If the sun is shining, it must be warm outside. This has always been a reliable, indisputable fact of life. At least it was, until five years ago when I decided to move from the Philippines to South Korea as a high school student. I’ve gotten used to life in Korea since then, but the period in between seasons always makes me nostalgic for the simpler times when I didn’t have to worry about dressing strategically to stay warm.
People imagine a false picture of endless travel and glamorous adventures when they hear “living abroad”. Don’t get me wrong — it’s pretty exciting. I’ve walked under canopies of falling cherry blossoms, traveled to other countries for exchange programs, and learned about the Korean culture and language that many people only see on screen. But rarely do international students get to talk about the darker side of leaving home in search of better opportunities, for fear of sounding ungrateful and whiny. Beyond the new sights and unforgettable experiences, there are sleepless nights filled with homesickness, anxieties about fitting in a foreign country, and countless what-ifs about whether I made the right decision.
The greatest — yet most abstract — of the emotional hardships that come with studying abroad is the amount of uncertainty it inflicts. Getting on that first flight to Busan meant stepping into the Gray Area, that uncomfortable space in between what I have been familiar with my whole life and something unimaginably unknown.
In the Gray Area, I am unmoored. The place I considered home for fifteen years now feels like a temporary rest stop, a place to gather my bearings for a month or two before another busy semester starts. It’s a cold splash of reality when missed inside jokes remind me that I haven’t been present for the small moments that make up normal life. The life that is now my new normal — the countless hours of studying in the library, the small moments of stress relief found in noraebangs, the late nights of writing my articles — is a countdown to graduation, to a better life. The day-by-day stress of student life, along with the feeling of being an alien, a waegukin, makes it hard to call Korea home.
The feeling of being on unsteady ground never fades, but I am slowly training myself to gather my bearings with every shift. In the journey between the known and the unknown, there are moments of fun and travel with friends, snapshots of the vivid fall foliage, and never-ending lessons in both personal and academic life.
Perhaps the most important lesson is this: the bright sun doesn’t always mean warmth and happiness. Sometimes, it disguises cold days and uncertain tomorrows. As dusk begins to fall earlier and earlier, I need to remember to prepare myself for whatever each new day may bring.