I had a revelation yesterday. Well, actually it began last Friday. Well, actually I’ve been piecing things together for the past several months, but didn’t begin to articulate it until yesterday. I was taking the subway home after a department dinner with my school when I began reflecting on my life in Korea, and how I may have changed as a person since leaving the States four months back. There are a couple of differences that are already apparent to me, and undoubtedly many others that I’ve yet to discover. That being said, I’ll share one of my more significant changes with you, in the hope that you can learn from my experiences as a traveler.
Years ago, when I was 18 and a freshman at school, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about building relationships with people from all around the world, and the sorrow that can accompany that. “Well, absence makes the heart grow fonder,” my friend concluded. Keith was several years my senior and likely had far more experience than myself with regards to the issue, but I was 18 years old, and surely knew everything there was to know about the world.
“No,” I argued in reply. “Presence makes the heart grow fonder. You need people there to make the heart grow fonder.” I spoke with the kind of certainty only a naïve teen could possess, and didn’t give our discussion much thought in the years to come.
This August, I came to Korea to find true independence, and to bask in the glory of being entirely self sufficient. I came to Seoul looking for a life that would allow me to be at peace with solitude, and depend less on my family and friends. I was going to be the type of girl who could have a long distance relationship without ever nursing a bottle of white wine and crying about how much she misses her boyfriend. I would send dutiful updates to family members, letting them know that I’m flourishing overseas, and have made a new home for myself half a world away. I have been to four continents and a bunch of countries- surely I would adjust to a new culture and lifestyle without ever looking back to my life in the States. I was looking for a fresh start.
What I found was much better.
It turns out, that I am not type of girl who can handle a long distance relationship without daily Skype calls, Facebook messages and the occasional bottle of Riesling. My boyfriend is one of my best friends, and being away from him has been incredibly difficult for me. I miss my friends from home, playing with my fat cat, and watching Titanic with my sisters. The opportunity to begin a new life abroad has been a really important life experience for me, but quite humbling at the same time. It has completely transformed my views on dependence and community, and has shown me that there’s nothing wrong with relying on other people from time to time.
The satisfaction I get from learning how to transfer money overseas alone, or correctly guessing which bus to take, is nothing in comparison to getting a care package from my family. A box filled with Christmas presents and comfort foods from my grandparents reduced me to tears last week, and made my heart swell with an overwhelming sense of love. Yes, it’s nice to have my own apartment, set my own schedule and have a full-time job, but that doesn’t beat hearing my little brother say that he’s glad to hear I’ll be within visiting distance next year.
I am so grateful to have beautiful, like-minded friends living in all corners of the world. I have people I love in Bulgaria, Austria, Scotland, Peru, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Korea. Friends in Costa Rica and the Midwest. While I love having internationally oriented travelers in my life, inevitably someone leaves, and that familiar unsettling absence comes creeping back.
So, Keith, looking back on our conversation four years, and seemingly eons ago, I retract my statement. Yes, you need people there to make the heart grow fond. To build a relationship, you need to laugh together, share cheap beer, and try new restaurants. You need long car trips and transatlantic flights. You need to see bad movies and discover underground bands. But in order to fully appreciate what you have, you need to feel a sense of loss at some point. You need to go without in order to realize how much you rely on these people, and what an enormous role they play in your life.
Independence is a beautiful thing, but few things are more beautiful than having someone to depend on. I don’t think it’s possible to be a traveler and independent at the same time; it’s all an illusion. We depend on the hospitality of locals in a new area, or on other expats to help get us settled. We are all connected to each other by this web of humanity, and that’s not a weakness by any means. It can be hard sometimes to be away from home, and hard to feel a sense of loss or longing, but the beauty of traveling is that it can show you the things you love within 20 minutes of your home, and offer a new perspective on the seemingly mundane. Sometimes it takes 6750 miles of traveling to find that what you’re looking for is right back where you started.
Something that Nick and I both agreed on, since we both moved abroad right after high school, is that everyone should get to live out of the country at some point for these very reasons. Not only is it a great opportunity to discover new ways of thinking and being, but it’s also the best way possible to learn about the things and people that are really important to you and that you can’t live long-term without.