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Traveling to Escape Life

Moving across the globe to a world unknown didn’t make me brave, it made me a coward. 

For it wasn’t the challenge ahead that I looked forward to, but the idea of escaping my demons by pulling a geographic. 

The Pinterest favorite “we travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us” may apply to a white girl’s caption of her study abroad picture, but I had passed that period of abusing my student visa to raise havoc in Europe. After a year post grad, my travel bug resisted the pesticide of societal pressures and personal stressors. My previous horror stories from working abroad should’ve been enough to convince a reasonable person to settle down, but a history of disordered eating, depression and anxiety were the red flags I failed to acknowledge when I applied to teach in Asia. In my case, I sought out travel to escape life unequivocally. 

In my rightfully disturbed and stubborn mind, I figured my issues would dissipate by living in Asia. “I’ll be too distracted by fresh sensory stimuli to be depressed”, I thought. Professional insecurity was reasoned with a year-long commitment that would settle my anxiety. And the past six years haunted with eating disorders would all come to an end because, “I don’t like Asian food, so I’ll be clear of any triggers”. Thanks to globalization, my myriad of mental health problems were tested in my most vulnerable state the day I moved to Korea.

Isolated in the suburbs of Seoul, I faced loneliness in her fiercest moments. Tinder wasn’t an option, considering my crippling body dysmorphia. Turning to Facebook never helped, though ironically the platform which incites homesickness introduced me to domestic tour groups that lead me to my first friends in the city. I shook in doubt every weekend I stepped onto a charter bus full of peers, but faith turned those strangers into an expatriate alliance. 

Between the weekends of forming meaningful friendships, I lost sleep from the worry of being an incompetent employee. My lack of experience in teaching induced hours of YouTube searches for the perfect way to sing the ABCs. When I expressed worry about my kids failing to differentiate M with N, my colleague reassured that I was doing the best I could, that English is the student’s second language, and as long as I keep them happy and engaged, I was doing a good job. Turns out my skill of “winging it” translates smoothly into any career field. 

I endured a dark period somewhere in the middle of my year in Asia, but rather express myself with abstract artwork, I abused food. I consulted in psychotropics to calm my habits and emotions. But after months of SSRIs, I was determined that I couldn’t depend on a pill to help me get up in the morning. Friends stateside begged me to come home and get help from the security of my family, but my pride persevered. If I left Korea as a failure, shame would be assured back home. 

So I fought the depression. I meditated. I exercised. I journaled. I practiced a vegan diet in a country where pork is considered a vegetable. A month of minor changes put me in a clearer mind when I visited a dear friend in Thailand. Between rum buckets and ping pong shows, I truly felt a spiritual awakening during my week in Southeast Asia. I learned the importance of looking your cashier in the eye, asking your doorman how their day was going, and the value of smiling regardless how much you hurt from inside. 

Life after Thailand wasn’t perfect. Everyday is a slippery slope when battling with mental health. I distracted myself with flights to Japan, the Philippines and Hong Kong. I formed and broke off friendships. I found appreciation in myself and understood that if a person isn’t willing to reach an equilibrium of support within our relationship, that person wasn’t worth keeping. I started to come around. I was eating normally. I felt grateful. Then two weeks left in my teaching contract, I was ambushed. 

The professional exchange with my boss was an amicable one, in that we greeted one another in the morning, and left each other alone to work. With 10 days left in my working agreement there was a miscommunication with my hours, yet no violation of contract. The boss tried firing me, taking away my salary, scrutinizing me and isolating me from me colleagues and students. As a result, I spiraled into a self-deprecating mode while trying to fight for my legal entitlements. The weeks I planned to spend with friends and self-reflection turned into a nightmare of labor board visits and painful phone calls. I cleaned out my apartment in tears, wondering what I had done to deserve this. 

As I wait for my final paycheck, I’ll spend my last nights in Korea over a burning barbecue, clinking glasses of soju with the community of foreigners and locals I consider family. I might have arrived to Korea alone, but I’ll leave behind a part of me that grew with this collective society. Excluding my boss. She’s a dramatic sociopath, exploiting others in terrible ways, yet provoking unforgettable stories. 

I’m a storyteller. Drama writes stories. Though I’m not addicted to the drama, I’m addicted to the lifestyle. I’m a highly functioning basket case that puts friends and experiences before herself. I believe that to settle is to lose and that staying on the move will keep me hashtag #winning. 

I’ve realized this year that being well traveled doesn’t make you cultured. My Instagram may portray a well-rounded woman (with exceptional photography skills), but it doesn’t show the formed friendships that helped break my ignorance. I may have reposted cultural clips on Facebook, but I never documented my own conversations concerning society. I did, however, loudly verbalize my frustrations after any racially profiling through Snapchat. It’s a dirty trick I play on myself, let alone the hundreds of people who follow me on social media, to depict my life as exciting and adventurous. It’s the affirmation we crave. While being exciting and adventurous or brave has nothing to do what with other people think, It’s believing in yourself that you’re worthy of such traits. 

I may not be completely stable, but my problems will exist whether I’m living with my parents in my hometown or alone in East Asia. It’s coping with myself in a threatening environment that’s allowed me to travel so extensively while cultivating meaningful experiences along the way. 

I’ll go home. I’ll get help. I just needed a year in Asia to convince me that I can’t do this whole life thing in complete solitude. 

People struggling with mental health are not weak. They are the warriors battling life with heavier cargo. It’s up to them to decide to hide in defense or face the enemies and fight. 

-JMM

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