Call me Pip.
If you’re scratching your head at the reference, you were playing hooky during English Lit in high school. Pip is the central character Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. He’s an orphan given a second chance at a successful life by a mysterious benefactor (couldn’t we all use one of those), but constantly falls short as he strives for greatness. Like Pip, I constantly attempt to improve my life circumstances and myself as a person. When I set a goal, I work hard to achieve it. When I meet a good person, I do my best to imitate him or her, aiming for the moral or ethical high ground. For 33 years, my reach has always exceeded my grasp.
Perhaps that’s why I moved to Asia. I saw an opportunity to travel (something I haven’t been able to afford to do a lot of). I saw an opportunity to save money (again, something most Americans now only dream about). I saw an opportunity to finish my novel (6 years in the making). And finally, I saw an opportunity to go on an adventure.
Call me Bilbo.
At the beginning of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the reader is introduced to a very complacent half-ling from a rural community who leads a very conventional and simple life. In spite of being in his sixties, Bilbo’s never left the Shire, never experienced what the rest of Middle Earth has to offer. Which is why Gandalf and 13 vertically challenged dwarfs yanked him from his cozy hobbit hole and threw him to the wargs.
My first six months living abroad have been filled with many adventures, both external and internal. As you are no doubt aware, there’s been a great deal of self-reflection illustrated in my writing. With Christmas rapidly approaching (and having reached the mid-point of this first year), I find myself analyzing my life more and more. How have I changed or grown in the past six months? Am I a better person than I was? Has my life gotten better? There are hundreds of other questions too – some of which have been answered and the rest, well let’s just say the jury’s still out.
Alexander Pope said, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” Pip’s view of reality is consistently shattered when his plans don’t quite pan out. Bilbo, on the other hand, spends most of the novel agonizing over the possibility of the worst happening only to step up and save the day when push comes to shove.
Other than being short (and having hairy feet), I try to be more like Bilbo than Pip – which isn’t easy at all. My benefactors, who provided me with the many amazing opportunities of my childhood were my parents. However, that childhood created the adult I am today: a man who has high expectations of life, himself, and everyone around him. Conditioned to take things for granted, I developed an unhealthy need to attain perfection around every corner. Remember Fight Club? “No matter what happens, I’ve got that couch problem solved.” Not only is life imperfect but it’s unfair and imbalanced.
(The stars are out to get me as I was born under the scales sign with a name that means justice).
None of us starts out on an even playing field; we are all victims of the unchangeable circumstances of our birth. It’s a phenomenon existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre named Facticity (aka Heidegger’s Thrownness). His theory simply states that we have no control over our genetics, when and where we’re born, and our childhood environment. We can only play the hand we’re dealt. Few people are dealt royal flushes and the ones who are, never grasp what people dealt a pair of deuces have to live through. It’s both nature and nurture. I have always considered myself very fortunate in the facticity of my childhood.
My adulthood is a whole other story. I try to live without regret and, looking back on my decisions, there are many I’d repeat. There are some I would change if I could: undergraduate major, loans and credit card debt, where to live, who deserved my trust (and who didn’t). Of all of these, the worst decision I ever made was leaving California.
Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of lessons I learned and a lot of wonderful people I met during my time home (heck I wouldn’t be in Korea now if I hadn’t met one of them). Peaks and valleys… My expectations for both cross country moves were high. I felt like I sacrificed a lot to move to California and even more to move back east. Each time, the reality of disappointment came violently crashing down all around me.
Growing up, I played a lot of video games. The early ones (N.E.S. and Atari) were easy – you could finish the game in an hour or so. But the second generation games took much longer to finish so the software development companies introduced the concept of ‘Saving’. If your mom called you for dinner, just turn off the console and return to the same spot later. Additionally, a saved game prevented you from making any mistakes. If you died, screwed up, or missed something important, a saved game was essentially a do-over (many boys use do-overs to solve many discrepancies during recess).
Unfortunately, there are no do-overs in the real world. If there were, I would’ve reset at 15 to redo the past 18 years… while selecting a few choice moments to alter. I’d study harder and work through college. I’d respect women more. I’d try to save Kim’s life. I’d choose Yale or Princeton over UCF and an economics degree over film and audio production (though I probably still would’ve done a writing minor and definitely would’ve sang in the glee club and an a cappella group). I also wouldn’t have put any faith in the ‘love‘ a twenty-four year old girl convinces herself she’s feeling. And I’d fix things with Corky (believe it or not, this is the most important one).
I recently visited a friend in Seoul and it goes without saying we went to see The Hobbit. Being my first visit to the capital, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect at all but what I saw surprised the heck out of me. Seoul was a lot like any city in America: westerners everywhere, signs written in English, and literally hundreds of cheeseburger joints, taco stands, and places to get Sunday brunch. The trip was truly eye opening.
At times, living in Daegu hasn’t been very easy. It’s hard for anyone to adapt to a foreign land and culture. But the truth of the matter is if I had chosen Seoul, I wouldn’t have had to adapt much at all. What’s the point of moving halfway around the world to a place similar to Boston or Chicago? I can’t see how any of the teachers who end up there leave their comfort zones at all (insert one of a million cliches here).
For months, I questioned the decision to come to Korea. I questioned the choice of Daegu over Seoul. It was eating me up inside and I had no way of knowing whether this experience would’ve been better in a city slightly more welcoming to foreigners. After the trip, I can report that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side… that’s just a trick of light. The grass is green in Daegu, it’s green in Seoul, it’s green in Los Angeles, and it’s green in the Garden State.
Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.
I can’t promise to never be disappointed again – oftentimes, we can’t help it. That being said, I do need to lower my expectations. I don’t want to settle for lower standards but maybe lowering expectations isn’t settling. Maybe it’s just about compromising more. No matter what I do, the earth will keep turning; days will become years. I can’t slow it down or stop it. I can’t skip ahead and I can’t redo the past. All any of us are capable of doing is making the best decision we can at any given moment and moving forward.
I want to be the kind of person others aspire to emulate. I pray for the wisdom to make good decisions every day. I hope this old dog can learn some new tricks because I’m sick and tired of taking things for granted and being disappointed with reality. Someday, I want to fondly look back on my life from a place of happiness, knowing that my life was one worth living.
Until Next Time…