I originally wrote this for a submission to Infusion, Fulbright Korea’s literary magazine.
Living abroad can seem, at times, like a dream. Some days we feel weightless, free from the constraints imposed by our friend groups or jobs — shackles we didn’t even know existed. We feel as if we can, if only temporarily, take risks and stretch the boundaries of our preconceived identities. Other days we feel that such a dream is, in its fleeting nature, just something to get over with — none of it matters anyway. The freedom from a comfortable reality at once allows us to expand our sense of self and be terrified at the thought of losing it.
As I become more aware of the fact that I only have six more months in Korea, I can’t help but think of a Japanese webtoon titled “ReLIFE.” The main character, Kaizaki Arata, is an unemployed man in his late twenties in Japan, a country where being fired once makes it incredibly difficult to find another job. One day a mysterious company offers him guarantee of a job if he completes a program that seems to have very little risk — all he has to do is take a drug to change his appearance into that of a teenager and enroll in a high school for one year. Upon completion, all participants will have their memories of Kaizaki wiped, and he will return to his adult life. With no other options, Kaizaki relents and begrudgingly begins attending a high school, having to gradually make sense of himself in a community of bright-eyed, eager high school students.
Examining the parallels between such a situation and our lives as Fulbright ETAs — the expiration date of one year, being surrounded by students day in and day out, feeling like you don’t quite belong — is illuminating. As the end of my time in Korea looms, thinking about how Kaizaki discovers and deals with the many difficulties of his ReLIFE has yielded invaluable insight into how we may make the most of relationships despite their temporality, be inspired and revitalized by those younger than us, and be instilled with the humbling recognition that our lives are not any more important than those across the globe. Through these lessons we may aspire to better lead lives that are just as transient as our time abroad.
A primary symptom of being transplanted halfway across the world is loneliness, and yet the solution of making friends is haunted by a cost-benefit analysis: the deeper our friendships abroad, the greater the difficulty of leaving them behind. Initially, Kaizaki describes his status just a “shadow passing by,” maintaining his distance from everyone and wanting to get through the year as quickly as possible. But as he develops closer relationships with his classmates, he finds himself in a paradox of wanting to enjoy life to the fullest and knowing that doing so will further hurt both himself and those he shares such memories with. While this is more dramatic than the ETA experience in which no memories are wiped, the sentiment can be all too familiar. At times I have found myself entering social situations a little detached, not only because I there is a certain limit as to how much somebody here can understand the background I am coming from, but also because I can’t help but wonder if I should be investing more time in relationships that will actually last. But Kaizaki decides that life is here and now, and time spent hiding at home logically evaluating relationships when they are so much more complex and unpredictable, is time we do not spend making memories and truly living. Yes, relationships abroad are temporary, but where did we ever get the notion that any relationship lasts forever? What is more unsettling than bittersweet pangs on our flights home is the thought of such habits carrying over into relationships to which we have dedicated our entire lives. Holding back for the mere sake of knowing it will end soon is to miss out on experiences that call forth all of the emotions and difficulties that make us human. The more Kaizaki wishes he could stay and grow up with his classmates, the more he discovers the value not just in his year but in his life.
Embedded not only in deep but also in shallow relationships at school are stories from our past we can look at anew, in a time when we may most need them. One’s early adulthood is plagued by a whirlwind of questions and a calcifying sense of one’s identity. Such formation of self-understanding, while necessary, can be detrimental. Kaizaki finds himself trapped, feeling set with certain skills that he cannot use to advance his career. Therefore the stories and aspirations he discovers among his classmates shake the preconceptions he had built over time about who he is, and consequently what he can or cannot accomplish. As ETAs at the start of our careers, such stories challenge us when we are more malleable to what they have to say.
While it is all too easy to romanticize such stories and use them to adorn the walls of our social media outlets, when we apply the pressure to questions of why they linger in our minds long after the school day we are forced to confront foreign aspects of ourselves. As one of my students looked up a word on her phone, I noticed that her phone wallpaper was the emblem of the National Police Agency. She was very quiet but always studied very hard, and so I had taken her to be one of the many students at my elite high school aiming for one of the top universities. But when asked about it she responded confidently, “I want to be a police officer.” In that moment something clicked and I thought it made complete sense. This was not by any real logic — though she has certain grit and seems guided by a good sense of justice — but rather by the confidence it must take to choose a different path from that of your peers. Upon reflection I realized that perhaps that’s why I was moved last year waking up early to go drive out into the fields and see my homestay brother fly model planes he had spent countless hours working on, or by a student who told me that, after feeling the life go out of a pet hamster he held in his hands, decided he wanted to be a veterinarian. When we are young we have such dreams motivated by pure intentions, only to second guess them as they are brought to confront the burdens of adulthood. When we are young we are told anything is possible, and upon graduating we once again find that ourselves at that blank canvas — only to face it with years of accumulated cynicism. Spending time with students can help wash away, or at least keep at bay, such negativity.
Nearing the end of his ReLIFE, Kaizaki reflects on how self-centered he had been. This is understandable — when placed in a new setting it is even easier than usual to see oneself as the main character and everyone else as mere extras. He notes, “Since the very beginning of my ReLIFE, all I thought about was how to get safely through it. I couldn’t care less if I was forgotten by everyone. I wanted to keep my distance from everyone else — it was a big mistake.” When we live guided by such a selfish perspective we feed the idea that everything will still be around us later, that there is nothing to seize in the moment except that which will most benefit the future. This lopsided view of life, tilted towards the long term, is of course essential to productivity but entirely against the ephemeral reality. It just so happens that a year abroad is much easier to measure — but how would you change the way you lived if you knew exactly when you would die? For Kaizaki, revisiting his youth was an important remedy for the ailments of adulthood: “After looking at these guys go, I want to do my best no matter how many tries it takes. It brought back all of my wishes and desires from when I was in high school. It encouraged me to keep trying.” In coming to value the aspirations and lives of those younger than him, Kaizaki moves from a self-centered approach to life to one that is more communal, constantly taking in the inspiration from those around him and using it to fuel his path forward. In a similar manner, to think that time spent with people far across the globe is merely for our own benefit is to leave such a privileged opportunity sorely missing the point. Our lives are not any more important than that of any students we pass in the classroom, nor that of any adults we pass on the subway — we may live in entirely different societies and yet what we can give each other is all the same.
Undoubtedly, balancing the lessons of ReLIFE and the harsher realities of life is a herculean task, even during our short stays in Korea. And yet the way teaching in a foreign country can reorient such vital perspectives on how to lead one’s life can be overlooked if one does not, like Kaizaki, pursue potential experiences. ReLIFE accounts for this in including a foil in another character that has previously failed the program because he or she was unable or unwilling to embrace the possibility of change. Likewise, some of us have fantastic ETA experiences while others do not, and while that is not entirely anyone’s fault, taking the time to not only reflect on our mindsets but also actively break out of them is essential. ReLIFE is not by any measure a perfect webtoon, but it has been invaluable in helping me make sense of the many trials and joys of living abroad.