By Chelsea Levine
Let me start by clarifying one thing. I do not have, nor have I ever had, a traumatic brain injury. I have, however, seen enough episodes of Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy and ER to know that the road to recovery from a TBI is a very long and difficult one. When you have a TBI, everything in your life becomes a struggle and every victory you have, no matter how small, is a cause for celebration. This has been my experience so far being a new expat living in the suburbs of Seoul, South Korea.
I have been living in Korea for just about four months now and it’s the greatest adventure I’ve ever taken. I’ve been lucky enough to travel around a lot in my short 25 years. Then again, having close family on several continents doesn’t hurt. While I’ve seen many different countries and some truly amazing cities, I’ve always done my travelling with my family or with close friends in tow. This is my first time not just travelling abroad on my own, but living abroad. I did everything right preparing for this trip. I bought all the travel books. I learned to read (i.e. sound out) Hangul, the Korean writing system. I tried Korean food for the first time. I even read a book called Ugly Koreans, Ugly Americans just to try and learn some of the little things that major travel books often leave out. On May 17, 2013 I was more than ready to board that plane and head to Korea. And why not? I had transportation waiting for me on the other side, I had a job lined up, I even had an apartment to move into. But despite all of my preparation, nothing could prepare me for the freight train to the solar plexus that is South Korea.
My first few days in Korea were a bit of a blur. I was staying in an infamous Korean “love motel”. Don’t worry, this was not as bad as it sounds. While they are used “by the hour” by some people, they aren’t nearly as shady as the motel down the street from your house with the coin operated beds… I’m looking at you Prince Murat Motel in Tallahassee. Maybe the best part about my time in the motel was the fact that I was in no way responsible for myself. I didn’t have to buy groceries, I didn’t have to clean and I didn’t even have to do my own laundry. This meant that apart from exploring new restaurants, often with Korean-speaking co-workers, I didn’t really have to learn much about real life in Korea. After I moved into my apartment, though, everything changed. My first major flub was washing my clothes three times in a row when I was trying to dry them. Even though I looked up the translations online, I didn’t realize that the word for regular wash and regular dry was the same, just on different parts of the machine. So that load of laundry was washed very well and I’ve since started hanging my clothes to dry. My next big hurdle showed up at the grocery store. For many items I was stuck using Google Translate which is less than accurate in Korean. I was able to make a last minute save when I realized the small tin I was buying that I thought was chicken, was actually nowhere near chicken. This method of reading, translating, reading again and comparing means that every trip I take to the grocery store takes at least an hour. Is this wheat bread or brown rice bread? What exactly is the difference between morning toast bread and regular toast bread? Does whole wheat even exist in this country? After translating about seven different types of bread, I decided to just settle on the one that looked the best, still unsure of exactly what I was buying.
Through all of the challenges I’ve experienced and continue to experience, it’s the successes that I remember the most. The first time I went to the bank and made a withdrawal for the correct amount from the correct account felt like I had just crossed the finish line of a marathon. The first time I got in a taxi by myself and got out in the place I wanted to go felt like winning a Pulitzer. Picking up a package from the post office has left a deeper impression on me than any of my struggles and failures. The first time I ordered food on my own and received what I wanted, I felt like a TBI patient who just wrote her name for the first time. While my accomplishments are nowhere near as monumental as someone recovering from an actual TBI, they are my own personal achievements. Now if I could just figure out what that sign in my elevator with the big red letters means.
Chelsea Levine is a 25 year old American expat living in the suburbs of Seoul, South Korea. She is teaching English at an after-school academy which leaves more than enough free time to explore her new world. Originally from Orlando, FL she has been lucky enough to travel pretty extensively around the world, but this is her first “extended stay” anywhere. Coming from a background and a BA in religious studies, she loves exploring cultural sites around the world, especially ones of a religious nature.