On Moving to Korea

They say that failure is the mother of success (실패는 성공의 어머니다). Who are they? Some of them are those annoying people who are trying their not-so-hardest to console you that your future will not slowly dissolve into utter mediocrity. Others, however, are telling you the honest truth and hope that you’ll absorb some lesson of perseverance from their indisputably cliché adage.

All of us go through that period at some point – that seemingly unchanging trajectory of consecutive failure. While walking down that road, it’s incredibly difficult to imagine a better outcome. One can become gravid with frustration while trying to prove to oneself that perseverance fueled with passion will eventually, magically, change one’s compass to point to a brighter and more successful destination just over that ridge, there.

Yet, I must admit success is sometimes a much more fickle creature than her mother.

I have been trying since the fall of 2008 to get back to Korea and continue to study the country and language. I’ve done my research and composed list upon list of opportunities and applied to a great number of them (including the NSEP Boren Scholarship, the Critical Language Scholarship, the Blakemore, the Korean Government Scholarship Program, and the Foreign Service). Most of them I’ve applied to more than once, each time receiving a varying degree of rejection – the email that begins with “unfortunately”, the deceptive status of “alternate”, and the blatant disapprobation of silence.

This was certainly demoralizing in addition to frustrating. I tried desperately to heed the advice of others to “stick to it” but, veritas lux mea, I should admit that I often flirted with the idea of abandoning anything and everything related to Korea and begging my cousin to allow me to tag along to Togo with him and his Learn Africa Project.

Eventually, however, perseverance won out and now – in a span of time that seems quite curt – I am supposed to be ready to move to Korea for three years starting this September. Am I? While I would love to say “yes”, I’m honestly not really sure if I am. Can anyone ever be “ready” for that? What does that even mean?

Why am I moving to Korea? I am going to Seoul National University to study a master’s in International Relations (정치외교학). Upon my second application, I received a scholarship to go there through the Korean Government Scholarship Program, or KGSP, which includes 1 year of intensive language training in addition to 2 years of coursework.

I have no idea how this will affect my life and I don’t think there’s a way of knowing. Guesses can be made but how many people can determine how they will feel about what they want to do with their lives in three years? Yeah, good interview question. But in real life, it doesn’t mean anything. Will I want to live in Korea? Will I be so sick of it by the end of the first year that I’ll be yearning to return to the States? Who knows?

I guess I will just have to wait and see. Since there was never any need to know what I was going to do three years from any other point in my life, why would this move all of a sudden require me to become clairvoyant? It doesn’t, right?

Having succeeded at one thing – in this case the KGSP opportunity and getting myself back to Korea – doesn’t really mean that the path I’m walking on will become any less befogged. Success doesn’t reset the coordinates on my compass and passing this one ridge won’t have landed me in a Great Valley of any sort. Those grand ideas that we often associate with life after a single point of success are no more than a motivational device that we employ to propel ourselves forward.

The only way to escape the resulting confusion is to recognize that assessing ourselves through the lens of success, while helpful, can also impede us from seeing how important it is to live the quotidian pursuit of another goal – happiness. We only realize this when all of a sudden we find ourselves confronted with yet another season of obsession with perseverance.

The question thus becomes, will I be happy beyond this ridge?

The Great Valley from the 1988 Universal Studios animated film "The Land Before Time"


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