Korea: Looking Back

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(Written two weeks after coming home.)

Already I miss Korea. I was desperate to leave the situation I was in, but Korea itself was never the problem.

I miss walking up the uneven sidewalk to the crosswalk, where I always waited. Sometimes I waited with others, sweat pouring off me in the summer humidity.

Sometimes I waited in silence, the special padded silence of falling snow, on those rare mornings it fell.

Sometimes I would run into a coworker. Let’s leave it at that.

I miss the walk; that calm ten to twelve minutes on the way, when the steady rhythm of my feet evened out the day ahead of me. The first wrinkle ironed.

I must have walked that way and back hundreds of times. Almost every day for two years. Sometimes on weekends too. I wonder if I had closed my eyes and felt with my feet if I could have guessed where I stood at any point along the way.

I miss waiting for the 102 bus to Jeongja, where I played D&D. I miss walking to the station in fine weather to the mall to shop, or just to the Kimbap King to get food that didn’t come from a convenience store.

 

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The path to school – one I walked hundreds of times, and every season it changed.

 

I miss the spring rain of cherry blossoms.

I miss the few friends I made there. I miss the things we said to each other every day.

Funny, how quickly all the problems shrink as they move past. Funny, how everything that seemed heinous seems laughable now. Funny. It’s not.

Korea from this moment looks like my regular life, the one I will return to when I wake up.

I wonder what Korea will look like when I realize I have woken up.

I wonder what Korea will look like ten years from now.

Korea, Korea, land that I miss.

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Living as an HSP Expat

Do you live in a country other than your native land? Do you wish you could, but feel that your sensitivity might hold you back or make the whole experience traumatic? Being an HSP and living abroad does present some unique challenges, but it is also an amazing and totally worthwhile adventure even for us sensitive types! Before I delve into that, I want to take a moment to elaborate on something Elaine Aron says in her book about Highly Sensitive Persons;

The Brain’s Two Systems

One system, the “behavioral activation” system is hooked up to parts of the brain that take in messages from the senses and send out orders to the limbs to get moving. This system [moves] us toward things, especially new ones. When the activation system is operating, we are curious, bold, and impulsive. The other system is called the “behavioral inhibition” system. This system is said to move us away from things… It makes us alert, cautious, and watchful for signs. …This system is hooked up to all parts of the brain…noted to be more active in “inhibited” children.

(My note; Aron gives the inhibition system a new name; the pause-to-check system, and notes that though this system seems stereotypically undesirable, it is vital for survival and that everyone has this. HSPs merely have a more sensitive inhibition system.)

Some [HSPS] might have only an average-strength pause-to-check system but an activation system that is even weaker. This kind of HSP might be very calm, quiet, and content with a simple life.

Another kind of HSP could potentially have an even stronger pause-to-check system but an activation system that is also very strong – just not quite as strong. This kind of HSP would be both curious and very cautious, bold yet anxious, easily bored yet easily overaroused. The optimal level of arousal is a narrow range. (My note; Arousal here meaning stimulation to the nervous system by sounds, sights, social interaction, work, stressors, etc.) One could say there is a constant power struggle between the advisor (pause-to-check) and the impulsive, expansive warrior within the person.”

Aron goes on to ask a series of questions; “What type are you? Is it easy for you to be content with a quiet life? Or are the two branches that govern you in constant conflict? That is, do you always want to be trying new things even if you know that afterward you will be exhausted?”*

I’m this way. I love novelty. I desire to get out there and see new things; experience life. That’s why I love to travel. But there’s always been this tension within me, and I realized after reading Aron’s book that it was because I had both a strong activator and a strong inhibitor. I was always bold yet anxious.

I’ve moved abroad twice in my life (talk about bold), once with a friend and once alone. But it was challenging when literally everything around me was stimulating to my nervous system. I couldn’t rest my eyes or ears anywhere around me. There was nothing familiar or safe.

As an HSP, how did I handle that? I’m going to share with you some tips if you’re an HSP looking to travel long-term or move abroad. It may not work for you, as each HSP is unique, but hopefully, these ideas will put you on a path to adjusting well wherever you go.

Research the Country

I did a huge amount of research about Taiwan and Korea prior to moving. I read books about the culture, language, stories, blogs from other teachers who lived and worked there and watched documentaries and Youtube videos. (Eatyourkimchi is the best for Korea and, more recently, Japan.) I even looked up the area I’d be moving to in Google Earth and virtually walked around the neighborhoods. It was incredible! But more than the fun factor, seeing it – the differences in building types, car designs, road layouts – helped me acclimate before I ever moved. Sure, it’s wonderful and exciting to see how different cultures live, but as an HSP, you have to adjust slowly or the shock could be devastating.

Keep a Low Profile at Work

My first semester at school I hardly spoke up. I wasn’t a total newbie at teaching, but I was new at my work, new to the culture, new to the team, new to everything. My ideas wouldn’t have fit at the time.

I listened at meetings. I listened to the other teachers, to their problems and solutions, their ideas and complaints, and absorbed it all quietly. Only after my first few months did I start offering my own suggestions, and by then I’d built enough of a reputation as being reliable and efficient that people listened to me. This advice is good for anyone entering a new workplace, but it was essential to me as an HSP. I couldn’t have handled taking on the extra responsibilities I have now. I lead committees, head events, organize camps, and do a whole host of other jobs besides teaching. My first semester, as a new teacher and new expat, I needed to survive. And that meant doing only what I could handle at work. I don’t like to advocate the bare minimum, but it’s hard enough adjusting to a move overseas and a new job even for extroverts. Hang back at first while you get your bearings, and then start to be more adventurous.

Practice Intense Self-Care

I qualify self-care here because when I think of self-care, I tend to think of bubble baths and pedicures and those small, luxurious, unnecessary to survival but fun things that adults do. For HSPs, those things are nice, but often what we need is something more. We need quiet, dark places to rest. We need a home that feels welcoming and safe to return to every day. Some of us need our books or art or whatever it is we love around us.

The first weeks in a new country are the hardest. You’re adjusting to it all, and everything that should be easy is new and scary. Grocery shopping, figuring out bills and trash, getting a phone and internet; it’s all different, and if there’s a language barrier, even harder to access.

If you know what to expect, even if what you can expect is tough, it helps. Try to build familiarity with your area as soon as you can, which will mean pushing yourself out of your comfort zones for a while. You need to pound the streets, getting used to the sights and smells and sounds of the place. My grocery store down the road feels safe now because it’s familiar. Same with the local cafe and convenience store. There might be better ones just as close, but since those are where I went during my first months, they’ve stayed in my zone. Small things are also a huge help when you’re adjusting. Find a drink from home, or a drink or snack you love that you can return to again and again to get that feeling of familiarity.

Find Your Tribe

After you settle in and have found some safe places, find a tribe. It might take longer to do this, but that’s natural.

For me, this was D&D. I had never actually played in the US, but the people I met in Korea were like me; nerdy, introverted, witty. For you, it might be joining a writing club, or a jogging or photography club. One guy I know goes to soccer games every weekend and volunteer coaches. Another friend volunteers at homes for orphans and with North Korean refugees. Find a church, a club, a gym, something you can go to to find like-minded people. Even for introverts, it’s nice to have somewhere and someone to help you feel integrated into the new world.

Make a House (or Apartment) a Home

If you don’t intend to live overseas forever, it can be hard to make your latest abode feel like yours. Especially in Asian countries, the apartments provided by the schools tend to be small. Really small if you’re single. When I first moved into my new place, I felt like I had reverted to a dorm. It was much smaller than my old apartment. We’re talking one room, kitchenette type. I resisted putting anything on the walls for ages. I just couldn’t make myself do it. I knew I wouldn’t stay in that place, even if I did stay in Korea. But after a year, I decided to try and decorate.

It really does make a difference. Adding in my own touches makes my small apartment feel more welcoming, and more like me. I look around and see things I like. I see my imprint, which makes it more comforting.

There are tons of ways you can spruce up a tiny living space, even on a budget. Pinterest, of course, has millions of ideas. My solutions? Paper flowers, printed quotes, floral themed kitchen supplies, cute mugs, and a really pretty wall calendar. Simple, small touches.

Connect With Other HSPs

It was important for me not to feel too weird and out there as an HSP. I’m sure some of my friends are, but I had no one who identified as one besides me until I went online.

This is more general advice for HSPs than for expats specifically, but it’s doubly important when you need comfort overseas. Finding other HSPs helps in many ways. If you’re new to the idea, knowing how many others like you are out there helps the disingenuous feelings that sometimes come when you discover something new about yourself.

It’s also nice to reach out and say, “Help!” when you’re not sure what’s going on and connect to someone who’s gone through something similar.

Fandoms are also a nice way to stay involved with people who share your interests. They might not all be HSPs, but being able to geek out together is precious. 🙂

Are you an HSP living overseas? Was it easy or difficult to get adjusted? I look forward to hearing from you!

*P.S. If you think you are an HSP, or you might know one, I encourage you to read Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person. Reading this passage without the background and further information might give it a false connotation.

Excerpts from my journal; Late June 2017

June 26

It’s been nearly a week. I’m home on vacation now, trying not to think about the fact that my week is nearly taken up by meetings with friends and appointments and how much that stresses me out. One day I will plan a vacation with actually nothing. But I suppose it’s good to be doing all this. I did need the chiropractor, and I’m sure I’ll have fun. I just…enjoy not having a schedule sometimes.

The flight was good. I’m getting so used to it now the dread is abating for the most part. Even the prospect of a twenty-one hour flight to NZ isn’t daunting. It’ll be long and boring but it will end. I’m glad I’m to the point where flying isn’t a big deal.

There’s a lot to do, and I keep not doing things. I keep putting off contacting people because I don’t actually want to do anything. I just want to sit here and sleep and walk around and look out the window and think about nothing.

It’s odd though, because as soon as I landed I felt like I’d never left, like the six months since I was here last didn’t even go by.

The best part so far has been the D&D playing and planning I did with my brother. I got off the plane, he took me to eat, and then we went to his friend’s place to play. My brother is the Dungeon Master for his friends, and he brought me in as a surprise villain – a white dragon. It was beautiful. I was an excellent liar and an excellent villain. They were so indignant. It made me want to move home just so I could join their games.

I’m here this coming Saturday night too, so I get to play again. That’s about the only thing I actually want to go out and do. I am such a nerd.

July 29

While I’ve been home I went on a road trip with my best friend. It was amazing in a lot of ways, kind of painful in others. For instance, staying in a five-star hotel convinced me that staying in five-star hotels is not something I enjoy. Particularly the valet part. I don’t understand how valets work, so I kept opening my own door as they were reaching for it. Awkward. And I kept getting to the hotel door before them too. Awkward. I also got my own luggage out. Not even in some display of female power; I just didn’t realize they were going to do it. Other hotels don’t. Ha ha ha ouch.

And the room itself was just a room. Granted, a very clean room, and one with impressively massive pillows, but, in the end, just a room. We didn’t use the facilities, so I’m guessing a lot of the fancy was down there.

We walked around the downtown area. That I enjoyed. I like pretending I’m urban and cool and walk around downtowns all the time. Which I do, in Korea, so I’m not sure why I felt so falsely pretentious. It might have had to do with the fact that I had to hold my dress down the entire time. Curse the wind.

So we walked and had lavender coffee and went to a scratch kitchen (where they make everything from scratch. Shame, as I was hoping for one of those scratching sticks) and had amazing burgers and then to a bar to meet her friend and I had two gin drinks with strange names that were pretty good, experienced DIY s’mores, which seems dangerous with open flames and alcohol so abundant but okay, and went back to the hotel room early for such urban walkers and instead watched TV and did at-home pedicure treatments. Ah yeah. My kind of night.

July 1

It’s been several days again. My time in America has almost ended, but not my vacation. Tomorrow night I will leave for New Zealand. I keep putting off mentally thinking about it since I’m pretty nervous, I guess. I wouldn’t have thought so. I think I’m just worried it won’t be as good as I want it to be. I want it to be the best thing in my life, but that’s a pretty high expectation. The memories will be good. The experience might have a lot of discomfort and stress. That’s okay.

Tonight I’m going back to DnD. Tomorrow I leave for Middle Earth.

Excerpts from my journal; Mid June 2017

June 14

7 is my unlucky number. It’s unlucky because every morning I wake up around 5:30 or 6am, and so when I go to bed and set my alarms, I tend to see “Alarm set for 7 hours and xx minutes.” And I used to have a mini panic every time. I’m getting less than 8 hours of sleep tonight! my mind would yell. I’m going to be soo tired tomorrow I won’t be able to function, and my skin will get worse, and my health will deteriorate, and my mind won’t work properly, and I won’t be able to be creative tomorrow night!…and so on. I firmly and utterly believed that I needed at least 8 hours of sleep to be okay. Even if the time was 7 hours and 59 minutes, that wasn’t okay. Because I knew that I would spend at least half an hour actually falling asleep, and then I had blown it. But going to bed before or at 9 just wasn’t okay either. Aside from being too grandmotherly (and I already have that image, thanks), it would mean I only had 4 hours of time every evening. Between showering, eating dinner, and the other mindless tasks I need to do every night, that would not be enough time to do all the relaxing and working on of projects that I wanted. I’ve always had a weird relationship with time.

My internet stopped working on Monday night. It’s a bummer. I did a bunch of things to it and tried to fix it myself for two days, but at some point you just have to adult up and call the dang service man. Well, in this case I made my Korean friend call in case the English person asked me questions I didn’t know. But it got done. Now I just have to go home and wait awkwardly until the service man comes, then wait awkwardly while he fixes it, and maybe awkwardly answer his questions. Awkwardly. Boo.

I do love Korea though, because they sent me a text with the guy’s name, number, and picture so I don’t get a creeper. Considerate.

I have become the school editor. Today I had 3 things sent to me by coworkers to be edited. Looked over. Even my boss’s boss has sent me things to be checked before they get posted or sent out. I am the editor. The Editor. I feel like I could legitimately get that on a mug now.

Today is Wednesday. Meeting day. Which means the last part of my work day is always a nasty cold sore on the mouth of the day. Ugh. Usually it’s fine, but always painful. Always just a lot of meaningless dribble.

June 15

The first week I was in Korea, I didn’t have a coffee maker. I bought and drank the cold coffees from the convenience store downstairs, but it was a sad and lackluster replacement. There’s nothing like hot, strong, fresh coffee to wake you up.

I wanted fresh coffee desperately before I got a machine. I had to be creative to get it. I had a saucepan, and paper towels, and a thermos. I made filters from the paper towels, set it in the thermos, added the grounds, then spooned boiling water from the saucepan over it. Hand dripped coffee, bam. It was amazing. But time-consuming. I did that for way longer than I should have. I feel like it might have been a week, or it might have felt like a week.

I ended up ordering a machine, so that delayed the process even more. Eventually, the tiny, red, four-cup maker came, and he’s been my morning friend for two years. Bless him.

Last night the internet got fixed. Kind of. It worked for about an hour and then kaput. I got angry, laid down and read a book for a while, then went out and unplugged it and plugged it back in. It worked. Then this morning it was out again. So I got angry, made coffee, then went out and unplugged it and plugged it back in. It’s working now. It might just become part of my routine. What a pain.

I use a curler on my bangs now. I’d seen girls in dramas use them. Their front hair curled up, looking ridiculous, as they did their makeup or headed to work. Yes, work. It reminds me of the old ladies who would go about with curlers in their hair. I even see some of the high school students at school doing it. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s supposed to be cute? Like, oh, you’ve seen into my getting ready moments. Oh, you see me trying to be pretty. 

Today it seems like many things happened in a very short space of time. But now I can’t actually think of what they were. Just a feeling then.

June 16

My body is for carrying my head around. So let’s not get carried away on vanity.

This morning I was on watch duty in the elementary hallway. Teachers take turns making sure kids don’t destroy themselves or each other. As I was watching, a first-grade girl walked up the stairs reading a book. She was walking really slowly and paused as she stopped by the shelf to change her shoes. She read with one hand while she awkwardly pulled her shoes off with her feet, then, still reading one-handed, she sat down on the floor and slipped on her indoor shoes.

That instance made me want to write a story about her. Imagine who she’ll grow up to be. Imagine how great of a person if she continues to keep up her love of reading. But there’s the potential for mischief too. She’s a little strange. A little odd. It could help her or hinder her. I know. I was always a little off too. Always on the outside. Always.

Yesterday as I was walking home I noticed something new. While waiting at the crosswalk, I don’t usually look up. People notice other people looking up, so they look with them. Most people look at the ground or straight ahead. But I looked up because I was tired. I have stood at that crosswalk a hundred times by now. I noticed then for the first time the tower. There’s a big metal pole that I’ve passed many, many times. It’s much thicker than an ordinary streetlight or telephone pole, but it was always part of the background. As I looked up, I noticed that it was standing alone, and was very tall. My first thought was that it was an alarm, for air raids or bad weather. But there were no speakers. Three-quarters of the way up was a small platform with a ledge you could walk around and a small railing. Whirligigs were placed at intervals all around. The same thing at the very top, with another smaller projection with some unseeable instrument at the top. I assume the tower is for weather. The whirligigs and possibly the rain collector testify to that. It must relay information to the nearest weather station. I looked up and down the street and didn’t see any others.

I tell this story because it was amazing to me to notice something for the first time that I’ve walked by for almost two years. Strange what the mind overlooks. Strange what becomes just part of the background. A lesson, to always look up.

June 18

Yesterday I was out all day. I don’t do that very often. I went shopping with my friends, ate lunch, then watched Wonder Woman. It was…wonderful. Haha ugh.

I did love it though. As a movie, it was just great. Better than good, but not amazing. But as empowerment, it was epic. Gal Gadot is my new hero. She should be the ideal woman. Beautiful, kind, strong, muscled, fighter.

One of my other friends had said she loved the movie so much because it was a contrast to other female superheroes. Many other movies portray women superheroes as men without…uh…man parts. They act exactly the same. But Wonder Woman acted like a woman. They didn’t steal her femininity to make her strong. I agree. They showed a mother’s love, a daughter’s independence, womanly tears, and compassion. They gave her those things without making her weak. It was beautiful. And they didn’t emasculate the men around her either. That was important.

Yeah, I loved that movie. It made me aspire to be her, and that’s what superhero movies are about. They should make us want to be like the hero. Men should look up to Captain America because he is good and just and strong. Women should look up to Wonder Woman for the same reasons. She is good and just and strong. 

Let’s keep our heroes.

Today I have my last D&D session before I go on vacation. Most of my party will be leaving Korea for good, so we’re doing a special Battle Royale tonight. 

 

June 19

I have strep throat again. I had it about a month ago, and I guess I didn’t kick it. I left it a while before I went to the doctor, so maybe that was why. This time I went as soon as I found out, today.

I didn’t go to my usual doctor though. A friend found an ENT closer to home, and specialists in Korea are cheaper. Win win. The reason they’re cheaper is that it’s usually a very tiny practice with one elderly doctor and a couple of nurses.

This time, I went in, handed over my ID card to get signed in, and was seen about two minutes later. I sat down in a very strange chair. It was kind of like a dentist’s chair, but I didn’t get laid back. There were a variety of instruments next to the chair, also like a dentist’s, that I wish I could have seen closer.

The doctor came out, and elderly he was indeed. He asked me if I spoke Korean, and I said no. I do, enough, but it’s always easier to just speak English in a doctor’s. I’m not up to the phlegm chapter of “Learn Korean Vocabulary.” He asked me what my symptoms were, and painstakingly typed them in English into his program. Then he took a look and said, “Ah. Your tonsils are infected.” Yep. Knew that. So then he told me to say ‘ahhhhh’ and the nurse handed him a metal spray bottle attached by a hose to the console next to me. Uh huh. Okay. What? He sprayed my throat, swabbed it with a metal pole, then sprayed something else after. It tasted like medicine. In a word, awful.

I grimaced as he told me I would need antibiotics. Thanks, that’s what I’m here for.

Then came the strangest part. The nurse told me to come with her, and she led me to a tiny cubicle off to the side. There was a contraption set up I had to sit down in front of. Now, if you grew up with asthma like I did, you’ll probably know what a breathing machine is. If not, pay attention. There is a long plastic hose attached to the main part of the machine. This hose extends and is attached to a head that you typically hold and breathe in and out of. You dispense the liquid medicine underneath and the machine vaporizes it so you can inhale the medicine.

I say typically, because this one was suspended in a plastic sheet to be hands free. So she started it up, the vapor started to come out, and she told me to…in broken English…come close and open my mouth and say ahh. That’s all. She didn’t tell me to breathe specifically but that’s what humans do so I did. I sat leaning forward, about eight inches away from the opening, breathing in the general direction of the vapor. I could taste it, so I know it was working, but really? I couldn’t hold it? It couldn’t be rigged so I didn’t have to lean forward awkwardly for a minute?

The minute passed, and I was done for real. I got my prescription, took it down the hall and got my meds. Done in ten minutes. And the best part? The entire thing cost about 7,000W, less than seven USD. Now to see how fast this works. And if I can open my eyes tomorrow without a headache. Culture day is coming up…

June 20

When you’re a small child teacher, I’d say kindergarten to second, every time there’s an event, you end up with the same dilemma. Students are supposed to do the work themselves. It makes it more meaningful and that’s the whole point of the event. But children can’t make things and decide things, so the teacher inevitably does everything. It’s just easier. I hung the flags and put up the photobooth because it was easier than figuring out how to tell my students to do it well. Plus with the tonsillitis or whatever I have, talking is too hard.