By Emily Simon
For a girl that had never lived further than 10 minutes away from home, moving to South Korea stretched my comfort zone into a completely unrecognizable shape. Normal, adult routines like navigating the grocery store and accessing a bank account became challenges within themselves, but simultaneously tackling the chaos of first-time teaching added a level of uncomfortableness I was unprepared to experience. By the time I celebrated my 6-month anniversary of living as a foreigner in a city far from home, I was clinging to a new mantra: give each anxiety in your life at least a month to settle before bailing. Give yourself time to transition before leaving a thing entirely. It’s sometimes in the uneasiness and strain of encountering change that beauty finds a solid foundation to take root.
I was teaching the 5-year-old kindergarten class at the time (quick side-note: Korea has a really strange system of calculating one’s age, so this actually meant I was working with as young as 3-year-olds), and attempting to make progress with a student who cried excessively each time I entered the classroom. Not only was she homesick and—for the first time in her life—spending a majority of her day away from her mother, she was scared. I was apparently the first foreigner she had ever met. It was discouraging for both of us, to chip away at the seemingly impassable communication barriers between a child and an adult, between two completely different languages, between her fear and my frustration. And yet, I had made a promise to myself. No matter how many times I walked home in absolute despair of ever engaging her in an activity without the waterworks, no matter how many times I wanted to shed tears comparable to hers, I would give both of us the month to come to terms with such an upheaval. I would be patient. I would be brave.
A month later, Kaylee (her English name) was completely different. She greeted me each day with a hug and the cutest smile you can imagine. She made such leaps and bounds in her English speaking capabilities, she surpassed most of her classmates. She is the reason teachers return again and again to a tiring work schedule and leaving her at the end of my contract was another heartbreaking transition to weather. If I had prematurely shut myself off from this change out of nostalgia for a state in life I couldn’t return to, I would have missed her affection, the happiness she brought into the classroom, and the miracle of a child’s growth happening right before your eyes, made all the sweeter by the rough road we had transversed to arrive at that “new normal.”
There is nothing wrong with caving to the ache of nostalgia every once in a while. And there are certainly transitions in life that will be bitter no matter how much time we spend in the waiting room between discomfort and relief. I think it’s even healthy to intermittently pause and acknowledge the bittersweet truth that life is transition, time forever marching us onwards past the places we had hoped to find uninterrupted rest. That ache reminds us that someday, there will be a homecoming made all the more glorious by the unique odyssey we each faced to reach the place where our hearts can finally rest. As G.K. Chesterton reflected (in the midst of moving from London to the countryside):
“It is the point of all deprivation that it sharpens the idea of value; and, perhaps that is, after all, the reason of the riddle of death. In a better world, perhaps, we may permanently possess, and permanently be astonished at possession. In some strange estate beyond the stars we may manage at once to have and to enjoy. But in this world, through some sickness at the root of psychology, we have to be reminded that thing is ours by its power of disappearance” (On Being Moved, Lunacy and Letters, 1958).
Or perhaps more succinctly stated by Marvel’s character, Vision, in the second Avengers movie: “A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.”
We can get so caught up in the discomfort of a situation, we forget this might be the moment we’ll be homesick for only a couple of months later. So if you’re in that scab stage of a situation—that uncomfortable itchiness and stretching that’s almost more painful than the wound itself—be patient enough to greet whatever healing or newness of life waits just around the corner. Think of all the Kaylees you might miss in trying to thwart life’s inevitable changes. It’s not always possible, but being grateful for or at least patiently practicing bravery in the face of unexpected burdens goes a long way in learning to savor life’s characteristic ebb and flow.