Today, I am very proud to feature Izzy from The Next Somewhere. Izzy has an amazingly sweet disposition and a beautiful way with words. Her prose sucks you in and her compelling way of telling us her life experiences will keep you glued until the end. On my blog, I’m a big fan of keeping it real and thats exactly what Izzy does in this raw, emotional piece. Living abroad isn’t always roses, unicorns and daises. Sometimes, it can be detrimental to our well being. Izzy writes:
It has been seven months since I left South Korea and albeit all the time that has passed, I still have yet to fully come to terms with what happened to me personally in South Korea. To begin with, this is actually the first time I’ve ever opened up about my time in Korea to the general public. The reason why I haven’t been honest sooner is I didn’t want to be labeled as one of “those people” who ended up disliking Korea for the usual reasons – vanity, rudeness, and conformity, etc. (Personally, I think these habits are rife in every culture.) I was also afraid of being attacked for being ungrateful of my position of privilege as a Native English Teacher in Korea with all the benefits associated with the job title. However, it’s important to note that in the act of suppressing my feelings about Korea purely out of fear, I’ve only continued to feed my negative attitudes towards the country rather than acknowledge how its helped me grow. By writing about my difficulties, I hope that I’ll be able to reveal the real reasons behind my unhappiness while living in Korea instead of placing all the blame on “the usual reasons”.
To set the stage of why Korea and I didn’t work out so well, I have to disclose a truth about myself that has crippled me for so long: I suffer from social anxiety disorder, along with body dysmorphia. Though for years, I lived in a bubble of safety created by my friends and family, who knew to tread lightly around me. I happily submitted to their gentle treatment, believing it to be the everyday norm. Turns out, if any place could disarm me of my security and innocence, it would be a place where the focus on appearances is omnipresent and pessimism is rampant. In the land that has been criticized for placing too much emphasis on looks, a personality like mine was set to fail. If you have any understanding of how a mind suffering from social anxiety works, there is an overwhelming amount of panic when the individual is placed in a situation that it feels a pariah in.
In Korea, I felt ugly. My BDD (Body Dysmorphic Disorder) was triggered every time I looked at my Korean counterparts – these lithe, elegant creatures who seemed to have never come across a bad hair day in their life. I bought into their fashion and beauty trends and yet, still felt unattractive in relation to them. Around me, the lady foreigners could easily dismiss the Korean idea of beauty since they were noticeably different to Korean women both with their facial features and stature but I felt as if I could not escape a comparison. Here I was, this brown Filipino, with the similar traits shared by all Asians and yet, almost inferior to them with my darker skin color and stockier physique. I had to keep these deprecating assessments to myself for fear that if I ever revealed these thoughts, the expats I had just made friends with would see me as shallow. But with my BDD, I have and will always see myself as “lesser-than” those around me. I was constantly subjected to my own criticisms day in and day out and had no one to talk to. Also, when I first arrived in Korea, food became my best friend. With no real friends at the beginning of my time in Korea, I found comfort in eating. I ate so profusely that in three months time, I had ballooned over 15 lbs! I was ashamed to take pictures and to even look at myself in the mirror. It was then I began to resent Korea for its fixation with appearances and how it had influenced my already susceptible state of mind. In tandem with my weight issues was a rapid decline of my physical and mental health.
Korea is known for its rigorous work ethic and at my workplace, I was pushed well over my limit. I’ve never flinched in the face of hard work but in the event of an illness, my body has always needed a day to rest up. When I found out that I would be given no sick days and no health insurance, I was bewildered. My work hours were long and demanding. What was supposed to be a forty-hour work week sometimes morphed into fifty or sixty hours just to keep up with the responsibilities of the job. By the middle of my contract, I would find myself falling asleep at my desk and struggling to get through a day. Before I left for Korea, I was diagnosed with a hypothyroid condition that was supposed to be easily manageable. But my recent eating habits had aggravated my condition and I was plagued with chronic sluggishness and fatigue. I was always sick, spending my precious weekends in bed. To inform you, an incessantly anxious mind is doing double the work than a normal mind so it’s hard enough as is. But with my body failing me, my mind couldn’t keep up. I had to put in even extra effort to stay positive and not let everything get to me. But it just wore me out. At school, I had to disguise the pain in my body and my overall tiredness each day at work to make sure my students wouldn’t suffer on my end. It’s so grueling to keep up a false pretense of joy when your body is faltering.
And lastly, the thing that hurts me most to talk about is the toxic environment I found myself trapped in. When I first arrived in Daejeon, the main thing I noticed was how clique-y the city’s expat community was. Most were unwelcoming to newcomers. In my naiveté, I had thought that all the expats I would come across would be like-minded individuals with a passion for the world and inviting to all. Instead, the majority of my encounters ended up being with lost souls trying to escape their demons at home and instead of being brave enough to face their fears, they ended up in Korea bringing their cynicism and angst with them. I ended up in the wrong crowd of people and got sucked into their pool of negativity. It seeped into my soul and set root in my heart overturning all the good I had spent years building. They would ridicule my happy-go-lucky attitude, roll their eyes at any attempts of kindness, and spewed hateful words behind my back. They broke my spirit. I left Korea hating everything about myself.
So how did I overcome the adversity? It would be very remiss of me not to mention that the person who made all my struggles bearable was none-other-than my boyfriend Tim. We met during my second month in Korea and he stood by me through it all. I could not be more appreciative of him for sticking by me when I couldn’t even love myself. He showed me the best parts of Korea and I’m not ashamed to admit that the thing I loved most about Korea was our life there together. It is the place where our story was born. Tim loved everything about Korea and whenever I would get down, I would try to see Korea from his perspective to stay positive. Also, after realizing how dire my situation was being surrounded by negative people, I extracted myself from their presence without a care of the ramifications. It was the first time in my life people genuinely hated me (the worst scenario for anyone with social anxiety disorder) and guess what? I decided to hate them back too. It was also the first time I had ever stood up for myself which was a beautiful and empowering thing. I decided that from there on out, I would be more selective of who I trusted and befriended. Eventually, I focused more on fostering relationships with good-hearted people, some who ended up becoming some of my closest friends in life. I didn’t leave Korea as a tribe of one; I came out of there with a tribe of many kind and loving people. Finally, I challenged myself to lose the excess weight with a strict diet plan and I stuck by it. I managed to lose every pound I gained which helped stabilize my self-esteem.
What my biggest takeaway from Korea has been is that every place serves a purpose. Although I am saddened by the fact that varying situations (not related to Korea specifically) warped my perception of the country, I would not change anything about my year there. It’s taken me seven months to see that it wasn’t Korea, it was me. This reflection has confirmed that what Korea did for me was give me a backbone. Too long have I walked in the world fearful to fail and too scared of disapproval. My trials in Korea taught me to stand up more for myself, to be kinder to myself, to take ownership of who I am instead of letting other people’s opinions get the best of me. Korea was my rude awakening to “the real world”. But my experience in Korea also showed me that I need to work on how to be less afraid of being me. In the end, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I feel so much stronger and am ready to embrace who I am, come what may.
As an avid collector of first-time experiences, Izzy Pulido lives for good times and good people. Her curiosity has taken her all over the world, from fairytale Balkan villages to the misty jungles of the Peruvian rainforest. With forty-five countries under her belt, life is proving to be quite the adventure indeed. She is currently trying out the expat life in Ho Chi Minh City as an EFL Teacher. If you’re interested in Izzy’s adventures, please follow her on Facebook, Instagram, her blog and Pinterest!