A few days ago, I wrote about what I learned after leaving home for a year-long trip to South Korea, the first time I’d been away from home for longer than a two-week period. Click here to read the first five lessons I learned from surveying the wide-open world and challenging myself in unexpected ways.
And here’s part two:
I don’t need to be high-maintenance.
I come from a family of individuals with OCD tendencies and an appreciation for convenience, so I tend to prefer things a certain way. For a mild example, I had to shower every single morning—I didn’t feel like myself if I wasn’t absolutely clean—and almost always made my bed before I went to sleep at night—usually right before I crawled into it—just because I couldn’t stand sleeping in untucked-in sheets. Spontaneity was tedious, and changing up my small daily routines was uncomfortable.
But those kinds of needs change when you’re backpacking on an island in the Philippines, drenched in sweat 100% of the day, and your only shower comes from a tiny closet-sized bathroom, the floor probably splashed in other tourists’ urine, with a broken lock on the door. There comes a time when you have to risk the potential diseases and the possibility that someone will walk in on you so that you can get the sand out of your hair. I also learned to sleep anywhere: on planes wedged in between strangers; on dusty airport floors snuggled under a nylon hammock, backpack pillowed under my head; in a van rattling so hard as it sped up and down hills that I woke every 20 minutes when I cracked my head on the window.
And crowds, they used to stress me out. When everyone’s taller than you, it’s easy to feel claustrophobic in the middle of a mob. The population in Korea is so dense, though, that you can rarely escape the crowds, and I got used to being swept along by the people like floating on an inner-tube in a lazy-river, or darting in and out of them like a fish.
I would say that germs don’t bother me like they used to (since the Korean way is to share bars of soap at the sinks in public restrooms and not wear gloves when taking a patient’s blood at a hospital), but now that I’m working with American kids on a daily basis, I spend half my day at a bathroom sink, washing away the germs that are constantly sneezed in my direction. So, in that sense, nothing’s changed; I just have more patience.
I am comfortable in my body.
Being a bit of a chubster my whole life (and just being human in general), I’ve always struggled with having a positive self-image. While I was away in Korea, though, training in jiu jitsu made me healthier, and for the first time in my life, I could feel my waist getting smaller and my arms getting stronger. It was weird. And awesome. I’m not saying that everyone with a negative body image just needs to go exercise to fix their problems, because I still struggle and will probably never love my body every day of my life no matter how healthy my weight, but for me, exercising helped. Knowing that I was working hard towards making myself healthier and seeing the results I had wanted for a long time, but never had either the motivation or the resources to achieve, encouraged me to love not only my stronger, more energetic body, but also my more perseverant and courageous inward self.
One of the strangest experiences I had in Korea was going to the bathhouses/saunas called jjimjilbangs. In these saunas, women stride around completely naked, enjoying the herb-infused pools of water ranging from you-could-cook-noodles-in-here hot to depths-of-the-arctic cold. I went to the Korean saunas often for someone who didn’t even like changing her clothes in front of other women. Even though it’s strange in American culture, it was actually a very relaxing and beautifying experience. And it made me realize that none of us have anything to be ashamed of. Like, I’m not about to join a nudist colony, and I’m still a huge advocate for wearing clothes in public, or just wearing clothes in general, but it’s nice to be confident enough in your own body that you can willingly go to a place like that and forget, for a while, how strange it is to be in the buck with a bunch of other women who are similarly vulnerable.
I don’t have to be friends with everyone.
I lived with my parents most of my way through college, so I never experienced the dorm life, at least until I moved to Korea and discovered that even grown adults, ages 23 to 40-something, could still have petty arguments and drama.
My trip abroad brought forth the first person I had ever struggled to get along with since my 6th grade P.E. class when another Sara (no “h”, it figures) threw a ball at my face, knocking my glasses onto the cold gym floor, and said, “See? That’s why you shouldn’t wear glasses in P.E.”
At my school’s teacher dorms in Korea, being patronized by a girl who was known for her gossip-addiction and competitive nature in her friendships, feeling her calculate me from near and afar, was too much to take seriously. So, I admit, making fun of the fake-laughter photos she took with her friends by way of parody was over the line and immature on my part, but in the end, it was healthy for me to learn that, against the wishes of my people-pleasing personality, I don’t have to be friends with everyone.
I can be friends with anyone, in spite of communication barriers.
Thankfully, the friends I made brought me so, so much joy, laughter, support, and adventure, while putting up with my dorkiness, puns, and Walking Dead-inspired fan-fiction I wrote about them and our lives at DGEV. Living and working and traveling and jiu jitsuing and churching with the same people meant so many became family to me.
But not all of my friends spoke English. Some I communicated with through a hurdle of translating and copy-and-pasting from phone apps, or through verbally exchanging phrases from the small mental list we had from each other’s languages. When it became a hastle, we just shared emojis or teased each other during jiu jitsu practice.
I was blessed to never have to be lonely in Korea, even if the only thing I had in common with someone was that we had both chosen to leave our homes and take on Korea.
I can say goodbye. I can endure heartache. I can heal.
As I packed my bags when my year in Korea ended, I cleaned out my dorm room and said goodbye after goodbye, constantly fighting sadness over leaving. I wasn’t sure when I’d be back. (I’m still not sure exactly when I’ll be back). It was so hard to say goodbye with that uncertainty.
Before I left Colorado and throughout most of my stay in Korea, I prayed and prayed that my family dog, Kody, would live until I got back. I didn’t want him to die while I was away and to not get to say goodbye. I buried my face in his fur before leaving for the airport, his warm body riddled with the hard lumps the vet said would each be a thousand dollars to remove. When my parents made the decision to put him down six months into my adventure abroad, my heart was painfully bruised. It was the hardest Skype call I had ever made, just me and my parents crying and my dog since childhood, for the slightest moment, looking into the computer screen before laying his head back down on his blanket, heavy.
Sadness dries up sometimes, but there are always moments when you remember what it felt like to say goodbye for the last time, or to be the one to leave in the first place, to turn away from tear-stained parents and walk another direction and know that it’s okay to look back once or twice, as long as you give yourself the chance to face something new. I’m learning to embrace that now, the good and bad of leaving home.