I believe that every person has a soul country-A place that instantly feels like home. Where the language and the people fit you like a well-worn pair of jeans. For me that country has always been Mexico. And yet, when my two friends embarked on a journey to live in my beloved Mexico, I opted instead to move to South Korea. I wish I could say it was because I was drawn there from some childhood passion or deep interest in the culture, but truthfully it was because I had a mountain of debt and couldn’t afford to live on pesos.
It simply came down to money. Because of my innate interest in all cultures, however, I poured myself into reading online about what to expect as an expat living in South Korea. Instantly I was thrown into the most dramatic cultural shock of my life.
Whereas in Mexico I could bump along in beat down taxis, chatting with the taxistas, In Korea I sat closed lipped in immaculate black cars fumbling with my few words, in hopes I would simply make it back to my apartment. In Mexico I fell into the big bosomed women with tortilla rolled bellies, inviting me in with hugs and tequilas. In Korea, I was shoved away by ajummas looking to get to the bus first, and held at an arms-length by strangers, who insanely polite, were distant and removed. Bowing was the greeting of choice, not kissing of cheeks.
Where in Mexico I couldn’t inhale deep enough to embrace the smell of sunshine and smoky tortillas, in Korea the pungent smells of kimchi and soju disarmed me. My spirit sings when I am in Mexico, and in Korea I slipped into the deepest depression of my life.
And yet, it is in these places of unrest, in not fitting in that we find joy in the little things.
I loved my kindergarten students. Loved them.
I filled up with equal parts sadness and pride when they graduated. I found solace hiking in the pristine mountains and in the echoes of chanting monks. I quietly made friends in the periphery and visited ancient tea houses.
I soul searched. I wrote poems and painted pictures.
I taught myself to cook. I sat with my sadness.
And I gave up -up and leaving in the middle of the night.
I cried amidst my plaguing jet lag, from heartache and from failure. And yet all these years later there are few travel experiences I am more grateful for than my year in Korea. My supposed heartache lead me to the man I was really meant to marry and without my experience teaching kindergarten I would have never found my true calling.
It is true God, everything does happen for a reason.
It is strange how now in the quiet moments there are parts of me that long for Korea--Her expansive blue skies and craggy mountains, her bustling markets, and serene temples.
I even find myself craving the spicy pickled flavors of kimchi.
So dear Korea, no you are not my soul country, but you forever have a piece of my soul….