The 19th century English cleric and writer, Charles Caleb Colton, said that “those who visit foreign nations but associate only with their own country-men, change their climate but not their customs. They see new meridians but the same men, and with heads as empty as their pockets, return home with traveled bodies and untraveled minds”.

I read this quote on a friend’s Facebook status a few days ago and it really got me thinking about my year in South Korea; how much of an effort I’ve made to integrate myself into society, if I have embraced the culture and how I have dealt with the challenges. I’ve come to the realisation that it has been a pretty ‘fantastical’ year of gesture and grunt perfection, falling in love with rice, mountain bonding, Korean tennis education, accepting of societal limits and frustrations, living in the last minute, and making friends from several countries and cultures.

Alongside my tennis team members, the children and students, my Korean contemporaries and especially the teachers at my main school; I have experienced a different culture, I have learnt more about respect and loyalty, I have explored Korean cuisine, I have lived.

Yesterday was a particularly poignant mountain moment. I was given a lift to school by the head teacher. Each teacher has a few days in the winter vacation when they have to come to school, so that there is always someone present in case of accident or incident. We spent the morning working on our respective projects. Just before lunch, some of the other teachers started arriving. What? Why? This was a grand surprise. Because it was a nice, sunny day and a break from the real winter weather, the head teacher had phoned some of the other teachers and urged them to drive to the mountains for a spot of tennis.

I think anyone would rather play tennis than sit at a desk staring at a computer. Hence, the jumps of joy that ensued. After a lunch of kimchi stew and rice wine, we were sufficiently satisfied and ready for an afternoon of outside activity.

During one of the many sets we played, a ball was hit over into the cornfield alongside our makeshift “clay” court. As my partner, the math teacher, went to fetch it, I stopped and closed my eyes for a minute. Dead silence. That was all. Not a bird or a cow, a car or a human voice; just five non-English speaking Korean men and me on a tennis court in the mountains of Sang-ok.

I don’t stop often enough to think about how lucky I am. But at that moment, I looked back at my experience in the Korean peninsula and I thought that I shall, indeed, return to my home country body AND mind well-travelled.


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