The Teacher Becomes the Student: What I Learned from Teaching English in Korea

"When I let go of this fear and self-doubt, I was free. I could do anything I wanted because I no longer feared failure." Kelly

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The Teacher Becomes the Student: What I Learned from Teaching English in Korea


Let me set the stage for you. I was twenty-two. I had my first, crappy job out of college and had no idea what I was doing with my life. No one had a road map of life for me anymore. It was all up to me, and that kind of freedom terrified me.
I mean high school and college were easy. Go to class, do well, and get good grades. However, once you graduate, it is like, “Now what?” I would wander around my house listlessly, curious if anyone else felt like me. Had I just not received my best-selling copy of instructions on, “How to live life successfully”? It seemed like everyone else knew what they were doing and I was just sitting there, trapped in a never-ending black hole of depression and despair.
My life was not working out as planned. I did not have a boyfriend, I lived with my parents, and I had no social life. All my college friends were back in Maryland, so all I did on the weekends was hang out with my mom and go to the grocery store. It was so bad that my mom even mentioned she was worried about me.
Maybe she was worried because I simply stopped eating. I did not plan it. It just happened. It seemed like I had nothing else in my life and everything felt totally out of control. It was the one thing I had to make myself feel better. I could not make someone hire me, or make someone be my boyfriend, but I could make myself look really skinny. That way, everyone saw how good I looked on the outside and thought I was doing great on the inside too. I could hide behind the facade of happiness that weight-loss exudes.
But the reality was, I was dying on the inside. I was reduced to an anorexic, young woman who basically went to work, didn’t eat, and went to the gym for two hours a day. That was my life; a life of not eating and isolation.
Moreover, I decided that I could not live like this anymore. I needed to get out. No, not suicide, I did not have the stomach for that. Instead, I decided to move to Seoul, South Korea, and teach English as a second language. I choose South Korea because it was the last place I was truly happy.
I had gone on a college exchange program to South Korea, the previous year, and had loved it. And that was the last place that I felt true joy. In South Korea, I felt like I belonged and like my life had endless possibilities. In New York, I was depressed and starving myself to death.
So, I did the only thing I could do; I ran away from my life. I thought that if I left New York, I would be cured of my depression and intense hatred of myself. I believed South Korea would magically make me start to love myself and see someone worthwhile when I looked in the mirror.
However, a funny thing happened when I went to Korea. I brought myself with me. I was sick In New York, and so, I brought a sick Kelly with me, on my arduous journey across the globe.
When I finally got to Seoul, things actually got worse. Not only did I still hate myself with every fibre of my being, I literally wished every day that I could be any other person on the planet, but I was now alone, in a different culture, where I did not speak the language. I felt even more isolated and like no matter what I did; I would never get better.
At that moment, when it seemed like all the hope had drained from the world, I began to see things clearly. Slowly, I started to realise that while travel was an amazing thing, it could never fix how I felt about myself. Yes, travel could bring me joy, but if I did not learn to love myself, that joy would fade quickly. Moreover, once that joy eroded away, all I would be left with was myself. So, if I did not like myself, then I would just be left with a whole lot of self-hatred.
Teaching English in South Korea did not, “fix me”, but it did teach me the most important lesson that I have ever learned. Nothing outside myself can change how I feel about myself. No car, house, country or man can ever be enough to make me love myself. Because once the novelty of each of these things wears off, I would be left alone, again, with myself.
This experience showed me that I needed to work on my insides and understand where my self-hatred came from. If I did that, then maybe I could let go of this negative self-image. I might even be able to love myself and all the beautiful gifts in my life.
And you know what? It happened. Not all at once. But little by little, I opened up and got the help I needed. I started to see that I was always scared of not being pretty enough, funny enough, smart enough, etc. This fear made success impossible. I would never try anything because the fear would tell me I wasn’t good enough, so why bother?
When I let go of this fear and self-doubt, I was free. I could do anything I wanted because I no longer feared failure. Now, the world was something I wanted to conquer and if it didn’t work out, then at least I tried. Because I changed my attitude about myself, my attitude about the world changed. That is why today, I can follow my dreams and live a life that excites me, every single day.

Author, Kelly Duhigg



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