Looking beyond North America for opportunities and experiences, beyond what simple travel can offer, was something that didn’t come naturally to me. To me, until my sophomore year of high school, Canada was everything there was to care for in the world. Before that, it was simply contained to Toronto. And then, upon entering college, New York quickly took over the spot of capital of my world. To me, the eastern seaboard was everything. And, North America was the furthest extents of her empire.
It’s easy to overlook the significance of geographical proximity in the world today. With how interconnected the world is with the internet, it’s easy to say the world is, really, in the palm of your hands. But the truth is, the world is a massive place. Sure, you can have your friends in China connect with you, real time, mind you, on WeChat, and your Korean friends on Kakao, your European friends on Whatsapp, and your American friends on Facebook. But, even then, you see a fundamental problem. The world is, and always will be, fragmented in some way, shape, or form.
That was me. I was on a fragment of the world, stuck on the massive island that I unknowingly created for myself. Sure, I had ties to my native Korea, but those ties were superficial at best. My use of Kakao was even limited to my Korean contacts in North America at best. I used Facebook far more extensively than I had any other social media services, and I took to just assuming things around me were the status quo. CNN was my news channel of choice, with auxiliary voices provided by new age media like Vox and Buzzfeed. And, because those sources covered world stories, I thought I had my bases covered.
But then, I moved to Korea. And it became crystal clear that nothing that I had known was true.
Korea was the crowning jewel in the Asian economic miracle for the past decade. It was the world’s poorest nation by a mile, that faced constant threats of war by its hostile northern neighbors. Development of any democracy, let alone an economy, seemed bleak. And yet, today, it stands as a world industrial power, with some of the world’s most valuable brands. K-pop and other Korean cultural products are looked up to in the region, with its influence rivaling that of Hollywood. Korea is, by any measure, a modern nation.
At least, that’s what I’ve been told.
Sure, there were issues here and there, but what country doesn’t have issues? But, when I landed, and began my job, I realized, this country is not the shining town on a hill that western media made it out to be. It was a country still in tatters, held together by duct tape, and fancy packaging, in an effort to overlook the fundamental issues it had neglected for so long.
The inherent divide of the nation based on their ancestral past during the Japanese occupation (whether or not they sided with the Japanese); the cultural sentiment, created by years of civil unrest, and dictatorial powers creating systemic inequalities that led to economic disparities that linger to this day; the fragile balance of power between 4 of the world’s most powerful nations that is required for the country to be anywhere near stable; all this was something that western media didn’t have time to cover, and frankly, probably didn’t want to cover either. But that didn’t deter my affection for the country. Rather, it made me yearn for it even more.
Unfortunately, that feeling wasn’t mutual. Perhaps it was time for me to head home.