I’ve actually chosen just one, because there’s ONE that stands out from all the rest, the only thing that beats the proposal. It’s a long story so I’ve tried to make it entertaining.
Fiance and I used to live in New York City. We lived in a lovely little place in Brooklyn for a year, loved the area and the apartment, but hated our jobs, were always stressed and exhausted, never had any money, and fought all the time. We had to get out.
We decided to take a huge leap and move to South Korea as English teachers.
We wanted to work in public school through a program called EPIK. The application period was long and intense, but we made it in. They flew us over and we had a 10-day orientation in a college dorm where we were separated a lot, endured 12-hour long days of classes and lectures with many long bus rides, unfamiliar (honestly very tasty but unfamiliar) food, and a somewhat invasive medical check. My roommate was nice but not him. Days were exhausting and I was dying for even a few minutes alone with him. It was starting to wear on me.
We had no cell phones, no maps, no internet access except what was patchily available in the dorm, and we were only guaranteed to work in the same city. They don’t tell you what school you’re going to until the last minute, or even what area of the city. We had NO idea how far we’d be from each other, and with no phone or internet in our destinations, no idea how long it would take for us to meet up. Days? A week or more? He was my only comfort, my only anchor that made everything OK no matter how weird it was. I’m pretty adaptable and very adventurous but as you’ll see, it can easily overtake even the strongest traveler.
Here’s what happens at the end of the orientation.
They put you on another bus and drive you for several hours to your destination city. Mind you, as a new foreigner, you don’t have a phone, you don’t have a map. You nervously wait in a room to be met by a stranger from your school, who is an English teacher but might not speak English very well regardless.
They pick you up, you try very hard to be polite, but conversation is awkward and stilted. You immediately feel that they probably hate you. You have no idea what is OK to talk about. It’s a bit of a drive to your area — great, you think, way out in the middle of nowhere, even more likely to be far away from him.
At last, you arrive at the school. You are led inside to meet a bunch of people who look you over like they’re at a dog show. They don’t speak English, they talk about you to your handler in Korean distinctly as if you aren’t there at all. No one translates anything. You fumble your way through a polite Korean greeting to your vice principal and principal who do the same thing. They converse for a long time, you hear your name a lot, no one tells you anything.
You sign some papers. You meet more people with impossible to remember names who all have wild and different expectations of you. You’re getting hungry but are afraid to ask too many questions or request anything, you want to make a good impression and seem easygoing and respectful. First impressions are everything, and you’re desperate to make them like you, since these people will control your world for at least the next year if not longer.
You may or may not be taken for food. If you are, it will be with others who will not speak English to you, and eating food you may not even like. It may be insanely spicy. You are constantly terrified of doing something wrong without realizing it and offending someone by accident.
At the end of a long day you are taken to an apartment you’ve never seen before in a confusing and winding neighborhood that’s just as alien. Few if any signs even have English letters. The apartment smells slightly like sewage, it’s freezing cold, and very dark. The lights flicker ominously when you turn them on. It has no food, no toilet paper, no supplies to speak of, and few furnishings. No one can coherently explain to you how to work the heater-water boiler. (Hot water has to be activated, it doesn’t automatically come out here.) You are told not to drink the tap water. All the appliances are in Korean and indecipherable. You are given the keys and left alone for the first time.
Again, you have no cell phone, no internet, no map.
We pick up my story here. Recall that I had no idea where boyfriend was or how he was doing, but I missed him terribly and wanted nothing more than to know what his day was like and tell him about mine. I felt myself falter, but didn’t give in. I had gotten shoddy directions to a PC-bang (like an internet cafe on crack) and braved the cold to find it. Luckily they’re everywhere in big cities so it wasn’t too far.
I fumbled my way through paying for an hour or so on a computer and sent him a facebook message about my day and asking him to tell me everything, complete with a google maps screenshot of my new home, street number and apartment number. I mostly tried to sound strong, but admitted in my note that I was scared and lonely. Lastly I said I’d come back to the PC bang in the morning to see if he had answered.
I fought through the cold to get back to my new home.
As soon as the door was shut, it was over for me. Without the adrenaline and nerves keeping me on the ball, I collapsed, crying. I cried and I cried, big ugly tears leaving tracks down a reddened face, my snot roving about with a mind of its own, my eyes swelling from the hard work. I am very flexible and love strange new things and adventures, but it was honestly overwhelming. I don’t know almost anyone who didn’t feel similarly on their first night alone in their new place.
I discovered that my TV got a couple of English channels, and tried to distract myself with some Discovery channel. I cried while I ate pringles (the only recognizable thing at the convenience store) and while the teard ebbed a bit, I cried my way through an episode of Man vs Wild.
At that point it was time to give up — the only thing that would help was clearly sleep, and if I slept it would become daytime again and I could go back to the PC bang with hope of news. I climbed into bed in plaid pants and a sweatshirt because my apartment was still freezing cold. I tried to calm the tears. I sat and listened to all the noises outside and in the hallway… I’m used to a big city with noises but haven’t lived on the first floor by the street, in a thin-walled place like that.
I had a hard time relaxing. I began to daydream about boyfriend appearing at my door, which just brought on more tears. I just sat there in bed for what felt like a long time. (I didn’t even have a clock, I had been using my defunct US phone but the time had gone off and I couldn’t fix it with nothing to compare it to.)
Just when I started to relax a little, there was a harsh sound. The door… someone was knocking. My heart jumped into my throat. Was it my co-teacher/handler? Was it a neighbor? I elected to answer the door in my pajamas, as it was late. I hoped it wasn’t too obvious to whoever it was that I was crying.
Totally on edge, with my best composed face, I opened the door.
And I immediately resumed crying. There he was, in his best shoes and dress coat, arms spread, rose in his hand, looking for all the world like the protagonist of the cheesiest romantic comedy known to man. I flung myself at him, sobbing into his coat while smiling so hard my face hurt.
He asked awkwardly if he could come in. I closed the door behind him and kept poking at him, half convinced it was just another daydream, or that I’d actually fallen asleep. He was real, it was real — he’d found me somehow, and everything was going to be fine.
I’ve never felt so much love and pride and amazement and relief. I feel like he came and rescued me, it felt so incredible and impossible. In the end it turned out amazingly that his school and his apartment were a 5-7 minute walk away, and his place was awesome. (We both live there now, my apartment sits largely unused.) I still talk about that night sometimes, I see it as sort a really defining moment.
His end was: There was a bus stop outside his place that had unsecured wifi and he had gotten my message, and even though he couldn’t print the map, or the building info, he just memorized it as best he could and struck out on a freezing, windy night in a strange city with few street names to try and find me, and he succeeded. I get all warm and fuzzy every time I remember it.