As I sit on an immobile plane in Japan for our third delayed hour on Christmas Eve, I’ve decided to take this as an opportunity to reflect on the past year and distract myself from eating a packet of red chili/고추장 paste, which as my brother so aptly put it, “is a packet of concentrated sodium.”
I find myself confronted again with the passage of time that only seems to have accelerated at a much higher rate than in past years. And contrary to what I naively expected, the years only seem to become more and more challenging.
Over a year ago, I moved to Korea to spend time with family and more urgently, to figure myself out all over again. While the year was extremely challenging for me personally, I will never in any capacity say I regret it.
I found myself coming to terms with my ethnic and cultural identity. I had spent most of my life as an American with the physical features of a Korean, but for the first time, I did not have a mask of “other” as an excuse or protection. I was more anonymous and unimportant than I had ever felt before. And yet, I still felt very foreign mentally. I had to reconcile being a foreigner without looking like one, and I found the most effective way to do that was to adapt but not completely assimilate. This I only discovered after many months of loneliness and frustration and self-imposed judgment.
I found myself reacquainted with living with family. The one common thread I’ve found between myself and every other human I know is that we all find family to be challenging in every capacity. With family, I don’t have the luxury of simply disappearing or giving false opinion in unpleasant situations. With family, there is too much at stake and too much invested and too much caring to simply let complicated issues slide so easily. With family, even with all my strength and resolution, I cannot control the more unbearable sides of myself. With family, there is certainly no hiding and definitely no running. With family, nothing is conditional.
I found myself understanding fully the value of friendship. Up until this point, most of my friendships were wonderfully convenient. Through high school, we all lived in similar neighborhoods, at most just a drive away. In college, we were simply a knock away from each other, all united under one patriotic institution, full of pride in prestige and privilege. Even my first year in New York, I was surrounded by those like myself, clinging desperately to the frivolous lives that we had to leave behind eventually. After moving a very large body of water away, friendship was no longer so convenient. Some began to follow different paths, and these friendships would objectively no longer make sense for me. But to my absolute pleasant surprise, most of my magical, wonderful friends were more resolute and more stubborn in maintaining friendship than I had ever experienced before. And some I even got to get to know all over again in new spaces and capacities. I had never appreciated before the beauty of loyalty and chosen family as much as I was able to this year.
And lastly, you guessed it, I found myself. I had lost a level of confidence and self-esteem in that fragile space between adolescence and young adulthood, and I couldn’t bear to be alone with myself. I still think loneliness is one of the most crippling emotions I’ve experienced, but I think what I’ve found is a better balance between sense-of-self and giving so much of myself away. I’ve learned to balance my extreme caring for people with caring just enough – just enough that I don’t lose authority over myself. While I’ve had the fortune of being surrounded by some incredibly compassionate and genuine people, I’ve learned that not everyone has the luxury of being so kind, which I’m still learning to shield and protect myself from.
I’ve been joking a lot recently with some friends that 2016 has been the worst year ever. In terms of headlines, it definitely feels like it has been and in terms of personal struggles, it’s been…challenging…to say the least. But seeing the people I love and myself just a year ago, and to see where we are now, honestly makes me so proud. I think this year has sort of been the “darkest hour before the dawn.” If the trend I’ve observed stays true, next year might, in fact, be even more challenging. However, I’m going to optimistically assume that this year was simply a year of hardship to make next year shine a little brighter in comparison. And I’d like to think we’ll be that much more prepared.
I’m now in hour four of our delay, sitting in front of two extremely talkative women and adjacent to a boisterous little boy (I have to give both parties credit for their unwavering consistency). This almost feels like some cruel curtain call for 2016 – like, “thought you were done with me?!” Lord grant me this last strain of resilience. Nothing is permanent, nothing is permanent, nothing is permanent…
So all in all, some memories from 2016 I’ll cherish, and some I’ll simply take the lesson and run. No amount of guilt can change the past, no amount of anxiety will change the future, but ultimately, I’m pretty excited to see what 2017 has in store for us. The Halal Guys opened in Seoul recently, so I’ll take that as a good omen as well.
UPDATE* Avoid flying Asiana at all costs. I post this in the eleventh hour of travel, stranded when it should have been just three.