I still cannot believe I’ve been here for (just shy of) a year. I can’t believe how much progress I’ve made in learning to read/write/speak/understand Korean (sometimes with significant resistance). I can’t believe how well I’ve adjusted to eating food far spicier than I ever tolerated in America (things like 떡볶이/tteokbokki or 닭갈비/dak-galbi). Hardest of all, I can’t believe how, after a year, I’m still regularly dealing with some of the same old demons, anxieties, frustrations, and challenges that haunted me before I ever stepped foot in Asia.
I know, I know. Two more months have passed since I last wrote. In those two months, I went to my first Pride Parade abroad (followed by a meltdown at seeing how many conservative Christians felt it was their God-ordained duty to protest said parade), started to work out again, made a new Korean friend, lost/was ghosted by said Korean friend for reasons I may never know, signed a new contract to extend my time in Korea by another year, and as of this week, finished another semester of teaching (including my first high school class). It would be a huge understatement to call the past two months busy/hectic/insane.
When I was in first or second grade, my first TV set was black and white with rotary dials and an antenna. No buttons, no remote, no cable TV. My childhood clothes often came from Family Dollar, Dollar General (where my mom worked), Goodwill, or on special occasions, Walmart. My first name brand pair of shoes were FILA (which, by the way, is an insanely popular brand here in South Korea). I remember thinking brands like Old Navy, JNCO, GAP, or any novelty item purchased at Spencer’s or later (the forbidden) Hot Topic gave a kid instant notoriety. Even in elementary school, I remember feeling deep sense of being different, long before I became aware of other ways in which my life and experience did not mirror those of my peers.
I just got back Monday from a weekend getaway to Seoul during which I got to see an old seminary friend while also making some new ones (both Korean and foreign). Good food, craft beers, amazing conversations (in both Korean and English), and letting myself get lost in a city that’s becoming more familiar with each subsequent visit. After a month of significant emotional processing and “spoon” recovery, the time away was vital to reclaiming my sanity. While I’ve really only taken time to travel to Seoul since I arrived, it’s a large enough city with enough diversity of people and of experiences that each time still feels new. Eventually I’ll make it to other cities in the country (and other countries as well). For now, there’s another kind of traveling I’ve been focusing on: traveling thru my own story.
Six months ago, I landed in South Korea and began this crazy adventure of teaching English to Korean elementary school students. I knew before signing my contract that I wanted my time living abroad to be not only challenging but also transformative, particularly in regard to my spiritual well-being. In the spirit of this desire, I heeded some sage advice and sought out a spiritual director I could work with. Based in California, N. (as I will call her) has experience working with creative types, with members of the LGBTQ+ community, and with trauma survivors. Initially, I thought I would just be working with her to reinvigorate my faith and my spiritual journey. What I didn’t realize was just how much trauma, particularly religious trauma, I experienced growing up and how the pain of that trauma is still very much with me today.
For many of my queer friends, the question is often posed to them by non-UMC friends, straight and gay alike, “Why don’t you just leave?” As someone who left the UMC because I could not pursue God’s call on my life into ordained ministry without sacrificing my integrity, I can attest to how frustrating and sometimes infuriating this question is. The question often comes from a place of care and with good intention, but only recently did I realize that it’s basically the same question these queer friends are asked by the conservative members of the denomination: “If you don’t like the way we do things here, why don’t you just leave?”
I thought about this period of winter, of silence and routine, and how the repetition and the quiet are training me to also slow down my need to move restlessly and unnecessarily. I think about what it would be like to stop moving for weeks at a time, not because I’m sick or incapacitated, but because it’s my body’s natural reaction to my environment. It’s what my body needs…
Social media. Texting. Messaging. Photos. Videos. News. Music. Online dating, or more accurately, online “dating.” Communication, if that’s what we really want to call it. More often than not, it just feels like digital noise, drowning out my soul’s cry for genuine connection. I don’t like writing this. I don’t enjoy admitting how desperate I feel most days for a constant stream of interaction that serves as a poor substitute for heartfelt intimacy. On an average day, I pick up my phone between 80-100 times. That translates to once every 10 minutes, on par with the reported national average.
Thankfully, there are those who have seen beyond my faults and behavioral compulsions deeper to where my True Self lies: in my Belovedness. They choose to have a relationship with me not because I’m special in some grandiose way, or because of what I’m able to do or accomplish. They love me simply because they choose to. In these relationships I’ve found a deeper truth: God loves me, loves all of us, in the exact same way — just because.
On any given day, I use Papago, a translation app (far better than Google Translate by leaps and bounds), at least two dozen times. Whether it is to converse with my co-teachers, other colleagues, a stranger on the streets, or am employee at one of the local stores, because I don’t currently speak more than a few basic words or phrases in Korean, I’ve become accustomed to pulling out my phone and using this app to convey simple needs or messages. Without it, I would spend countless moments staring at my Korean neighbors blank-faced with a deer-in-headlights stare.
There is something brave about stepping into an unknown world, something admirable about walking the footsteps of a different people and culture. Every time I try a new food or speak a Korean word out loud, even at the risk of being embarrassed, I remind myself of just how big and beautiful and diverse this world is. I remind myself that my way of life is not the only one that matters. My language is not the only one worth speaking. My traditions are not the only ones worth practicing and protecting. This world has more sounds and flavors and movements than many of us will ever be blessed (or brave enough) to experience.
I’ve been in Korea just over a week now. Though frequently overwhelmed by signs I can’t read and words I can’t understand, I’ve been far more overwhelmed by countless simple acts of kindness. Ask my friends and they will tell you I am rarely at a loss for words. Here, though, the smallest act of kindness has left me speechless and almost in tears from feeling overwhelmed by gratitude and thankfulness.
Where I have changed and grown the most is in liberating myself to ask for help without any inclination to feel ashamed, inadequate, stupid, or any other self-critical emotion. Admitting “I don’t know everything” is something I do regularly. To be able to do so without any kind of emotional upheaval is a gift beyond description. When I talk about feeling stabilized and balance, this is what I mean.
The weather has started shifting here in Chicago, my own personal waiting room. I've swapped shorts for jeans, sandals for shoes, t-shirts for a hoody or a sweater. The changes in climate seems to be mirroring the changes in me. At the same time, these seasonal transitions are nothing new. By and large, every year, there is a point in the life of the city when the heat of the sun and the green of the trees gives way to cool breezes and leaves with hues of fire and warmth. Maybe that's one of the reasons I love autumn. I feel the heat of summer in the warmth on my skin, but in the fall, I see it in the crimsons and ochres, the marigolds and magentas. Autumn reminds me of the cycles of change that take place inside me.
Both in reference to my summer road trip and my move abroad, some people thought I was nuts. Thankfully, many more people offered me affirmations, calling me brave, adventurous, liberated, and countless other adjectives. Really though, I just wanted to spend time with my friends and family before I leave the country. Knowing I will be on the other side of the world from those I've called home so far in life, I wanted to store up memories, conversations, experiences, hugs and kisses, tears and laughs. These are the people I've stayed in touch with since leaving the Midwest, and my heart longed to be with them one more time before I go. So I ignored the naysayers and embraced this new side of myself, free-spirited, goofy, spontaneous.