There’s nothing quite like a one-way ticket.
Mine was to Prague.
It was 2009. I was about to graduate college. I had a journalism degree on the way and a ton of wanderlust, so I figured I’d go to Prague — a cheapish place to get an English teaching certification — and use teaching as a way to support myself while I explored Europe.
The economic crisis arrived in the Czech Republic at the same time I did. No matter how much I hustled, I couldn’t patch together a living with part-time work.
But one place did have lots of jobs for English teachers.
It was time to go to Seoul, the hyperfuturistic capital of South Korea. About 6,500 miles from my native Rockford, Illinois, the city of 10 million was literally a quarter of the way around the world from where I grew up.
I got there in January 2010 and left in January 2011.
Along the way I learned about kids, courage, and strikingly enough, America’s place in the world.
That the countries of the West have way more in common than I ever expected.
When I was in high school I had the privilege of visiting Europe. To me, Germany, France, Italy — they all felt like they were the moon, because the cultures were so different. Ice cream was gelato! Coffee was kaffee! There were buildings older than than my country! In Prague, people were making out everywhere: you couldn’t go up an escalator from the subway without spotting some soon-to-be-NSFW scene.
Then there’s Asia.
Spending time there made me realize that while Western countries have their differences, they’re all starkly different from East Asia.
For one, there’s the homogeneity. Major cities in the US and Europe have people of many ethnicities, but that’s not the case in East Asia. Recent headlines make it startlingly obvious: when a half-Japanese woman was crowned Miss Universe Japan earlier this year, Japanese conservatives flipped out, saying she’s not really Japanese. South Korea is going through a population crisis — partly because nobody wants to marry foreigners.
But it’s more than skin deep. Western thought springs from Ancient Greece and Eastern thought springs from Ancient China. So the two cultures have totally different takes on the concept of truth. In the West, it’s assumed that only one side of a debate can be correct; in the East, it’s assumed that right and wrong will be on both sides.
That having friends from another culture will teach you an insane amount.
One of my best friends in Seoul was an advertising guy and a fellow photography nerd Jay. We both had Fridays off, so we’d hop on the subway and get off at some yet-to-be-explored section of Seoul, checking out traditional hanok houses, hopping around art galleries, and eating insanely spicy food.
From Jay I learned a bit of what it was like to grow up in Seoul — and how to feel at home in a megacity.
That kids are great.
When I was in Prague I was teaching adults. In Seoul, I taught students from age 4 to 17. The little ones were super cute and super eager (and only sometimes a terror to keep in line). The teenagers were amazing. I had one group that I would meet on Saturdays; I called it the “critical thinking seminar.” We’d pick some issue in the news — from plastic surgery to smartphones — and write about how they shaped life in Korea.
They dropped some serious insight on me; one student, Teddy, said that “art was the exit of our mind’s freedom.”
Never going to forget that.
That you can actually move somewhere new and survive.
Here’s the big one: moving quarter-way across the world was super hard. I felt a ton of separation anxiety. I missed my family and friends like hell. After my girlfriend and I broke up (and she took most our mutual friends), I didn’t really have any close relationships on the entire continent.
So I just started talking to people. Getting drinks and dinner with colleagues. Worked on my “relationship with myself,” as all the books on meditation I was reading kept encouraging me to do. Journaling. Going on — gasp — dates. By the time I left Seoul, I made friends that I will keep for the rest of my life. Beyond that, I had the confidence that I could move somewhere and make a life for myself, no matter how foreign it felt.
Like, say, New York City.