“Where are you going, where have you been?”
Let me preface this post with a warning…
I wasn’t going to post this. I didn’t want to. This reluctancy was born out of a need to convince everyone that everything is exactly as I say it is – fine. I’ll repeat that a dozen times until it sticks. I needed to convince myself of this. I wanted to fit into that perfect image I created of what my life in Korea would be like. It would be hard, yes, of course it would be. Moving abroad is inevitably a difficult thing to do, but the difference was I would never let it become too hard. The pressure of living in a foreign country would not get to me – that was the promise I made to myself. Be stronger and more resilient than your environment – quote, end quote. When I made the decision to move here, I told myself that I would no longer let my past dictate my life. I was done adhering to that voice burrowed deep in my head revel in my own personal failures.
But that’s the difference between the Imagined™ and the Real™. No matter how vividly I imagined and created a world to immerse myself into, reality was always there to kick down the door and pull me back out. Which is exactly what happened. I felt as if I had suddenly become separated from myself, like a part of me had been tossed into the currents to be swept out to sea. I was left without comfort on the sandy beaches in the dead of night, stuck watching the horizon, wondering if I would ever see the sun again. I was numb. I was isolated. I wanted to go home.
In the midst of my pity party, I watched a video posted by one of the YouTuber’s I’ve been following for a few years now. In a three part series she discussed at length her experience living as a foreigner in Japan. Unscripted, raw, and brutally honest, she told her story to the camera, and I, some odd 900 kilometers away, felt the emotional weight of everything I had been carrying finally begin to fade away. It broke off piece by piece, and for the first night in nearly a month, I slept.
Because, listen folks, this shit is so hard.
There are days where I’m perfectly content, there are days where I can’t picture being anywhere else, there are days where I question my actions, and there are inevitably days where that voice I try so hard to suppress comes back and whispers in my ear until I feel so dismantled that I can’t be bothered to get out of bed.
And so quietly in the corner of a cafe in the middle of Haeundae, my luggage resting beneath my outstretched legs, I wrote holding back tears, and feeling more alone than ever.
This is not a determined and definite state of being. This will pass, so do not worry about me because, let’s face it, I’m not worried about me. Well, I’m a little worried about me, but I’m not strapped to an IV, so I suppose its not too bad. It could always be worse. That’s how I’ve been getting through my days.
I’ve yet to write when I’m feeling this way because I don’t want to worry anyone, and I’ve never been one for receiving text messages or emails with empty encouragement – I never know how to reply. Strings of phrases that add up to something with the general feeling of don’t worry about it, focus on the positives! have never sounded anything but condescending in most cases. Apologies if you’re guilty of such messages – we all are – but I’ll bet that when you’ve been witness to them at the worst of times you’ve wanted nothing more than to crumple them up, light them on fire, and scream I know! over and over again.
Because I know. I know that everything I write down will be utter crap tomorrow. After I meet up with my friends tonight and go out and catch up, these feelings will melt away and I’ll wake up a happier (or perhaps more hungover) person than I am today.
So it goes.
Regardless, today is real.
My sense of control is dwindling. It lies presently in the moments just before collapse – one wrong move away from the entire Jenga tower toppling over. It’s displaying itself rather attractively too, performing its best balancing act as it taps me on the shoulder just begging to be knocked over.
And I don’t know how to combat this.
So I search. I spend my days weighing my options, searching for the correct answer if there is one in order to find something to control. My behavior shifts to mold into this desire. More and more I poke at it and scratch until it starts burning – and then I have to do something.
A cigarette here and there, I bum off my friends guiltily, because there’s something building and pulling against the muscles in my back until they ache, and three deep inhales work better than any pain killer.
A drink here and there, because lord knows the stress of this job has settled on my shoulders and I need to laugh about something just to get through the week.
A trip to the convenient store here and there – all too convenient right across the street – so I can pick my way through bags of unnecessary calories, bored but maybe happy. The more frequent the trips, the more often I find myself chasing that same serotonin rush keeled over the toilet erasing and rewriting the the vinyl bags littering my bedroom floor.
A visit once or twice a day to the gym here and there, because oh my god, I refuse to gain weight here. That’s a healthy way to reduce stress, I can hear the words becoming twisted the dizzier I feel. My ankle burns, so I switch machines. Creatures of habit, and I am one of patterned, unbreakable behavior.
Weight training leads to a thinner and toner figure – but as my shoulders broaden, I feel increasingly unsure. Why do I insist on finding ways to make myself unhappy despite my circumstances?
Sometimes I sleep all day. Where did this sudden exhaustion come from? I should be able to cope better than this. I’m young! I have coffee on my side! But I feel barely there, like I’m fading into a background character of my own story. This doesn’t make sense anymore.
Sleeping through the day means I’m awake half the night – and the pattern continues. It’s colder out now, so I draw shapes and write my name in cursive on my windows, then breath hot air on them to make them stay. Hello world! I’m still here! I look across the campus to make out far off lights coming from the residence of another school. We are all stuck here.
When I escape to the city I feel happier. I feel self-sufficient. I feel like I resemble something close to a real human adult. I go grocery shopping and buy too much seaweed. I sit in a cafe and read until the last bus. I go to the beach and watch the sun disappear on the horizon and share ice cream with some friends. I smile. My closest friend texts me funny videos and screenshots terrible profiles on Tinder. I do the same. Sometimes I sit in her room late at night and gossip about coworkers. We talk about how lonely we are and laugh – and for brief moments in my day, I almost feel okay.
It’s nearly 2pm and I’m sitting alone at a cafe in Busan. The succession of events that led me here is still a bit fuzzy, there are pieces that have stuck and others that continue losing clarity as the minutes go by. Despite how I wanted my plans for this break to go, things as always collapsed and fell through until I was left scrambling. The only thing I knew was I had to get out of my apartment at the very least, or I was going to waste away in there feeling sorry for myself.
So I’m back in my old stomping ground, feeling more lonely than ever now that I don’t have my friend with me from the last time I was here.
I’ve yet to eat anything today other than a brown rice bar at the bus stop this morning. I’m sipping on the remains of an americano – more water than coffee now – and as I become slightly more shaky from draining nutrients I’m paralyzed with this fear of being alone. I’ve always loved being on my own. I told myself for years that I often preferred it. But now? I hate being alone. I’d rather go to a cafe with someone, I’d rather sit up late at night and talk to everyone instead of confining myself to my room. I hate not talking.
I didn’t understand what it meant to be truly isolated until I moved here. Without company, the silence is deafening. I suppose I’m not confident enough to deal with this yet. That’s disappointing. I should be stronger.
More than anything though, I’m tired. I’m so so tired.
I lost five pounds over a seven day period from barely eating. For three of those days, I lived in my bed, sipping on water and eating instant rice with SPAM. I felt utterly defeated, my guilt rising as I watched the sun disappear and reappear on the horizon, knowing that I was almost willingly allowing myself to fall back into bad habits that I promised to leave behind. For two hours everyday I dragged myself to the gym for some semblance of normality, but spent the last half hour seated against the mirrored walls wondering why I had so little drive, why my system refused a reboot, why my energy was completely depleted. Days went by slowly, then paused and waited as if time wasn’t going to move for me at all. I was miserable. I scrolled through bargain airline ticket sites late at night, wondering how much it would cost to fly back to America. An unrealistic plan, of course, but there was a small comfort in knowing it was both entirely in the realm of possibility, and somewhat affordable in my budget. I would hover over the Check out! button sometimes, then click away and shut my computer off.
When my friend finally came home from break, she hit me and told me that I looked skinnier and significantly more pale. She threatened to call my parents (a tired phrase I hear from her all too often whenever she catches me about to make a bad decision – like, going to eat something expensive, online shopping, buying soju on my night off, etc.), then offered me some food, as always. She sat with me in her apartment and we ate all the unnecessary calories packaged in cardboard and plastic cans. She told me about her break, and I nodded, sucking down noodles, sausages, and rice cakes, slowly beginning to feel a bit more myself. It was as if someone had delicately draped a blanket around me, patted me on the back, then immediately smacked me and told me to stop pitying myself and deal with it – you know, the adult thing to do whenever you start to slip back into bad thoughts. Deal with it.
As I finish up this post, I’m sitting in a cafe yet again, but this time back in Jeju. IU is playing and I’m sitting on a leather couch in the corner, observing. I have an americano next to me and flourless pancake with red bean and chestnut paste in the center (at least this was how it was explained to me). It’s starting to get cold out, and just as I was informed before I got here, the Jeju winds are relentless. But, I’m content. So, as always, these feelings pass. I told my parents that our Skype calls will continue with the pattern I’ve already established. One week: complete chaos, self doubt, crumbling confidence. The week after: utter happiness, funny stories, future plans in the works – whatever else can be served with a side of cake and ice cream. Then, the week after that, back again with that big question mark buzzing over my head. At least we can have some consistency.
I’m reminded now though of a paragraph from a book I keep coming back to. You know when you read a book so many times it becomes a part of you? Like a piece from home, you carry it everywhere and flip through the pages to find a sense of relief. For the time being, Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami is still that reassurance I turn to when I can’t be bothered to think anymore about my own problems and would rather read about someone else’s (though it’s funny how they manage to intertwine). I read this section so often that I wonder if I’ve referenced it before. Regardless:
“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverised bones. That’s the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine.
An you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. People will bleed there, and you will bleed too. Hot, red blood. You’ll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood and the blood of others.
And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
P.S. The title of this post is the same title from a terrifying and beautifully written short story by Joyce Carol Oates that I highly recommend (especially to anyone who has just finished, or is in the midst of watching David Fincher’s Mindhunter because it carries a similar tone).