Disaster Abroad: Traveling Solo to South Korea

Adventure Travel, Korea, Travel

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.

Street Market in Seoul

Street Market in Seoul

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).

Bukchon Hanok Village Seoul

Traditional Village in Seoul

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.

Royal Palace Seoul South Korea

Royal Palace in Seoul

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.”

Street Market in Korea

Street Market in Seoul

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.

Teaching English in South Korea

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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The tale of the time I decided to teach English in South Korea and the travel disaster that followed.

Hiking Seoraksan National Park

Adventure Travel, Korea, Travel, Uncategorized

I had been hearing about hiking in Seoraksan National Park place since I got to Korea in July, 2013.  Of course, I wanted to make it out there before winter hit.

Seoraksan is the highest mountain in the Taebek mountain range, and the third highest mountain in all of South Korea. Located only 2 to 3 hours from Seoul without traffic, Seoraksan National Park is a really popular place to see autumn foliage in Korea, as I learned the hard way.

The most popular route through Seoraksan is to climb the tallest peak in the park, Daechongbong Peak, rising to 1,708m (5,603ft). However, this route takes 2 days, and since I hadn’t gotten organized to do this, I went with a big group of ex-pats and Koreans to hike the easier, one day route. We started hiking at about 10:30am and finishing around 5pm.

But we were not alone.

lots of koreans

I kid you not, I have never seen so many Koreans hiking at the same time. It was beyond ridiculous but made for a very amusing day.

Near the top we were all crammed onto a wooden platform. On a normal day this platform is probably a great place to take in the view. On this day, it was a great place to feel like livestock.

koreans on platform

Myself and a few other people from the group decided to take a “quick” (read: 30 minutes) detour to the top peak of this hike. The view from up there was truly incredible. But all the views all day were breathtaking.

koreans stopgo

Hiking down we encountered the most traffic. It was literally stop and go on these stairs on the way down. The traffic was caused by places in the trail that were slightly perilous and so only one person could walk through it at a time. Again, on a normal day this would not be a problem. But when most of the population of Korea is on the mountain, it caused some traffic.

foliage

But why, you may ask, was the entire population hiking Seoraksan National Park on this particular weekend?

This weekend was supposed to be the best for fall foliage in Seoraksan. And once we’d made it up and over the pass the foliage started to show itself and let me tell you, it was worth it.

foliage2

I was born and raised in New England and as such I am no stranger to Autumn. In fact, it is my favorite season. But I’ve spent the last 5 years living in Los Angeles in perpetual Summer. This weekend for me was almost like a rebirth experience. Being in among the fall leaves, smelling crisp autumn air and watching the colorful leaves blow in the wind was cathartic on so many levels. I spent a good hour walking by myself along the canyon taking pictures of leaves and feeling so spiritually connected with the Earth. It was beautiful.

view2

The end of the hike was an absolutely stunning walk along a stream at the bottom of a canyon. Gorgeous foliage. Gorgeous views. And thankfully no traffic.

food1

Afterwards we all went to a restaurant to drink beer and eat dinner.

Foods

A selection of “banchan” the traditional small plates that accompany every meal in Korea.

Then we piled back onto the bus to sit in traffic for 5 hours back to Seoul. I slept for 2 of them and spent the other 3 hours watching the Korean countryside go by. It was nighttime so the views weren’t that great but it was a nice chance to think.

So that is my update on my life here in Korea. Every weekend is different from the last. I am always excited, always experiencing new things. All in all, I think I’m overcoming the culture shock. I am less enamored with everything I see, but overall much happier. I feel like I am myself again, just myself living in Korea. This is going to be a great year, and at this point I’m starting to understand why people would stay for a second one…

me on mountain

Love you all!

four stages of culture shock in korea

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock and My First Experience

Adventure Travel, Expat Life, Korea, Uncategorized

If you move abroad, whether to study or to work, culture shock will happen to you. You’ll probably experience all four stages at some point during your transition. But it doesn’t have to ruin your time abroad.

The key to surviving culture shock is being aware. Read articles like this one. Familiarize yourself with the process. You won’t be able to avoid it completely, but at least you’ll understand what’s going on when you burst into tears while waiting for the bus at 11am on a regular Monday.

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock

Honeymoon

You’re new to the country. Everything is fresh and exciting. Each new day holds another adventure to be had. You’ll feel like you were meant to move to this country and you couldn’t possible have any trouble adjusting.

Rejection

 

Aspects of the new country that were fun and exciting begin to feel irritating. Small inconveniences become major issues. You buy body wash instead of moisturizer for the 3rd time and cry in your shower. Homesickness starts to kick in. You may idealize your home country and miss it intensely.

Adjustment

Those feelings of frustration at your host country start to happen less frequently. You begin to find aspects of life in the new country interesting and enjoyable. You can read social cues. You may start to understand the new language somewhat better.

Adaptation

You start to feel stable and relaxed in your new country. You enjoy certain aspects of it, are still frustrated by others but are not overly emotional about it anymore. In short, that foreign land has become home.

You don’t have to take my word for it, aside from my lived experience, I doubled checked with some fine scholars over at Princeton and they agree, culture shock comes in stages.

Like everything having to do with the human psyche, culture shock isn’t a straightforward process. You’re not going to progress neatly from one stage to the next. Everyone is different, and everyone experiences culture shock differently.

The line between each stage will blend. One day you may get irrationally frustrated at a bus for being 2 minutes late, the next day you might be shopping in the local fruit market with no problems at all. It isn’t a cut and dry process, and your experience of it will be unique.

How Long Does Culture Shock Last?

Expect to go through culture shock for at least six months to one full year. It depends on who you are as a person, your past experiences, whether this is your first time living abroad, or your fifth, and much more. The only thing you can know for sure is this: you will experience it.

The best thing you can do is acknowledge your feelings. Don’t try to pretend that culture shock isn’t happening to you. It is. The sooner you become aware of the process, the quicker you can move through it and start developing coping mechanisms.

Though I’ve experienced some level of cultural adjustment each time I move to a new country, the most dramatic and painful was certainly the very first time, when I moved to Seoul, South Korea.

Teaching English in South Korea

Teaching English in Korea: My Culture Shock Story

I moved in South Korea in July of 2012. As you might expect, at first I was enamored with my new home country. The simple notion that I was in Asia filled me with childlike wonder.

One of my favorite things to do when I first moved to Seoul was to go for hikes. As an ESL teacher at an afterschool Hagwon, I didn’t start work until 3pm. My mornings and lunchtime were free, and there were mountains throughout Seoul for me to explore.

I’d be walking through the forest, listening to the cicadas, and the simple thought that “I’m in Asia right now” would cross my mind and take my breath away. I’d stand still in the middle of the trail just absorbing the impact of it.

I was on the other side of the planet, living in a city I’d only ever dreamed of before. I lived in South Korea. Wow.

This glowing pleasure in the strangeness of my new home continued for several months. I would sit on the subway and gaze around me, enamored with everyone and everything. I eagerly pursued new flavors, new smells, and new sights. I drank it all in.

And yes, I thought I was adjusting with no problems at all.

At the end of September, after I’d been living in Seoul for two months, I had a visit from a friend from home. He came and stayed with me for two weeks, exploring the country and sharing in my sense of awe. We hiked, we ate (a lot!), and we partied. It was an excellent two weeks, but everything ends.

Mere moments after we said goodbye my mood took a nosedive. I felt sad and lonely. And for the first time since my arrival, Korea felt unbearably foreign.

Not wanting to let the homesickness get to me, I set off for my local hike, a short trail up to the top of a hill and back down. Probably a two hour walk total.

The trail to the summit wound through the forest at the base of the mountain before ascending sharply top the peak via a steep set of stairs. As I jogged up the steps, my mind focused on my breathing, I thought about nothing except the push to the top. My mood leveled off the more distracted I became.

From the summit, my descent was much like the ascent, I was focused on not tripping and falling down the steep stairs, my mind devoted to the act of balancing.

Then everything changed.

Triggered by absolutely nothing at all, I burst into tears. Anguished thoughts and uncontrollable emotions burst out of me. I missed my home. I missed my friends in Los Angeles. I didn’t want to go to work tomorrow.

So there I was, walking down the side of a mountain, in bright sunshine, beneath leafy trees, sobbing my eyes out.

The difficulty of life in Korea smashed into me. I needed a haircut, but I couldn’t speak the necessary Korean to call and make an appointment. I wanted to buy some new furniture and accessories for my apartment but I had no idea where to find them.

I had purchased a bottle of what I thought was moisturizer, only to discover once I got home that it was a massive bottle of body wash. I already owned a massive bottle of body wash. Now I had two. And no moisturizer.

I rushed home to my apartment and threw myself into bed. Filled with homesick, I reached out to my friends at home the only way I knew how, I posted a sad cry for help to my facebook wall:

“I try not to post negativity on my facebook but this has been a tough week. I’m two months into life in Korea and while it is awesome and amazing and I’m making great friends and having crazy experiences, I also miss everyone in America and today, I would really like a hug.”

The response from my friends was overwhelmingly positive. For a few moments at least I was safe in the knowledge that I had friends who loved me. ONly, they were thousands of miles away.

Lonely, isolated, and sad, I knew I needed a gameplan to get over this. I needed a reason to leave my apartment and build a life for myself in Seoul.

Royal Palace Seoul South Korea

Overcoming the Shock

I googled “English Language Yoga Classes in Seoul” and found Celebrity Yoga, a Bikram yoga studio in the Gangnam district of Seoul. The next day I was there taking my first class. It was unbelievably difficult. I had taken a few yoga classes in high school with my mom but I had no concept of Bikram yoga, no idea what I was in for.

For the uninitiated, Bikram yoga is 90 minutes of holding difficult yoga poses for an extended period of time in a room that often exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

My first session was hot, hard, and sweaty; and exactly what I needed. I had found something to focus my energy on, something that made me feel healthier, gave me a goal to work towards and was a fun way to spend my mornings. Especially now that winter was looming and my weekly hikes were going to be put on hold.

Did the yoga classes fix everything? No. Of course I still felt angry at Korea for things I deemed “stupid”. I still got annoyed when Koreans bumped into me, or pushed in front of me to get on the train first. I still got frustrated and longed to hear people speak English. I still spent weekends in the foreigner neighborhood simply because I needed a break from Korea.

But the yoga classes were the first in a long list of coping mechanisms that I adopted to process my new life in Korea. Over time, as I found more things that made me happy, I learned to fixate less on the things about Korea that annoyed me, and adapt more to the parts of it that I enjoyed.

I made a group of friends. On the weekends, we took trips around the country, exploring waterfalls, beachside towns, and climbing mountains. The rest of the time, we adventured around Seoul, which many times boiled down to just finding the new, hippest spot to drink soju and beer.

Eventually I progressed towards the fourth stage of culture shock, I started to adapt and feel comfortable in Seoul. I had my bus routes, my subway station, my friends, and my life there. When it came time for my one year teaching contract to end, I extended it for a further three months.

Culture Shock Comes in Stages, But You’ll Survive

The moral of my story is not to scare you away from moving abroad. I would firmly encourage anything thinking about studying or living abroad to go for it! It was the best decision I ever made. But you will experience culture shock and it will be a challenge.

In an upcoming post, I’ll cover some of the coping mechanisms I used to overcome my culture shock, and at least make the 4 stages more bearable.


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The 4 Stages of Culture Shock hit everyone who moves or studies abroad in a foreign country.