One Year in S. Korea: What I’ve Learned [Part II]
The S. Korean Sojourn has already turned one year old! It seems like yesterday I was feeling helpless and clueless, but that’s not so much the case anymore. In part II of my living abroad reflections, I share six more important takeaways. (Check out part I before reading on).
I’m a city girl at heart.
Growing up in a remote, rural Mexican village of 100 people, with very limited access to technology (no phones, no computers) instilled in me a deep appreciation for nature and solitude. But, I was also exposed to city life as my mother constantly took me to the nearest city for joyless endless parades of doctors and hospitals, since I spent the majority of my childhood dealing with asthma-related medical problems. Through this experience, I developed a curiosity and fascination with city living. Fast forward to moving to Chicago during university and I fell in love with its vibrancy, diversity and plethora of museums, restaurants and events to attend. While in Chicago, I’d sometimes entertain the romanticized notion of living in quainter places, perhaps surrounded by mountains like I once did. But living in Daegu – a city I consider quite boring – has cemented that while I could live in more remote places, it would have to be temporary, that at my core, I love the hustle and bustle of big cities. The caveat to this realization is that city living needs to be complemented by constant nature getaways. Is it asking too much to want the best of both worlds?
Balance is a tricky bitch.
While on my quest for focus, increased personal productivity and self-improvement, I often pushed past my personal limits and found myself on the edge of burnout, both physically and mentally. I soon learned that in order to sustain this lifestyle, to maintain a desire to produce but still feel well, I needed to get serious about taking care of myself. To constantly restore balance, I had to implement self-care practices. The hardest thing was to grasp was that if I skipped meditation, journaling or exercise even for a day, it would manifest in anxiety, a sense of grogginess, or another physical/mental discomfort. I’ve learned there is no compromise with my personal sense of balance. Either I adhere to the daily activities and rituals that make me feel centered or it all gets out of whack.
I’ve never felt more American.
Although I consider myself a proud Mexican-American, my fondness for the second part of this descriptor grew exponentially in the past 12 months. For a long time I’ve been highly critical about a lot of American qualities such as racism, discrimination, rampant materialism, consumerism, and so on, but while being away from it all, I came to truly appreciate my adopted country for its greatness, too – for the immense economic opportunities available and the freedom to be whoever you want to be and do whatever your heart desires, without too much judgment from society. Also for being made up of diverse people with different background and walks of life. And, although we are not yet (unfortunately) at a point where we can truly celebrate our shared differences, I remain hopeful that one day we will.
Mindfulness remains an elusive fairy.
Since learning about Buddhism philosophy, specifically Zen (shout out to Alan Watts!), I knew I wanted to imbue my life with its teachings. Everything from being present, aware and mindful resonated with my being. This philosophy seemed like the perfect cure for my chaotic monkey brain, but I soon learned just how difficult it is to consistently practice this way of life. When I was more naïve than I am now, a freshman in university, I believed years of consistent mindfulness practice would surely lead to a coveted serene mind, exhibited by Buddhist monks. For years, I’ve practiced meditation and yoga on-off, but I can’t seem to ever rid of my anxious nature. I realize now that learning to live in the present and in a mindful manner are truly lifelong undertakings. And that I will probably never be anxiety-free, but that abiding by this philosophy lessens its crippling effects.
Knowing & feeling are two very different things.
I’ve always been fortunate to have a very pronounced sense self knowledge, of how I’m supposed to live my life, of what I want to accomplish and the kinds of relationships I want to seek. In the past, I’ve embraced the logical, pragmatic side of my personality to help me navigate the world. But, at my core I’m also a deeply sensitive and emotional individual that struggles to embrace and express these traits. The reasons for moving to S. Korea were many, including a desire to learn how to get over my phobia and discomfort with openness and vulnerability – the key ingredients for expressing our interior world and fully connecting with others. As I’ve learned how to be more vulnerable (not an easy undertaking!), something interesting happened: I started to feel in equal or greater amounts in contrast to my inner knowing. And there is something inexplicable about emotinal feeling that pales in comparison with intellectual knowing.
It’s been a fascinating journey for me to learn firsthand what pent up emotions can do to us. I was unaware of the degree of emotional untangling and healing I needed to go through. I had to really look deep within and uncover – and release – some toxic emotions that I was holding onto and concealing even from myself. Articulating them out loud was terrifying, having to relive some experiences I rather would have kept locked in a box, but in the process, I let go of them. Now that I’m more in touch with my emotions, and have a greater ease of expressing them, I find myself feeling less anxious and doubtful about the future. I’m more at peace with myself, more trusting. The thing about our brains is that they aren’t very trustworthy – one moment we may feel confident in our career aspirations, relationships or long-term plans and the next, the mind has let self-doubt envelop our thoughts and there we go, spiraling into a black hole of uncertainty and negativity. When the heart feels, that’s it. No mental trick can fool the knowing-feeling of the heart-soul.
Relationships are everything.
The growth I’ve done in this area is immeasurable. I’ve gained invaluable insight about myself and others. I arrived in S. Korea with the clear intention to learn more about relationships, both romantic and otherwise. I wanted to deepen the existing connections with family and friends, and cultivate strong new bonds – based on emotional exposure and vulnerability. Luckily, I’ve met incredibe individuals that have played an integral part in this process. Most of the friendships that I’ve established in S. Korea are based on mutual respect, trust and openness. It’s taken baby steps, but I no longer feel the need to display only a fraction of who I am. I proudly show the entirety of what makes me me – my authentic self – without worrying about what others may think. And this is liberating. The friends I’ve made in S. Korea have contributed greatly to the overall experience, and along the way I’ve been able to strengthen the relationships with those that are back in the States and scattered around the world.
Another takeaway about relationships that I’ve learned is timing. We hear about the importance of timing everywhere, from songs, to movies, to poems. But I now believe we have to experience what this means to truly understand the implications. From the new friendships I’ve formed that have facilitated my own growth, to finally getting closure for past romantic situationships, to strengthening family bonds, it all couldn’t have happened before, as much as I wanted it to. It’s like all these past years I’ve been readying myself to have arrived at the present, able to carry out long-held intentions.
Year one was incredibly challenging and uncomfortable at times, demanding that I step outside my safe comfort zone and face long-held irrational fears and complexes, but thankfully it's led me to undergo the growth I wanted and needed. It delivered well beyond my expectations. Let's see what year two has in store!
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