Ashlee and I made Bend our home for the past 10 years. We built an incredible life for ourselves through our work in schools with kids and their families, created a true community of amazing friends, and indulged in the outdoor activities that Oregon has to offer. So, to pack up our belongings and leave that life behind was the hardest decision we have made in our marriage. At the same time, working at an international school was a shared vision of ours which we trusted would one day become a reality. In August of 2019, we received a text from our landlord that their daughter was moving back to the area and they would stop renting to us in August of 2020. We had an incredible deal on our house and would be paying double for anything similar in Bend.
We had mounting student debt from Grad School and knew we could not afford to buy or rent a home in Bend while maintaining our current lifestyle of travel and adventure. Rather than accept this is crushing news, we decided to take the leap and pursue one of our dreams. We began the process of going through Search Associates who compiled our professional information and promoted it to schools to view our profiles. We received many offers from schools in the Middle East and China, but, none from any European countries as we had hoped. We started to reach out to schools who had Counseling positions open for the 2020-21 school year and received little to no or interest.
There were definitely days when we started to lose hope or would tell ourselves that maybe this was not the year. We learned from some friends who had worked in schools abroad that much of the hiring is done at International Job Fairs. So, we Signed up for one in Boston at the end of January. A week before leaving, a school in Seoul, Korea contacted us and said they were interested in an interview. Although neither of us had Korea on our list of perspective places, we did some research and both became open to the idea. Rather than coordinating over SKYPE, which can be a little painful with the delays, we set up an interview in Boston. On the second day of the job fair, Seoul International School offered us two Counseling positions at the High School level and we accepted on the spot. I am not trying to understate the magnitude of this decision or the countless conversations we had over the years leading up to saying, ‘yes.’ We simply trusted that this is the direction we were supposed to be heading and probably did not fully grasp the ripple affect it would have on our lives. Sight unseen, we we were moving to Korea!
Six months later, after gut wrenching good byes to friends, family, kids we had worked with, the outdoor places we had come to cherish, and our Dog, Finn, we found ourselves at the Seattle Airport with everything that we would be taking on our journey to Seoul.
Doing all of this during a Global Pandemic, made it all the more difficult. On countless occasions, people would ask, ‘Are you still going’? There was really no turning back for us as we no longer had jobs or a house in the States and we simply had to exercise blind faith that this would all work out. So, often the answer was, ‘As far as we know, we are still a go for Seoul.’ One positive of moving 5,000 miles away during COVID-19 is that our plane was practically empty. We each had a row to ourselves with no one in front or behind us. This meant that we could fully recline without the fear of crushing someone’s knees or having someone’s head falling into our lap. Over the 11 hour flight, we had 3 meals that were actually pretty good, coupled with free alcohol. It is a possibility that the beer is what made the food easy on the palate. Even though some of the anticipation and excitement had started to build on the flight, it really started to hit me on our descent when we had a view of the cities of Incheon and Seoul. The skyscrapers were stacked up like my nephew’s Legos or something you would have built in Sim City. And yet, these urban centers were delicately nestled into hills covered by trees.
We each filled out 5 different forms for Immigration that included documentation for our self-quarantine and still had to complete more upon landing. We went through several different zones where people in hazmat suits and face shields ensured we had the appropriate paperwork. I had my mini Martin guitar in one hand and a bag with two 1 liter bottles of Jameson in the other. When we were waiting in the Seattle Airport I had a last minute panic about our 2 week quarantine and quickly ran over to the Duty Free store to purchase some alcohol. I’m sure I looked like the stereotypical American, but that whiskey could prove to be a marriage-saver! We then went to baggage claim where the attendants had gathered all of our bags and put them carts for us. We felt pretty obnoxious rolling through the Incheon Airport with our heaps of belongings and in my head I kept hearing, ‘Wide load coming through.’ In order to get through customs, they actually had to move the roped off partition to make room for us. And, as we were exiting that last section I literally could not fit through the door with the ski bags. I know that the people working there wanted to help and at the same time they were probably thinking, ‘Well, it’s not like we can make the door any bigger just for these assholes.’ So, I was on my own sweating my way through it until I was able to arrange the baggage to successfully exit the airport. Could you imagine getting through customs and immigration only to be sequestered because your bags were too big?!? After engaging in a fun game of packing Jenga to fit everything into an SUV, we were off on the hour long drive from Incheon to our new apartment.
We crossed over the bridge that connected the airport to mainland Korea. The buildings of Incheon glittered in sequins as the setting sun illuminated the windows. Our drive took us winding through the hillsides and elongated tunnels before landing us in our neighborhood in Sengonam-si. The school director, Michael, met us outside of our apartment. He was kind enough to help us lug our 10 bags up the three flights of stairs and when we entered our new living space Ashlee laughed and said, ‘Oh my God, this place is so small!’ Our luggage literally took up all of the floor space in the living area and spare bedroom causing me to question if we would actually fit into this apartment. Michael probably sensed some of our unease and quickly took us on a 5 min walking tour of our neighborhood before we began our 2 week long quarantine. I will admit that glimpse into the life we would not be able to participate over our isolation did provide some comfort that our experience would be more than our enclosure. That night my mind was filled with the puzzle of how to organize the cluster fuck of personal belongings that cluttered our space.
The next day we got right to work putting our place together. Employees from the school had stocked our apartment with food, water, kitchen utensils and bathroom necessities to get us started. There is a Costco in Seoul and that first food drop was either put together by someone from Texas (I’m allowed to say that as I’m married to a Texan) or a Korean who has justifiable stereotype of what Americans eat. We were grateful that they provided us with a launching off point and also a little nervous that are only vegetable for the next two weeks would be in Kirkland’s Marinara Sauce. The next day we reached out to David who is the curriculum director at our school and was kind enough to meet us at the airport. David had told us that if we needed anything to give him a call.
Our order was pretty simple and equally entitled: Beer, wine, coffee, yogurt, spinach, avocados, salmon, and veggies. As I explained to David, beer, coffee, and salmon are technically considered necessities for an Oregon boy. Another aspect of the quarantine process was self reporting through an app. Twice a day, we had to inout our temperature (thermometer provided) and our symptoms. If our phone left the apartment, the government officials would know and they even contacted me once because my phone had not moved. They were concerned that I had left my apartment inside and gone on a walkabout, which I would be lying if I said the thought did not cross our minds.
Two days after landing, we were allowed to walk to our school in order to take a bus to the Health Center for a mandatory COVID test. We did not take for granted the opportunity to be outside and free of the confines of our apartment. I was not too weary of the nasal swab as I have fairly large nostrils that closely resemble a Cheetah’s nose structure with none of the speed benefits. However, when it comes to an 8in long a Q-tip, size does not matter as they keep jamming it up your nose until it hits your brain and your eyes water. Even though it was uncomfortable, I would take that test everyday if it meant being able to go on a 30 min walk during quarantine.
The hard part about the timing of our ‘field trip’ is that it came after just one full day in quarantine. This meant that we had 13 days to go without leaving our apartment. During this stretch, time and space begin to blend together into an undistinguishable blob.
We did our best to try to stay productive, which is simply a way of saying we tried to keep our minds occupied. We read, learned about Korea and studied the language, worked out, started watching the Tiger King on Netflix, and dissolved into social media. The novelty of sitting around in one place quickly wore off and we honestly lost track of the days. The only thing that would separate the days for each other were the massive food drops. Eventually, our cupboards and refrigerator became full and we had to call those off.
As I have said to Ashlee many times over the past ten years and especially since we made the decision to take this leap, ‘I could not imagine doing this with anyone else.’ In some ways that translates to Ashlee being the only person alive who could put up with me in a confined space for an extended amount of time. I can honestly say that over these days in quarantine, Ashlee has never gotten on my nerves and I have sincerely enjoyed the alone time we have with each other. I’m unsure if Ashlee feels the same as she often locks herself in our spare room with her headphones on. I can say in all certainty that we have been able to laugh at ourselves when we are spinning our wheels and find joy in the smallest of things. If I have to start out this new adventure in a 500 sq. ft space, I am grateful it is with my soulmate!