The ex-pat life has its ups and downs.
Some find that it’s just not right for them. I’ve encountered people here in Korea who were miserable from the moment they stepped, blinking, off the airport bus into an unfamiliar world full of neon lights and indecipherable signage. One girl lasted less than a week before getting back on a plane and flying home. Others set themselves deadlines of the “if I’m still unhappy after 6 months…” variety. Some just stay and accept misery as their fate.
Fortunately, I seem to be one of the natural-born travellers who adapt quite easily to foreign cultures without any significant pangs of homesickness. I’m not entirely sure that I’ve ever really experienced culture shock. I mean, yes, I’ve had numerous WTF moments, and there are times when I look at the fish carcass protruding from my soup at lunch and realise that I could actually kill for a sausage roll with HP sauce followed by a bag of Meanies. However, these little moments have never caused me to cry alone in my room, cowering under the blankets and working on an escape plan. In general, I tend to be intrigued rather than repelled by cultural differences. They are my reason for living abroad, not an incentive to go home.
The one thing that I find increasingly difficult to deal with, though, is the temporary nature of relationships in an ex-pat community.
When I first arrived in Korea, I was – as you may recall – running away from heartbreak. I was bitter, angry, sad, and very, very hurt. I no longer believed in love, or even really in friendship. Why let someone into your heart, I reasoned, when that gives them all the power they need to reject you, leave you, hurt you, even destroy you? And so I came here, to the other side of the world, completely alone, with every intention of living an isolated, hermit-like life. Simon and Garfunkel’s I Am A Rock was my anthem. If I never loved, I never would’ve cried was my motto.I’ve built walls, A fortress deep and mighty, That none may penetrate. I have no need of friendship, Friendship causes pain. It’s loving and it’s laughter I disdain.
I wasn’t being melodramatic: I really, truly believed that a friendless, loveless life was better for me, because it had none of the potential for hurt. And a rock feels no pain; and an island never cries. For my first six months or so in Korea, I lived by my anthem.
I have my books
And my poetry to protect me.
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
I went to work. I taught, I learned. I shopped, I cooked. I read, I wrote. I explored. I watched TV, I slept. And I did it almost completely alone, with the exception of the occasional dinner with colleagues.
Perhaps I needed that period of isolation in order to heal – a safe, quiet place to be by myself and nurse my broken heart. In any case, I gradually became stronger, healthier, happier, and less angry. And for whatever reason, one day in March 2010, I spontaneously invited myself out with my colleague and her friends, who were going for dinner and bowling that evening. I don’t know why I did it – especially since I had always been more the sort of person to sit and wait for invitations rather than boldly ask to be included. But through that one uncharacteristic action, my anthem got torn to shreds, and against all my wishes and better judgement, I found love. Real love: friendship.
That night, I spent time with four of the people who would eventually become part of a solid group of eight close friends. They changed my life. Slowly, very slowly, my walls began to crumble. I became less and less reluctant to leave my room and socialise. I started to talk… then trust… then love.
As I was saying at the start of this post, however, the ex-pat life has its ups and downs. And the down in this particular tale is that people in an ex-pat community like this one don’t tend to stick around forever. Our group of 8 is down to 3, and by the end of the summer I’ll be the only one still here. Each goodbye is harder than the last, because it feels like the end of something I doubt I’ll ever experience again. A group of individuals so unlike each other in personality, style, attitude, beliefs, and tastes, somehow clicking perfectly after being thrown together, a world away from home.
Arlene left first. She’s the carefree, enthusiastic, thoughtful, lovably scatterbrained, easy-going one. We went to Japan together, and took a few random weekend excursions in Korea just for the hell of it.
Thandi left next. She’s the calm, positive, soft-hearted, live-life-to-the-max one, full of dreams and determination. She was my colleague, my neighbour, my friend, and my almost constant companion. It took me months to come to terms with her absence.
Charlotte was the third to leave. She’s the feisty, straight-talking, sensible, practical, fiercely loyal and protective one. She knew me better than I know myself. I cried as I walked alone down the street after saying goodbye to her.
Margo left soon after Charlotte. She’s the super-cool, hippy-dippy, peaceful and happy one. We once sat together in a bus station singing “My favourite things” to block out an argument that some of the others were having, because fighting scares us both. I think I may have been a little numb by the point when she left, because the goodbyes didn’t quite feel real.
Nicole left the other week. She’s the sassy, glamorous, party-loving one, as kind-hearted as she is confrontational. She was my “let’s go out and dance till the sun comes up” partner, and she showed me how to wear make-up, change my diet, exercise, and – most importantly – stand up for myself. She was my encourager. We parted ways in the early hours of the morning because I hadn’t been able to bring myself to say goodbye and go home earlier. She got into a taxi, and I sat on a wall and sobbed as newer friends comforted me with silent but understanding hugs.
Paddy is leaving in a couple of weeks. He’s the popular, friendly, directly honest, affectionate, funny, loving one. I’ll be flying home with him, and leaving him behind when I return to Korea after my holiday. I can’t even imagine my life here without him. He’s the brother I never had.
Hilette will leave soon after I return from my holiday. She’s the confident, optimistic, outrageous, chatty, entertaining, in-love-with-life one, and her crazy antics are surpassed only by her warm heart. Ours will be the final goodbye.
And so I’ve come full circle. I arrived alone, I found an incredible group of friends, and soon I will be alone again.
Except that I won’t. Not any more. Much as I try to hold on to that anthem of mine, belting it out over the karaoke machine with a similarly-minded friend, I know that’s not going to be me any more. These goodbyes are killing me. They’re sad, they’re painful, and I’m hurting. Unlike the relationships that ended and left me heartbroken, however, I don’t feel regret about letting down my guard and forming these friendships. This time, I feel that the relationships have been worth the pain at the end.
And so I’m still going out and meeting new people, making new friends, hearing new stories and sharing mine, and learning new things. I am not a rock after all. I am not an island. I will get hurt, and I will feel sadness, but I’ve learned that the lows are necessary if I want to experience the highs. That’s a valuable lesson to have learned.
Thank you, my friends, for that and so much more.
“You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.” – Jonathan Safran Foer