Sometimes in life we learn how to make new experiences for ourselves. Learning how to make something happen takes courage, timing, and a little bit of luck. In my case I guess I could say that I have made many new experiences since I moved away for college.
I can not fully take credit for these experiences because I was fully supported for the majority of them. Pretty much up until I moved to Washington, D.C. to attend graduate school I had never made new experiences on my own. For example, finding housing without my university’s or parent’s help, landing an internship on my own without any referrals, paying for my own rent, managing my own health expenses, saving my own money, etc. The list has grown even more as the years go by, but nothing on my list of experiences really compares to living abroad by yourself.
When you live alone abroad you not only take care of your housing or finances, you take care of your entire existence. You learn how (if not learned already) to truly live on your own by supporting yourself. From finding housing, paying rent on time, maintaining a valid visa status, buying basic essentials, affording groceries, getting sleep, adapting to your surroundings, and trying to survive your new environment. You take care of all these things in order to stay afloat and live decently if not comfortably.
For me, the decision to live abroad was a longtime desire and dream. But, I was not fully prepared to realistically live my dream. I was not fully prepared to move to a Korea where I had barely recognized and understood the language on a conversational level. Nor was I fully prepared to spend the first few months feeling ostracized as an outsider due to Korean cultural norms of friends by certain shared experiences such as: same elementary~high school type friends, same neighborhood type friends, same church type goer friends. Lastly, I was not fully prepared for the (+/-) experiences that changed me.
In life we learn by living and we live by learning. This cycle never stops. For me, everyday I was abroad I was living and learning. I was learning about living somewhat all over again, by living in Korea. Learning how to talk,read, & write, how to make new friends, how to respect my Korean elders, how to eat certain foods, how to find affordable housing, how to use city transportation, and how to better express myself.
Learning however is never easy. For me learning Korean was a long uphill climb just like learning Japanese (*studied 4 yrs in college) was. But, one significant difference was the amount of time I put into learning outside of the classroom. Spending my time outside of the classroom I used as much Korean as I was able to communicate with the locals as well as with my Korean friends. My Korean language skills dramatically increased not only from my practices, but continued determination.
This was also true in my quest to overcome social norms in Korea and trying to make genuine Korean friends. Unlike many of my foreign grad school classmates, I was not living in Korea just for fun. I was living in Korea because of my dream to learn more about the country, language, people, etc. Not only did I want to learn more I also wanted to feel closer to the place I began to view as my second home. However, during my first few months I started to realize that learning the language did not better integrate me in Korea. Even if I studied the language more I would still be viewed as an outsider. This was also true in terms of being well-received and making genuine Korean friends. Both inside and outside of school I did not make many Korean friends because many of my Korean acquaintances did not make time. They simply did not make time for me due to their choice in meeting with certain groups, or individuals they were more familiar with.
Ostracized. That is how many foreigners feel when they live in another country, especially a country not immensely integrated or diverse. For many of my foreign grad school classmates having fun in Korea meant having fun with other foreigners. They were not interested too much in trying to feel more part of their new home. I, however, wanted to overcome the feeling of being ostracized.
Being black in Korea I already understood that I might be viewed as different. However, I did not believe that I would be somewhat ostracized because of the color of my skin. But, truthfully, there were times that I was. While living in Korea some foreigners experience some type of racism. Whether it is verbal, non-verbal, direct or indirect they experience it. In my case, I experienced being ostracized for looking different. But, I never viewed it as racism but rather a slight case of xenophobia. I viewed Koreans who shied from me and chose not to interact with me as xenophobic rather than racist because never did I feel any ill-will from them towards me.
After accepting that I may or may not be widely welcomed as I resided in Korea I still tried to feel comfortable in my new second home and to make new friends. In the process I learned how to live with an open conscious, to meet and greet everyone I met with respect, to be more understanding of Korean cultural norms, to acclimate to Korean foods, to overcome xenophobic feelings towards me, to be happy being different, and to share my feelings and views more often. I learned how to live a better life by learning how to do all these things.
Looking at my life before Korea and now I certainly learned much more than I would’ve had I not moved abroad. The experience ultimately was the biggest learning experience in my life so far. My takeaway from the new experiences I have made is being able to know that I can change and adapt. I can change and adapt to better understand the norms and cultures in other countries, I can change and adapt to acclimate to xenophobic feelings towards me, and I change and adapt my shell where I respect the environment I am in, but can still be myself.
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