“Faking It”

A few days ago I gave my first performance at “A Guide To Visitors: Storytelling in Seattle.” While I’m pretty comfortable writing stories, I had never before stood up on stage and performed one in front of an audience. To top it off, I couldn’t use my notes. Nerve-wracking, no doubt, but I think I made it through my set relatively error-free, and I got a good reaction from the crowd. Definitely a lot of fun and I hope to share more stories in the future. Below is a written version of the story I told, based off the theme of the night: “Faking It.” Check it out below.  

There is an old proverb that says, “A turtle only travels when it sticks out his neck.” I know this because it was written on a card given to me by my sister, right before I left the country for 15 months.

It was a couple years ago. I had just graduated from college and I was struggling to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.  All I knew was I that wanted to see what else was out there. I wanted to experience something new. So after giving it a little thought, I did what any rational person would do: I packed my bags, said goodbye to my friends and family, and flew to the opposite side of the world: South Korea.

 I had signed a year-long contract to teach English at private language academy in a small farming town called Seosan, an hour and a half southwest of Seoul. I’d be teaching kids and adults. It was just what I wanted. A change.  A challenge. It was going to be great. I couldn’t wait! There were, however, a few minor details that I may have overlooked in my rush to find a way out Seattle, namely, that with the exception of Canada, I had never traveled outside of the country…And I had never traveled anywhere alone before…And I had no teaching experience… And I didn’t know a word of Korean… And I knew absolutely no one who lived or had lived in Korea. I could barely use chopsticks. I was woefully underprepared, but I had made up my mind and my plane ticket was non-refundable. I was going.

 (The Rest of the Story After The Jump)

One 13-hour plane ride later, I was there, and it wasn’t too long after unpacking and walking around the small neighborhood around my apartment that my optimism and enthusiasm gave way to reality of the situation. I was an outsider, and I was completely alone. Unlike Seoul, there weren’t many Americans in my little town. People stopped and stared at me in the streets, children would point and shout “wiegookin, weigookin!” – the Korean word for foreigner. During my first week of classes some of my 1st grade students leaned over my desk and started rubbing my arm hair and shouting excitedly “Tul! Tul!” I did some research and found out that Koreans don’t have a word for body hair, so “tul” translates into the next best thing: fur.  I had come to Korea to be a teacher, but instead I wound up a novelty.

Adding to my frustration was the fact that there were no other foreigners at my school. I had no phone or internet at the time, and loneliness quickly set in. My classes were going horribly, I wasn’t sleeping well, I couldn’t focus, and I couldn’t eat. I seriously considered sneaking off in the middle of the night and taking a taxi to the airport and flying back home. I gave myself one more week to tough it out.

It was the start of my second week, and sensing my stress, my boss, Mr. Kim, a short little man with glasses and thinning hair, thought it would be a good idea for me to get out of my apartment and burn off a little steam. In his rough English he invited me to accompany him to his gym, which turned out to be directly across the street from my apartment. After an hour or so of lifting weights and working out on what seemed like hand-me-down equipment salvaged from the set of Rocky IV, we wrapped up our workout and I headed for the door to leave for home.

“Thank you Mr. Kim” I said. “I feel a lot better now.”

“No No, Eli Teacher,” said Mr. Kim. “Come with me,” and he motioned with his hand for me to follow him down a back staircase. I thought he might be showing me a shortcut to exit the building, but instead we ended up in a dimly lit locker room with heated wood floors. I wasn’t really sure what why he needed to show me the locker room, but I thought it was a nice gesture. Maybe he wanted to talk about work, I thought, so I followed Mr. Kim to his locker.

“Thank you again for showing me this gym,” I said.

“Yes, yes. Eli Teacher. Ok.” And then he turned to me and said, very matter-of –factly, “Now…We sauna.” And with that he started undressing.

I was shocked,  not sure what to do next. I wasn’t really comfortable with the thought of getting naked with my boss and a bunch of random strangers, but I also didn’t want to seem rude or cowardly. I was well aware of the old saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” but this was a little ridiculous.

I tried my best to remain completely silent and avoid eye-contact at all costs. I figured, if I couldn’t see them, then they couldn’t see me. But it was no use. As we made our way into the sauna area, all eyes were on me. F or the first time in my life I was completely and utterly exposed (both literally and figuratively). There was no hiding. I was a foreigner, minority, a “weigookin” with a tattoo and “tul.”

Mr. Kim and I entered sauna, a giant tiled room filled with showers and hot tubs and steam rooms. There was a man doing yoga poses in one corner, while another practiced his badminton swing in the cold pool. There were men of all ages, from infants to grandfathers (and speaking of grandfathers, I think I finally figured out why they’re called grandfather clocks). After a quick rinse in the communal shower, Mr. Kim and I made our way to one of the giant hot tubs. And just before I was about to step in, Mr. Kim turned to me and asked, once again in a very serious tone, “Are you ok?”

“Are you ok?” The question gave me pause. Normally it’s one that elicits a quick response, but on  this particular occasion, in this particular setting, naked and uncomfortable and alone, I gave it an unusual amount of consideration.

“Am I ok?” I thought to myself. “That’s a very good question. Let’s review. Where am I? How did I get here? I think I made a mistake. I don’t think I’m ok. I’m thousands of miles away from home. I can’t speak the language. I’m sitting naked in a hot tub with a bunch of strangers. How often do they clean these tubs? How will I get a phone? How does the bank work? What if I’m the only foreigner in the whole town? Did I pack enough deodorant? Why is that guy doing lunges? What if North Korea attacks What if something happens to me? What if something happens to my parents? Seriously sir, enough with the lunges!! Where am I? How did I get here? I think I made a mistake?”

And it was at that moment, as my mind was racing and spinning off in a hundred different directions, that I remembered the card my sister had given me right before I left. That simple little card with that simple little sentence: “A turtle only travels when it sticks out its neck.” With those words in the back of my mind, I pushed all my fears and my anxieties to the side, and I stepped into the water and said, “Yes, Mr. Kim. I am ok,”

And that was that. My Korean Baptism of sorts. I was sticking out my neck (and a whole lot of other things in the process), and I could feel a new adventure was beginning.

The 15 months that followed were a crash course in learning how to deal with the uncomfortable and the unknown. Sure, I didn’t have all the answers. I didn’t know how to ask for directions or teach English or how to talk to girls (and I guess I still need a little practice with that last part), but after that day in the sauna, I felt confident I’d be able to figure it all out.

 I wound up making regular visits to the sauna, sometimes giving impromptu English lessons right in the middle of a hot tub. It wasn’t long after that my lessons starting improving, I made friends with locals and foreigners alike. I sang karaoke on a regular basis (not well, but I tried). My appetite came back with a vengeance, and I ate everything, from live fish to raw octopus. I learned to speak a little Korean.  I never once thought again about buying a plane ticket and sneaking off for home.

It took a while to realize it, but that one single moment in the sauna showed me that “faking it” – saying yes when you really want to scream NO! – is an incredibly empowering act. It’s what allows us to grow, to explore, and to make it through the hundreds of uncomfortable situations – some big, some small – that we face every day. Situations like leaving home, or starting a new job, or standing up on stage and telling a story in front of strangers.

Picture them naked, and the rest is easy.

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