I’ve always found that in the lead up to a significant event, I never really feel that said event is actually going to happen, until it finally does. It was much the same for me in the week leading up to our departure. While I was very aware that our final week in Seoul had dawned on us and that we were living our last days in the country, I simply did not properly register that this really was the case until the day before our plane was due to depart. In some ways, this is (generally speaking) an excellent thing: I didn’t feel unduly worried or saddened at our departure until the night beforehand. However, it did mean that the subsequent 36 hours were a chaotic whirlwind of a transition back home – and now I’m here in little old Hamilton, I have the strange sensation that I never really left New Zealand.
The final week (forgetting the impeding departure for a moment) was something of an abnormal week. It brought with it our final exams (which went far more smoothly than I could have hoped) and our final class with our classmates. This was a particularly memorable day for me as after class finished, we went out for lunch with both our teachers, followed by a session of socialising at a nearby café. It was lovely to spend time with our teachers outside of the classroom environment (and, as an aside, it was quite a shock to finally see their unmasked faces!) Having such passionate and genuinely kind teachers really made such an impact on the trip, I have realised, looking back. The trip on the whole was a very independent experience, and so our teachers were the closest people in Korea we had to a parental figure. I think, although I didn’t consciously realise it at the time, that having their daily presence in our lives during the three months was a nice constant, and reassured me at least that if any problems were to arise, I did have someone physically in the country to turn to. I know I will miss them!
My classmates, too, have been one of the most precious parts of the trip for me. Having the opportunity to meet such a varied, friendly group of people with similar goals and common interests was such a valuable experience. I know that I will keep in touch with them long into the future, and although we have only known each other for fewer than three months, it doesn’t feel that way. It surprised me just how easily we got along, and how effortless hanging out with them felt, despite the obvious language barriers and cultural differences.
The trip has taught me so much – on a personal level, I have learnt so much about myself, the way I learn, interact, and see myself in the world. I think the trip really helped me to clarify exactly what I want to do with my life going forward as I graduate from university. I had always thought that I wanted to find some job or career path that would allow me to work across international borders and cultures, and the fulfilment and enjoyment I got out of this trip proved to me that this is the right direction for my life to take. I also know that I have developed in terms of my independence and resilience – I genuinely feel that I’ve become more accomplished at solving issues and dealing with any adverse circumstances that may arise far more effectively than I could before leaving for Korea. Of course, I’ve also learnt so many cultural and communicative skills and other abilities that will be incredibly useful as I enter the workforce and work with similarly diverse groups of people.
I did feel a strong sense of sadness as we rolled our suitcases down the street to the subway station for the last time. I must add, though, that the street has never felt so long before – and I’d never appreciated quite how uneven the surface was until I tried to take my suitcase along for the journey! It took us almost two hours from the dorms to Incheon Airport via the subway system, as convenient as it was – but it was a nice opportunity to gaze out the window and mentally farewell the city that has been our home for the past three months. I’d woken up incredibly early that morning (I think as my brain knew that it was a day to get up, get organised, and depart) so I was already running on less sleep than I had envisioned. It was an overnight flight, so I naively thought I’d be able to sleep for most of the way – but no, I was bright-eyed and conscious for the whole 9,600 kilometers.
Although New Zealand has had terrible weather for this summer, so I wasn’t particular sad to be absent, the temperature on our arrival was a bit of a shock. Gone are my coats and layers, and the constant chirp of cicadas surrounding me is something I have not heard for quite some time. It is nice to be able to wander around outside without your fingers slowly losing feeling, or your toes getting a bit numb, though. It is funny, though, how quickly the human brain adapts. While in Korea, I had the strange feeling that my life here in New Zealand was simply on pause, somewhere in another universe. Now I’m home, it is a similar feeling, but in reverse. Korea feels so far away, and in a funny sort of way feels as if I’ve never really been there. It’s quite disconcerting how you can get on a plane for 12 hours and disembark on a completely different side of the world. What’s more, thanks to COVID, it’s been so long since I left New Zealand and the familiar cities in which I live and study. Nonetheless, it’s been an easy adjustment back into New Zealand life, and everything is just where I know it is and works just how I expect it to.
Despite this, though, I have this underlying feeling that something has changed within me. I know that as I am at the end of my university degree, I will need to make some big decisions about exactly what I do and where I go in the near future. I know that I plan to return to the other side of the world very soon – but for now, it’s very nice to see my family and friends, and enjoy the small patches of New Zealand summer when the weather forecast is kind enough to provide them. I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to go on this trip, and I know that it will remain one of the (if not the) most formative experiences of my life so far.