“Was it worth it?”:  of Value and Regret

Was it worth it?

People don’t ask this as often as they tell me that I’ve changed, but if I’m honest, I think this is a much more valuable and interesting question. It requires insight, and perspective that I might not have this early into my return home.

It’s also a question I’ve been considering since I decided to renew my contract (over a year ago), and doubly so since I signed the form stating that I wouldn’t be staying in Korea for another year.

So… was it worth it? The answer is, as always, much more complex than the question I’ve been asked.

Point 1: It was never going to be what I expected

If I’m honest, I hardly know what I expected. More, and somehow less. I did a lot of research, and it did make the transition from my home to Korea easier, but I still found myself in a situation I didn’t expect to be in.

What you’ll find from a lot of blogs out there is that no one gets the situation they expected. For some, the difference between their expectations and the reality is very slight. For others, myself included, the difference can be enormous.

Does the fact that the situation was different from my expectations mean that I hated life right away? Not at all. It fed into later issues that I had, but it was not the direct cause of what made me hate my job. The truth of the matter is that, even if I had gotten exactly the situation that I had anticipated, it still wouldn’t be what I expected. Why is this?

Well… because of me. Part of the expectations that the future expat develops of what they will be like in the situation they are about to enter. Change happens, and living abroad changes you more than expect it to. Or, perhaps, not as much as you expect it to. What happens if you move yourself to a different country with an entirely different culture, and you don’t find yourself to be that different when you’re in that environment?

The human element – whether we feel we know ourselves or not – is going to affect how we perceive the situation we find ourselves in.

Was it worth travelling across the world to find out what I found out about myself?

Point 2: I was not prepared

No amount of research could have prepared me. EPIK orientation didn’t help me much either. No blogs from NETs in Korea or elsewhere could have readied me for the world I found myself in.

I couldn’t know until I started working, and until the honeymoon phase was over, whether or not living and working abroad would make me happy. This is why so many liken living abroad to an adventure. I quite like the image of moving abroad as reading an especially well written book, the kind where you’re constantly surprised by the way that plot twists. You don’t know what’s going to happen, or how things will turn out at the end.

Was it worth all the preparation, when I couldn’t be prepared for what would come?

Point 3: It was better, and it was worse

The assumption attached to the fact that I didn’t get what expected is that I must have been immediately unhappy with my lot. That isn’t true at all. In so many ways, I had been preparing for the worst, and I got the best. I prepared for coworkers and students who couldn’t speak English, and I got neither. I prepared for misbehaving, disinterested students, and didn’t really get that either.

Unfortunately (as anyone who has read my blog will have realised), I prepared for the best in some ways, and then I got the worst. I prepared for a relatively easy workload, and got the complete opposite. I prepared to teach basic English, and got the opposite. I prepared to play games and have fun, and while I had fun, there were relatively few games. I prepared to know what I was teaching, and found myself having to learn a lot.

My job had some incredible highs and some truly awful lows.

What it worth it?

Point 4: I didn’t get to do everything I wanted to do

So many of my plans were not fulfilled. So many sights went unseen. So many experiences were not had.

These are the things that people often ask me about when they ask about my time Korea. Do I regret all the things I didn’t get to do?

Point 5: Coming home isn’t easy

This is, perhaps, the final way of considering the question ‘Was it worth it?’ – has it been worth coming home, away from a furnished flat I didn’t have to pay for, away from a secure salary that I’m unlikely to see matched here in SA? Was it worth coming back to internet speeds reminiscent of snails racing through jam? Was it worth coming back to load shedding, right after all the drama during the State of the Nation address? To postal strikes and an unstable economy?

(Saffas – I think you exactly the kinds of people who ask me these kinds of questions.)

Consider this: I don’t really know what was going on in Korea, politically speaking. I got hints, sometimes, but I didn’t really follow it until it affected my job. I left uncertainty behind me too. Is South Korea better off than South Africa? Yes. No. It isn’t a matter of worse or of better. It’s just a matter of what I lose and what I gain.

Is what I’ve lost worth what I’ve gained?

Conclusion:

Was it worth it?

I’m asked this as though it’s easy to find a definite answer, as though the value of an experience is easy to calculate, as if I should be able to find an equation and assign numerical values to my experiences.

I wish it was that easy – it’s much harder to unpack what I feel and to determine whether or not I feel like I’ve wasted my time.

Was it worth it?

Despite how difficult it is to answer this, I still say yes.

How did I reach this conclusion?

Easy. I asked myself:

  • Did I learn from this experience?
  • Did I gain something from it?
  • Has it made me – in some small way – a better human being than I was?

Yes.

Therefore, it was worth it. It was worth all the ups and downs, all the experiences I did and did not have, all the things I left behind and came home to.

What I have learnt and gained cannot be simply explained or quantified, but this much I can say: I am not what who I was. I never will be again. My experiences are worth only what I take away from them. I have chosen to accept and learn from what my life was over the last two years. Therefore, it was worth it. Absolutely.

Post-script:

Those who wave this off as being part of the honeymoon phase of my homecoming probably don’t understand one vital thing: Both going to Korea, and coming back home, were choices that I made. I own those choices and the consequences that came about because of what I chose. I didn’t have to go to Korea, nor did I have to come home. Similarly, I choose to find the positive in what happens to me and to learn from my experiences.

The optimism I’ve chosen to exercise is not so much a feeling as it is a choice. I’m not a natural optimist. I am a cynic, as I always have been. However, I choose to see my world in an optimistic light. I have been too cynical for far too long. I choose to smile, to learn, and not to regret.

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