Moving Abroad After University Isn’t “Running Away” From Responsibility, It’s The Best Thing I’ve Ever Done
With change comes new experiences, new stories and renewal.
Living abroad allowed me to form my character in a way that nothing else could, because it was entirely dictated by me. Somehow, in the year after my graduation, I ended up moving to South Korea to teach English. Some may look at that as running away or a convenient way to put off the responsibility of an office job for a bit longer, but I think it was one of the most important things I have ever done.
When I was younger, my Dad always returned to the same story. He would tell me about how he left North Africa aged 18 with £3 and a chicken, moved into a flat in Croydon with a man named Hassan and worked at a Wimpy bar. His point was that without any English, or any knowledge of how large the city was that he had found himself in, he was able to get a job in, and eventually manage, a Wimpy bar. When he arrived in Heathrow he took a bite out of a Cornish pasty, expecting it to be sweet. He later told me that until he moved to England he had never seen the tide before and didn’t understand where the water went.
I’ve grown up with stories of travel and the knowledge that continents, islands and the oceans vary greatly in their depths. Through my Dad, I learned that there are places out there where it seems like the water never moves. I grew up compelled by the idea of finding my own Hassan and trying to understand how strange leaving home must be.
Months and months had passed since graduation without me seeing anything new.
When I left uni I was sure that the BBC would get a push notification or something and contact me directly. I graduated with a First-Class honours degree, but that fact receded into the distance at a rapid rate and is now, to me, fully resigned to the past. The moment I learned to concede my degree’s importance and the assumption that the world owed me anything as a result of my achieving it, I became prepared to do anything. I was doing unpaid internships in London and was trying to maintain a long distance relationship with my girlfriend in Cambodia and I realised something needed to change. I felt like I was being pushed into decisions rather than making my own.
Some people dye their hair, some choose to get a tattoo – but in the end I decided to listen to a guy I met in GCSE Graphics class and buy a one way ticket to South Korea and teach small children. It turns out you don’t need a TEFL to teach in South Korea, all you need is a degree and the confidence to dedicate a year of your life to the unknown.
I don’t think I was running away, but rather, I was looking to make sense of a disparate, confusing, temporary time in my life and lay out the potential for something new. Months and months had passed since graduation without me seeing anything new.
Committing to a life abroad isn’t running away, repeating the same route is.
The summer before I left for South Korea I had gotten into this habit of running around the periphery of my village. Each night I would push myself further and try to do it faster. When I would reach the fields or find myself running alongside traffic it became clear what the village limits were. Committing to a life abroad isn’t running away, repeating the same route is. University proved that meeting new people was possible, in my mind South Korea was the same exercise but on a larger scale.
With a 4-day stopover in Bangkok, which came with a break-up on a hotel roof and a private, midnight airport farewell that gave me my first experience of saying goodbye to someone forever, I flew to Daegu.
I remember my layover in Mumbai and speaking to an English man who asked me where I came from and where I was going. He was on his way to meet his girlfriend to travel South East Asia. It was humid and, for the first time, I told a story that was unique. If I was asked the same question a year earlier I would’ve sounded like everyone else. That feeling has motivated me ever since.
The job was in a hagwon, so my working hours stretched from 2pm to 10pm – meaning that my kids had already been at school before they arrived at the evening academy I taught at. Despite their fatigue and hunger, they had to learn English from me: a man with no teaching experience or knowledge of Korean. Lessons turned into game shows and tests evolved into me asking them whatever came into my head.
Even though they couldn’t discern the difference between ‘B’ and ‘V’ and couldn’t pronounce my name, I had a good relationship with them. Pierre, Bumblebee, Crazy John and Fourth Grade Sam will always be some of the funniest people I have been around. My blue eyes confused them and their passion for K-pop, Minecraft and Samsung confused me. But we had our own language going on.
I think the whole experience of 15 months living in South Korea offered me the chance to work through everything I had ever done and everything I had ever learned.
I came to see the value in my experiences and understand how to talk about them. I learned what it meant to be from England and that pouring baked beans on toast is actually very weird. Each day came with a new conversation and a new question to answer. Whether someone is from Mayo or California or Toronto or Glasgow, everyone has his or her own Bangkok-rooftop breakup moment. Living away from home and surrounding yourself with new buildings, sounds and smells pushes whatever emotional hangovers you may have firmly into the past.
I feel full of stories that no one can understand and moments that are enduring.
Life under a visa and having a natural, healthy end date was invigorating. I had no inhibition, there wasn’t a single permanence to what I did and saying goodbye to close friends became so commonplace it developed into a new normal. It showed me how claustrophobic university can be and how overblown something like a graduation ceremony is. I walked naked around other Korean men daily in a jjimjibang, ate dog, saw women close a wedding ceremony by shooting confetti out of a trumpet and spent 6 hours in a norabang. I feel full of stories that no one can understand and moments that are enduring. And, after all of that, walking into a job interview or starting a conversation with someone at a bar seems the easiest and most normal activity in the world.
Now, the idea of 15 months in Daegu is exactly that: an idea. It’s a verb and an adjective; it’s a period of my life that could easily have been spent in uninspired offices or bars and would’ve taught me nothing. For whatever reason at the time, my life pointed toward a southern city in South Korea and I regret none of it.
I now understand what it was like to take a bite out of a Cornish pasty, unaware that it was sweet.