studying a broad range of subjects, but with an international twist. History? Make that world history. Economics? Make that international economics via the world economy, multi-national trade agreements, and development of the underdeveloped. You can really focus on anything, as long as it has an international slant.
So, by the time I finished university, I knew a lot about the world. Or at least that is what my grades and my degree seemed to be saying. However, the reality behind that extremely expensive piece of stock paper is that I knew next to nothing. I knew the facts, but facts are just one aspect of true understanding.
Though I had traveled some within America, I had never actually traveled beyond its borders. It wasn’t for lack of desire. No, I did want to; however, I had simply never had the courage to actually follow through. For a long time, I wrote it off my decision to stay domestic as, “I don’t have the money or the time,” but that’s not really true. It wasn’t time or money that I lacked, it was the courage and the will to actually make something out of my daydreams.
As graduation rolled around, I began to freak. My thoughts centered on the simple (yet extremely difficult to answer) question: What the hell am I going to do??
I was an international affairs major with no international experience.
As my restlessness grew to a level that I can only describe as temporary insanity, I began to search furiously for a way to just go. Like a puzzle put together slowly, the events that lead me to Korea were not at all linear. First, a good friend of mine told me about an acquaintance of hers who had earned a TEFL certificate and then went to teach abroad. It seemed as good an option as any, so after doing some research into the idea, I decided that it couldn’t hurt to try and signed up for a certification class.
Originally, and all throughout university, I had planned to go to South America, but then another acquaintance made the excellent point that TEFL programs in Asia pay more and have better benefits. I dove into an exploration of all the TEFL programs I could find in Asia, and after much thought decided that English Program in Korea (EPIK) was the best fit for me: it had fantastic benefits, an application schedule that fit perfectly with my own timeline, and would allow me to travel and live in Asia – a part of the world I have always been interested in. The rigorous application process took about 6 months to complete, and involved interviewing for the program while on vacation in Maui, getting my fingerprints taken (also in Maui), submitting to the FBI for a background check, and obtaining multiple apostilles (a word I had never even heard until this process started).
Finally, after 6 months, over $100 in express mail envelopes, and what felt like a mountain of paperwork, I had everything in order and was ready to go. All I had left to do was wait. Those few months while I was preparing to leave were one of the scariest times in my life. There I was, never having left the country even on a vacation, and somehow I had ended up trying to shove my entire life into two suitcases and a carry-on. I kept feeling like I was staring over the edge of a massive cliff into a misty and opaque abyss below – I had no real idea what to expect. I only knew that my life was about to change drastically – a feeling that was both frightening and thrilling.
I boarded my departure flight in a haze. I hadn’t really slept the night before, and had used my waiting time to indulge in one (two) Bloody Mary’s with extra olives. When I finally did step off the plane into Korea, the feeling was almost indescribable. It was night, I was bone tired, and it took me almost two hours to get through the airport and into my hotel. That part is easy to tell. But the way I felt? That is something else. Everything was both exactly the same, and completely different. It sounds kind of silly, but I was not expecting everything and everyone to look so normal.
Just like home, Korea has long bridges and tall buildings, the people wake up every day and go to work, they wear the same kinds of clothes, and smile in the same way. In that way, Korea was exactly the same. Yet, at the same time it was also completely different. All the signs were unreadable, the plethora of neon lights flashed and begged for my attention, and though the people smiled just like me, when they opened their mouth to speak a language came out that I had only yet begun to understand.
This, I think was is the genuine truth. All those facts I learned in school, they had no real meaning until compared with the tangible and real. There is no substitute for experience. So, in the end “that one time I moved to Korea,” with no clear intentions and no real plan, ended up being one of the most eye-opening, rewarding, and memorable experiences of my life. Now, for the first time ever, I finally feel as though I actually do know a thing or two about international affairs.
About The Author –