My life has changed. (Korea diaries #1)



 "I knew that if the spark of life kept burning there would be fuel; if I could live I would always find a way, and a way that was best for me.”

In high school, my biology teacher used to encourage my class to make the most of our found time. Found time, she explained, is the opportunities that the universe grants us to appreciate life’s beauty. It is often serendipitous but can exist at any moment that we choose to live in the present. You must be purposeful about holding on to it because you never know when you might have it again. On that Friday, my teacher encouraged us to seize our found time over the weekend by spending an hour or two at a local fair instead of burying ourselves in exam preparations for a test we had the upcoming week. (I am sorry to say that in this instance I did not use my found time; I did, in fact, spend that entire weekend at home.)

I am more than four years removed from that biology class, but I still return to my teacher’s idea of found time often. As I grow older– and after the past year and a half of my life in particular– I find myself wanting to be better about seizing found time while I have it. I want to be deliberate about making space for meaningful interactions with those I love and taking life a little less seriously sometimes. At the same time, reflection empowers me to see that found time can be found anywhere with gratitude.

They say that you can only connect the dots across life’s surprises when looking back. Indeed, sitting on the floor of my bedroom in 시흥 (Siheung) to write this post, I can hardly process my current circumstances beyond my most immediate concerns. (Where will I eat tomorrow? Will it rain? What time do I need to catch the bus to meet my supervisor? How can I ask for more water in Korean?) But when I take a moment to reflect, I can appreciate that I have found time in my past and present. As I write, I can hear the rhythm of the rain and rumbling clouds that mark South Korea’s rainy season. I breathe in the steam of my 보리차 (barley water tea) and pause.

It feels crazy to be here: one year ago, one month ago, hell, three weeks ago, my life looked incredibly different. I was different. To still be breathing, much less in South Korea, is a blessing. My life has changed, and I have changed, and I am grateful for all of it.

Found time in my past: how I got here



My physical journey to living in South Korea, where I am working for two months, was fast-paced. In the five days following my last final exam at university, I traveled up from Virginia to Pennsylvania and back down to Washington, DC, where I spent two weeks as a teaching assistant with my college roommate of the last year. It was a wonderful experience that deserves a post of its own. After completing my term, I returned home to Pennsylvania for another five days. On my fifth day at home, I took the LSAT, then left for the airport at 2:00 am. Now, I am writing from the other side of the world.

No part of this physical adventure would have been possible without the mental, spiritual, and emotional journey that I experienced during the past semester.

At first glance, the spring of my junior year passed in paradoxes. In this season of life, I experienced some of my lowest moments alongside some of my highest. Ultimately, though, I left my junior year feeling the oldest, the healthiest, and the happiest that I have ever felt in college. Looking back, two changes stand out to me the most.

First, my community blossomed. A younger version of myself could never have conceptualized the depths of isolation, grief, or fear that I would face in college. In my hardest moments, I felt more deeply than I ever could have imagined. These moments hurt, and I would not wish to repeat them. But I would also never erase them. I believe that they expanded my capacity for empathy and allowed me to cultivate and appreciate more meaningful interactions with others. By the close of the semester, I found new relationships in unexpected places and strengthened some existing ones in unanticipated ways. My community blossomed, and I found a stronger sense of belonging at my college than I have ever experienced before.

As I reflect, I can see now that even in those moments where I felt alone, I was lucky to have people who helped me– sometimes, more than I think those people will ever know. Acts that may have seemed small to them changed my reality.

Second, I started learning how to be kinder to myself. Someone whose guidance helped me a lot during the spring once asked me, “what if the best version of you is the average version of you?” What if the best version of me is not the one that feels overwhelmed by the performance of perfection, but the one that gives time to taking care of herself, even if that means letting go of some commitments to rest and reflect? I feared that the second person, the less busy one, the flawed one, might be worse. But I feel now that striving to embrace her and care for her– the everyday me– has not changed anything about my goals or my drive. Instead, it’s brought me more fulfillment and allowed me to better follow my values, my curiosity, and what feels right to me. 

Learning how to change the way that I speak to myself about myself and the world made me happier and initiated a wonderful cycle. As my community blossomed, it helped me to better myself; as I bettered myself, I found it easier to expand my community. It also gave me found time. I look back now and cherish rich conversations and cotton candy in my hair and soaking up the sun on the sunken gardens and memories made because I let myself be a little more spontaneous.


Found time in my present: where I am now


Coming to Korea represents the realization of a dream that I have held for over two years. I am a mixed-race Asian-American, the daughter of a white American soldier and a Korean immigrant. I grew up living in primarily white communities and did not learn the Korean language. During my junior year of high school, reading books that explored Asian-American identity invigorated my desire to understand more about my background. In my freshman year of college, I discovered that my school had a program that funded students working summer internships in Asian countries. I promised myself that I would apply.

I am not sure what exactly I was expecting when I came to Korea. During my first week here, I did not have any grand revelations about my Asianness or feel like I found a new sense of belonging. Instead, I struggled and perhaps felt even more isolated in my identity. I had to confront the reality that, while in the US some of my peers might identify me as Asian-American, in Korea I am most definitely not viewed as Korean, a reality that is exacerbated by my inability to speak the Korean language. I doubted myself; it hurt to feel distant from a culture and country that I longed so much to be a part of.

Living alone, though, left me with little room to ruminate on my embarrassment. My priority was survival: I needed to figure out how to eat, where to live, where I could get a COVID-19 test and a chest x-ray, and where I could get water. With my limited knowledge of the language, I had to be willing to fumble through interactions at grocery stores, restaurants, and workplaces. At times, I felt like a child, naïve and dependent and fearful.

A conversation with a former boss of mine who has taught abroad helped me to see that this vulnerability is something to be embraced. He shared this quote with me:

“Going to a different culture…we come to experience our basic vulnerability, our need for others, our deep-seated feelings of ignorance and inadequacy, and our fundamental dependency. Instead of running away from these scary feelings, we can live through them together and learn that our true value as human beings has its seat far beyond competence and accomplishments.”

This quote resonated so much with me. Here, my differences and the language barrier strip me of the external factors, social roles, and expectations that I can rely upon in the US to construct my identity. To say that this feels transformative is an understatement. To survive, I am forced to place my worth in myself, be more outgoing, and forgive myself for my mistakes.

Initially, I feared that my inability to speak the language and my status as a foreigner would threaten my ability to make meaningful relationships in Korea. To some measure, this fear is an inevitable reality: I can’t articulate myself or my thoughts in the way that I want to new people that I meet. In a way that feels strange and new and beautiful, though, my vulnerability connects me to people here because of how it exposes my dependency. This kind of vulnerability, which demands a willingness to look stupid and make mistakes, requires measures of openness, trust, and honesty that I do not experience often even within some of my closest relationships in the US, where speaking the dominant language gives me greater control over how I present myself. Here in Korea, I must ask for help. And I am grateful that, just like in my junior spring, I am beginning to develop some roots here as I rely on and learn from others. The kindnesses of coworkers, local business owners, and strangers who do not even know my name show me that I have found time here, too.


Found time in my future: what’s next


I return to this quote from The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde. I shared it in one of my previous posts as a message that I turned to when I sought support. It resonates with me again now, because I feel that now I am moving closer to the end of the phrase, finding the way of living that is best for me:

"I had felt so utterly stripped at other times within my life for very different reasons, and survived, so much more alone than I was now. I knew if I lived I could live well. I knew that if the spark of life kept burning there would be fuel; if I could live I would always find a way, and a way that was best for me.”

As I near the end of my third week in Korea, I want to make a greater effort to write about my experiences honestly. I’ll be doing that here on the blog with shorter, informal entries whenever I’m inspired to write. I want to remember my vulnerability, my experiences, and the found time that the universe and others’ acts of kindness have given me.

There is so much yet to come – in fact, I’m (unexpectedly) moving from Siheung to Seoul tomorrow (aahhhh) – and I want to remember all of it.

All the love,


  1. Wishing you all the luck!!

  2. What a lovely post, Claire! I'm so proud of you and all that you've accomplished so far in your college years. I'm sure Korea will be such a rewarding experience. I'll have to remember some of these words as I finish up my own degree and move forward.

  3. Enjoy your time in Korea. I was stationed there in Osan in the mid 90s and just loved the people, the culture and the beautiful country. My 2 children, now adults are Korean, we adopted them as babies.

  4. Thank you for this post. It was beautiful and very open. I wish you the best while you're in Korea. <3

  5. Claire, this is incredibly honest and beautiful. I'm glad to have known you before your journey to Korea and am looking forward to reconnecting with the "ever-growing" you when you return to the US. Enjoy every moment, including the unenjoyable ones. They will create the life of your memories that when viewed in the right light you will see is the perfect life for you! -SOS

  6. Even if parts of your familial roots are in Korea and they were calling to you, it was brave of you to undertake this experience and be willing to embrace the unknown and test yourself. Best of luck!

  7. There's so much that can be discovered in the moment. I like that quote- and the "need for others" makes a lot of sense when we are immersed in a culture that is both familiar and new. I love that you're finding kindness there as you navigate and acclimate. Good luck with the move- and looking forward to your posts as you share part of your journey!

  8. What a thoughtful post. Yes, we need to pause and take advantage of unscheduled time. And we're interested in your experience in Korea. People in your situation often have trouble finding their "identity" and hearing your thoughts on it are intriguing.

  9. What a wonderful post! I think that it is important to find joy in the small moments. Your time in Korea should prove to be a very impactful experience.

  10. Beautifully written. I'm glad you're getting the chance to be in South Korea for a bit, even if it's made you feel more vulnerable. I'm sure overall it will be a wonderful experience, with lots of memories!
    Lauren @

  11. I don't know if I would be as brave as you to go to a place where you don't speak the language and has to adjust to new things all by yourself. Thank goodness there are kind people in the world or else a lot of us wouldn't survive too well.

    I don't think too deeply of things but the idea of found time seems right. We shouldn't always busy ourselves, we need time to slow down and do things that aren't mandatory but things that are just for fun.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. Have a lovely day.

  12. Wow! This is rather inspiring! You're very brave!

  13. What a wonderful adventure and life affirming experience for you.

    I had a friend that moved there to teach English and she ended up staying for several years. I used to watch K-pop and K-drama's with her to learn the language before she went.

    I especially love “what if the best version of you is the average version of you?” I went to therapy last year and have been doing much of the same - accept me, the present - flaws and all.

    Looking forward to more posts!

    Karen @For What It's Worth

  14. I know I'm reading this late, but I'm amazed by you and your innate ability to decide to do something, do it, and learn everything you can from it. I'm so glad you can have this experience, and I admire the strength and courage it takes to do so. And the "What if the best version of you is the average version of you?" is going on my desk this year so I can ground myself each day. That quote reminds me of Whitman:

    “I exist as I am, that is enough,
    If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
    And if each and all be aware I sit content.
    One world is aware, and by the far the largest to me, and that is myself,
    And whether I come to my own today or in ten thousand or ten million years,
    I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness, I can wait.”
    --from Song of Myself

    I'm learning that the relentless push to get better and be better all the time can take away from the good being done in the now. It's taken me decades to come to that understanding; it warms my heart to see you and many in your generation understand that much earlier (I'm generalizing anecdotally, of course, but by and large, it's what I see).