alcoholism · change · clarity · trauma · travel

Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

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October marks 10 years since I left New Jersey to teach
English in South Korea for 18 months. Having barely finished the icing on my 23rd birthday
cake, I rolled my newly purchased suitcases onto a JFK flight and was off to I
didn’t know where.
The process felt almost instantaneous – register with an ESL
teaching recruitment site; have an informational call with them (when they told
me you’d make more money in Korea than, say, Thailand or Taiwan); have an
evening interview call with a pre-school in a town on the outskirts of Seoul on
Tuesday; board a plane on Friday.
I didn’t know what I was getting into, and despite all the
good parts, the landing was a difficult one. If I did have it all to do again,
my life to live over again, I wouldn’t have gone.
I know people say not to regret things, and that each
experience was for learning, and certainly this one was: I met great people,
had unusual experiences, got to travel to places I’d likely never have been and
endear myself to a classroom of wide expectant faces.
But. It was not easy. And, yes, if I could do it again, I
wouldn’t go. I was too fragile when I went. I was too lost to be uprooted. Yet, I
don’t know what would have happened if I’d stayed. Korea was where I eeked
along the bottom of an alcoholic lifestyle, and I’ve often said that if I
hadn’t been in Korea, where there was little access to drugs, and mainly only
to booze… that if I’d still been in the States and on the trajectory I was on,
things could have gone a much different way.
As bad as alcoholism is, add drugs into the mix, and it
quickly becomes a 4-alarm fire.
That said. It was rough. There was a half-hearted suicide
attempt, gang rape, alcoholic stupors. There was racism and sexism and a
feeling of alienation from everything you recognize.
There were antidotes, or places of brightness, for sure. I
met some of my best friends there, ones who I’m still in regular touch with. I
dated a very charismatic Canadian who went on to work for the U.N., who’d put me
and my coworker up at his great aunt’s place in the orangutan paddock in a zoo
in Jakarta, Indonesia. I hiked up ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples; ate dog
stew, which was actually very good; planted my feet in the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
I traveled to Osaka, Japan to renew my work visa and still
remember the glint of the flat rooftops outside the city as the train barreled us
from the airport to the city center. I spent a New Years in a cabin on a dock
in the warm waters of Malaysia and partied in a sprawling, palm-encased home in Singapore the following one.
I went to Korea because I didn’t really know what else to
do. And to quote Carroll’s Cheshire cat:
“Would you tell me, please,
which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on
where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where
–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which
way you go,” said the Cat.
“– so long as I get
somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do
that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
I’d walked long enough, and I’d found something. I didn’t know
where I wanted to go, just somewhere else. Yet, despite the intervening years and nearly a decade of sobriety, as I begin now to set out
again to simply go “somewhere else,” I’m tempted to recall what happened
last time I didn’t know where that was.

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