The “Bravery” of Moving Abroad

After I had gone through agonizing months making the decision to leave my American life behind for something different, I finally released the news to the public:

Hey everyone just so you know I am moving to South Korea.

The flood of responses I received all rang somewhere in the same frequency, even months after I moved and updated everyone with the little adventures and obstacles I face in a foreign country. They said, “wow, you are so brave for moving abroad, I admire you”.

I like to think what they meant was, “I admire you for breaking away from what our society deems is a successful life”.

(But I have to be honest. I don’t think moving abroad was very hard at all. I don’t think living outside my home country is as challenging as advertised or maybe I’m just more Korean than I thought.)

What took the most amount of guts and was probably the most frightening had nothing to do with foreignness at all.

It’s one thing to move abroad, but a completely different thing to leave a well respected and high paying job for a much less respectable position with low pay.

Choosing to leave behind the American religion of workism for something different was what took mental girding.

There’s a small part of me that likes to think maybe people are jealous and not because I live abroad but because I’m living life exactly how I want to, even with its challenges and sleepless nights and life questions, I’m not sitting at a desk waiting for a promotion. I’m not trying to save for a house (still saving though) or pay off the car. I’m not worried about having a magnificent wedding or accomplishing XYZ before 30.

Of course, breaking out of the listed milestones of our western culture doesn’t come without its own mental retaliations. But I also see my friends who are doing well by our American standards and still have challenges, just the same as I do: traditional success doesn’t obliterate all struggle.

All of this really occurred to me today, as I have rolled about in bed, skipping the gym in favor of orange juice in order to get over another nasty cold. It’s not the coronavirus, which I’m less worried to get and more worried about public perception if I did.

But self imposed isolation in order to heal quickly (for once) has let my thoughts run wild. There are so many things I still want to do, so many of them nebulous and undefined, how do I even begin to pinpoint where to start? Aside from languages I don’t have any stand out talents. If I’m supposed to be making the world better, how do I do it?

So I have one goal and my biggest is to simply be happy.

Of course these days I’ve had a few struggles. And then I realized, I don’t have to be living a dream to be living my dream. Circumstances and situations can change but at the end of the day I’ll look back knowing that I did exactly what I had planned to do.

So I don’t have a house, or a kid, or a husband, or a job that has structured promotions. And while they are admirable feats, they shouldn’t be required tick boxes.

It’s hard for me to imagine anything more than three years in the future because I just want to follow what makes me happy. I know my family was disappointed that I’m not fully challenging myself and in a way, they’re right. Being a teaching assistant abroad is certainly less mentally challenging than engineering. Am I at my forever place right now? Certainly not. But I don’t need to be.

And I am being challenged in quite a few other ways like learning a new language and doing the mental gymnastics of working in another culture. Going to a restaurant alone strikes more fear in me than any job interview ever has: I once stood outside a restaurant practicing my order for five minutes before climbing the stairs and punching down my climbing anxiety.

Maybe in a few years I’ll have a very challenging professorship. Maybe I’ll be working as a diplomat. Maybe I’ll be a farmer or a writer or just a drifter, which would be my parents’ absolute worst nightmare. One day I’d like to adopt and one day much later I’d like to run a hostel.

I don’t care about following the “rules” of achievements, although I still feel a twinge when viewing LinkedIn updates.

I know that with my “smarts” and degree, anything less than following a promoted engineering track or inventing a break through item that brings in heaps of money or fame is somehow perceived as a disservice to society.

However.

When you’re raised to be an independent thinker, is it really that shocking when you take an uncharted path?

I have never enjoyed working or sitting at a desk for eight hours at a time and I certainly don’t believe that’s how humans are designed to spend their time. Unfortunately, I know financial burdens and the cost of life make this work necessary for many. I’m privileged in that I have options outside of this. I have a choice.

There’s a quote that goes:

Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.

Jonathan Safran Foer

There are still many lives I want to live and the burden becomes a little lighter every time I try.

I don’t want to live on anyone else’s terms but my own. And that bravery takes time, cultivation, and a willingness to disappoint others.

Are you ready?

*The featured image shows a statue of a Haenyeo, or female diver. These women did and still do dive for shellfish in the clear waters of Jeju Island. The more I visit folk museums the sadder I feel for women of the past: while men’s duties ranged far and wide from scholar to farmer, a woman was always a wife, esteemed for her children or for her womanly achievement of needle point or beauty or party hosting.

When I visited this museum on Jeju I couldn’t stop staring at her: diving may have been the only freedom from a traditional life available for Jeju women of the past. To put down the laundry and put on diving shorts seems like a deep breath, an escape from what is expected, nothing in the cool clear waters to hold you back, only pushing you on.

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