The Case for Solo Travel

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One year ago, if anyone asked me, “Hey, why don’t you do university overseas?” I used my standard answer on them.

No lah, why travel overseas? Singapore is good enough. My family is all here, 我始终放不下 (I can’t let go). And it’s so expensive to travel overseas! If you tell me go for 3-6 months, maybe, but 1 year and above, no way! I’ll start asking to come home after 1 week!

It honestly never occured to me that I’d be eating my words one day, haha! In the past six months, I’ve been to Florence, Milan, Paris, and now Seoul.

Rewind to February 2016. I’d just ended my internship, and had a good 2-3 months to go before attending graduation ceremony in May 2016. All along, when people asked me what my plans were after internship, I always joked around saying, “Don’t know leh, maybe I’ll disappear to Korea for 3 months?” The more I said it, the more I realized how plausible it was. Then why not?

While it’s not unheard of for someone to go travelling solo for a month or two at the age of 20, I think among my circle of friends, nobody expected me to do it. Chelsea who is never keen on stepping out of her comfort zone. Chelsea who doesn’t eat spicy food, Chelsea who is afraid of the dark, clowns and ants, Chelsea who was always so adamant on career-chasing and staying on top of her 1,001 pursuits of the moment. In retrospect now I have absolutely no idea where the gumption to do something like that came from. But I did it in the end.

“Why Korea?” people ask. In the initial stages of deciding to go on a solo travel trip, I listed a few criteria that my country of choice would need to have.
1. Safety, because my parents would worry.
2. Expenses, because the trip was coming out of my pocket, which was already full of holes.
3. Comfort, because as I said, I don’t wander too far out of my comfort zone.

These criterion narrowed my final selection down to three countries: New Zealand (Auckland/Wellington/Christchurch), Korea (Seoul/Busan), and Taiwan (Taipei/Kaohsiung/Taichung/Tainan). All three fulfilled these criterion, but I ultimately settled on Seoul because of one thing: KPI. Yes, you read that right, travel also must have KPI. The KPI came in the form of language acquisition: my mission was to complete a language course in Korea, come back, and take TOPIK in November. At that point, I felt like my Korean language acquisition journey had hit a plateau – I was learning, but not using enough, and progress was sluggish. Even after a month in Korea, the level I am at is not the level that someone who has spent 8 years picking up the language should rightfully be at. I needed something to kickstart the next level of learning, and I hoped Korea would be a good choice.

Hence, mid-February, I placed this proposition to Mummy, and her response was a skeptical smirk and “Come up with a plan then tell me.” I don’t think she thought I would really do it. Haha! Within the week, I had out my accommodations, flight plans, and itinerary, and we sat down at a cafe and made all the bookings. I departed for Seoul on 16 March 2016, for a total duration of 53 days, and would arrive back in Singapore on 7 May 2016, just in time for graduation.

Fast forward a month and a half later, the life-changing journey has taken a pause. While I had a KPI in terms of things I had to do while in Korea, I didn’t fully begin charting out a personal growth plan until I was there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those who will chart everything, plan everything. After the first week there, I began to realize how much potential for growth and learning there was in the 1.5 months I would be there, and chose to capitalize on it, that’s all.

You see, in the one year leading up to Seoul, I was busy. I hurtled at both school and work relentlessly. If I wasn’t in school, I was working, and on the rare occasion I was in school, well, I was still working. I was working while travelling, working while I should be doing other things like exploring, shopping, enjoying youth. I had goals, plans, concrete steps to achieve and fulfill. While that kind of life is empowering and enriching, I was also very tired. I greatly love and enjoy all I do, but everyone has a limited supply of time to chiong on. By the time internship ended, I was ready to throw in the towel and take a time out. All this came at a price, of course, and that sprint cost me time – time with friends, reading time, travel time, time with myself (which I often swapped out for time with friends and family), time to breathe. What I didn’t realize was that in that one year of intense hustling, I had become a very narrow-minded person. When all you know is your daily grind and you barely have time to catch your breath between appointments, you don’t have time to read, and travel becomes a faraway concept that will surely come one day, but not now. The lack of exposure and discourse made me such a narrow-minded person, and I never realized it. My world had closed in on me, and like a frog in the well, I was content with that sliver of sky I could see.

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This trip to Seoul chipped at my confines. In addition to broadening my world perspective, it made me very independent, resourceful, self-assured. All these are qualities I’d always wanted to see in myself, so I’m glad about this. These lessons don’t come in a crash set, and they’re different for everyone.

Broadening world perspective
While Seoul is also a metropolis, there are also stories to be heard at every corner. Listen to the story of the man who is trying his best to pass IELTS so he can move to America after spending years in the healthcare industry. Listen to the university student who came from America and is planning to start life anew here after graduation. Listen to the kimbap auntie who married to China and came back after completing her degree, aged 40. Listen to the scholar who is eking out an existence for himself in a country miles away from home. There are rich narratives in wait for you if you just look for them, and all of them say the same thing: your life is the sum of your choices, for good or for worse. Work with what you have and make the best of it. Make the best choices you can at that point of time and see them through to the best of your abilities. Show compassion and grace whereever you can, and take as many people as you can on your journey, no matter how temporal. On a very fundamental level, you realize how painfully human everyone is, and you begin to come to terms with who you are because of it.

Independence
Before coming to Seoul, I barely did organizational work, including housework, packing, etc. I hated these, preferring to just live spontaneously. Then when I finally got to live alone, I came to realize that.. yes, you can be spontaneous, but no, that does not mean you can skip mopping the floor today. It was liberating to be able to do things as and when I preferred to, especially when you have a tendency to go full Rambo and clean the house from 3am-5am on a workday. I still love being able to do that. But when you begin fixing Wednesdays as laundry days and Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays to be trash days, you begin to realize why your parents have a modus operandi of their own too. You start reminding yourself to drink water regularly, eat clean, buy the grocery and eat them fresh, because it hits you harder than ever that you alone are responsible for taking good care of yourself. There’s also a learning curve to eating alone, shopping alone, watching movies alone, etc. and while I was comfortable with all these before travelling, being alone in a foreign country can be daunting. I’m so comfortable with myself now that I can no longer spend long hours in the company of others (excl. my secret company) as I used to. Independence. 🙂

Resourcefulness
I am not the world’s most skilled at house chores (to be fair, very few are) so it’s not surprising that I never so much as examined my washing machine at close range before, let alone use it. When I came to Seoul and had to do my own washing, boy, it was an adventure. I understood what the Korean meant.. but what’s the washing process like? Rinse? Spin? Should I dry spin? How much softener do I add? Washing machines aren’t all idiotproof. The answer? Google.
When I had to ship items back from Seoul, I navigated the monster that was postal terms in Korean. The answer was also Google, and many nights trying to figure out what the postal process and payment process was. When you have no choice, you learn to be resourceful and make do with what you have. Don’t have room slippers? Use two floor towels. Can’t show your friend around Korea? Give them a piece of paper with standard questions to point at. There’s always a workaround for issues.

Self-assured
When I first arrived, my Korean was bad. That, despite learning the language for eight years. They don’t prepare you for real-life Korean conversation enough. They don’t teach you that in a restaurant, you just have to call “이모!”/ “저기요!” or that if you don’t call no one will pay attention to you. They don’t teach you enough to familiarize you with everyday terms. Slowly, through a lot of bumbling about, I learnt to get comfortable with making mistakes in speech (of course, where there’s honorific speech, you use that with everyone on first meeting!) and that there would always be things I cannot possibly know, and that is 101% okay.

Coming to Korea has given me plenty of time for rest, relaxation and recollection. I’ve read more books than I have in the past year, and I’ve certainly written a great deal more than I have in Singapore. I’ve had time to consider what I want to do in the next eight-year window of youth, and time to relax myself in Korea’s 24-hour cafes. 🙂

Having said that, my trip couldn’t have been easy for friends and family. My mother probably struggled a lot with letting her only daughter go overseas (alone! To a country that doesn’t speak English!) but I thank her so much for putting that trust in me, taking care of what I needed before the trip, and enduring that one month before she came over to visit. She could easily have said no, take the easy road out, and make sure I’m safe by her side – but she didn’t. For that, I will always be thankful.


 

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In conclusion, to all the young people who may be reading this: As much as you can afford, go and travel. Remember that you are crafting the self you want to be at the very next moment, and the more knowledge and exposure you have, the bigger your catalogue of intrinsic qualities to choose from. Take time to get to know yourself, gather yourself for a better sprint. Travel is only one way – you can also read, talk to people who’ve been through life – whichever you choose, remember it’s your own path to craft and tread.

To all parents, as far as you can, let your child travel. Let them go and find themselves in the world. It is a necessary journey, and one that is best taken while they are young. Trust in your lessons taught and that they will do what is best for them in the end. Be there for them when they need you, let them confide in you. This journey is one that cannot be avoided – it’s only a matter of where, when, who and what is involved. 🙂 Letting go is never easy and you will worry constantly while they’re there, but know that the fruits of the journey will live with them far longer than the worry will.

This post is Part 1 in a x-part series about my Korean trip (which will not end here!) so stay tuned for the other parts!

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