Round one took place in the mid-winter of 2009, when I packed up two suitcases and hopped on a 16 hour flight from Columbus, Ohio to Seoul, South Korea. I was 24 and a few months out of a big breakup, and though I denied it at the time, I was definitely running in the hope of getting as far away as possible from the claustrophobic city in which I found myself living with my ex. We constantly ran the chance of awkwardly seeing one another out and about. I wasn’t interesting in figuring out how the dance would work, and so I left. A bit dramatic? Maybe, but why not go big when you can? And you have to admit, East Asia is about as far away from Ohio as you can get, and in my opinion, far more interesting than a move to New York or Chicago.
I landed in the middle of a freezing cold February night, where I was picked up by a driver who spoke no English but who greeted me at the airport with a smile and a piece of paper with my misspelt name scrawled across it. We drove through the night for over an hour.
I had no concrete idea where we were headed, having only signed a contract for a new teaching job the week before. This new town on the edge of Seoul was only a tiny spot on a map in my mind. I tried not to worry, and most of what I remember from that first drive in Korea is a dreamy haze, sitting silently, sleepily in the back of a too-big commuter van, unable to communicate with the driver, moving quickly through the darkness. Dozens of neon crosses were scattered throughout the night, floating eerily in the night. I would come to find that all those blazing crosses were a common feature of the Christian churches that are everywhere in Korea, often built into the upper floors of the massive blocks of buildings that housed everything you could think of – restaurants, schools, churches, apartments, all sharing vertical space rising hundreds of feet into the air. Eventually they would fade into the scenery of my life in Seoul, barely noticeable, but on that first night, it was like driving through a dreamland, and I wasn’t sure where I would wake up.
Fast forward nearly three years. In that time I’d surprised myself by falling in love with a British expat that I’d met in South Korea. I’d completed my teaching contract and left Seoul to go to graduate school in the States, and did the long-distance thing for a year and a half with my dude. In the whirlwind autumn of 2011 I got married, turned twenty seven, and was granted a spousal visa for the UK – in that order and all within a few weeks of each other. New degree in hand, I was leaving again, starting over again, but this time there was no return date.
On Boxing Day of 2011 I had narrowed down my entire American life into four suitcases, the rest of my belongings binned, or for the most precious of things, boxed up and put in my mum’s basement. I was newly married and newly graduated and I had no plans for my new British life – I was just going to show up in England and get on with it.
It felt strangely familiar, but this time, I was scared. I clung to hope that things would work out, but it wasn’t exactly an ideal situation – my husband and I lived in his parent’s house while I looked for work, not wanting to rent on one income in our expensive coastal city. I couldn’t drive and I spent a lot of time those first few months battling with feeling homesick. Unlike moving to Korea and working right away, this time I felt like I’d stepped back in time. I’d signed up to be an immigrant wife in a new country, where my husband had friends and a life already. I had none of that at first, and it took a long time to make friends that were in no way connected to him, something which was really important to me.
I’d moved for love, but I knew I would never be happy if love was the only thing keeping me afloat. So I joined groups (knitting, book clubs, etc) and began volunteering at a charity. I kept busy and looked for work and eventually I found a job and made a few friends, and my own social circle widened independently, making me feel like a normal person again.
The main thing that most people wouldn’t think of is the cultural differences between the US and the UK. I felt them constantly, particularly after I began working. I eventually found a job teaching English and the amount of jokes referencing the fact that I was an American in England teaching English when ‘Americans don’t even speak English’ was, let’s say, ‘tiresome.’ In South Korea and during my travels through Asia I’d known I was different – blonde, white, blue-eyed, I definitely stood out in a crowd – and I at least knew where I stood. I could prepare myself daily for living as a foreigner in a foreign land, but I also knew that someday I would leave. I was having an experience, but a transient one. I didn’t mind much when people would touch my long hair or my face, or when they pushed their children at me in the elevator, trying to get them to practice their English on the nice white lady.
In England then, and now, it’s not a transient experience. It’s my life; I live here and I work here. I have a flat and a dog and I may never live anywhere else again. It took time, but several years later it feels like home. Even so, I constantly straddle the tightrope between all the parts of my identity, obviously an American in Britain, but no longer purely American enough when I go back to the States. Sometimes I miss the overt friendliness of America, or the overwhelming big-ness of things. But this is the path I’ve chosen, and it’s a pretty good one.
Would I encourage anyone else to do the same? Unflinchingly, yes. Starting over is hard in whatever way you may do it. Leaving safety and comfort and friends and family is hard and scary. For love or money, to escape pain or find yourself, starting over is worth doing at any age. You will want to go back home. And the joy of being alive today is that, to a certain extent, you can. Planes exist, Skype is real, the internet is a thing. But pushing the boundaries of yourself is so completely worth doing. You will be fine, and you will be better for it. And the people you love will love you no matter where in the world you may find yourself.
– Ashley Sheets