How I Got to Korea (Abridged)

“Do you know what these numbers mean?” asked Betty*, in a tone of voice I would use when speaking to a Kindergartener with rudimentary English skills.

Her index finger pointed at the billing statement for a Royal Caribbean cruise. Although she wasn’t panting anymore from her hike up the stairs, there was somehow still sweat in the folds of her knuckle.

It had been assumed that I could pick up on inputting sales and payment information for cruise vacations on a nearly 20 year-old piece of software in under a week, without clear instructions from baby boomers who considered working with Xerox machines as a notable technological skill. I suggested that I practice with “dummy” statements, just so I could get the hang of it before plugging it all in for real clients.

“No, that’s not possible,” said Jean*, one of the salesladies.

“Well, then maybe if a very standard statement comes through, could you let me practice putting that into the system?” I asked.

“There’s no such thing as a standard statement,” they replied.

“How are you doing with the cat?” Betty asked as the nameless, aggressive, and severely diabetic feline pawed across the wrinkled brochures and insulin syringes strewn about the desk.

A couple days earlier I had been petting the cat in the basement break room/litter box. I made sure to pack spicy lunches, as I noticed myself getting a rather stuffy nose whenever I walked into that dungeon of dust and mold. The cat purred softly, its eyes closed in a picture of pure zen as I worked on my burrito bowl. “Be careful when he gets calm like that,” warned one of the other ladies. “That’s usually how he gets before he attacks.”

I shuttered slightly. “I have been getting a bit sniffly, so I will make a doctor’s appointment for an allergy test. Actually, I have to go anyway because – ”

And before I could explain that I was moving into an apartment with a cat, Betty interjected, “‘Cause we’ve had cats here since before you were born. So I’m telling you, it’s either you or the cat.”

This was a cat that had scratched a client – an elderly man – mere days ago, causing him to bleed. They said the only reason it was a “big deal” was because the guy was on blood thinners.

The year was 2015, and in less than 24 hours from this meeting, I was about to be let go from a job at a nearly obsolete travel agency that specialized in cruises.

The following morning, I arrived, put my leftover chicken parmesan in the fridge for lunch. (An odd decision, considering it wasn’t spicy and wouldn’t clear my sinuses.) I was called in for a meeting, during which they told me it “wasn’t going to work out.”

I was shocked, mainly due to the fact that it did not seem all that legal. I had signed a contract, filled out a W-9, and even renewed my American passport for when they would supposedly, inevitably send me on a cruise.

Although I had just become an Italian citizen and had been planning on moving back to Madrid, I decided to take this practical opportunity that would guarantee me decent wages and the chance to travel. The thought of moving back to Spain, making the little money that English teaching paid, and barely making rent made me anxious beyond words. I put myself under immense pressure to do something – anything – to get out of my parents’ house and begin my adult life. Here I was, thinking I had made my first big, grown-up decision but, as they say, the rug was pulled out from under me. In my mind, the windows to a career in travel and a joyous life in Spain had been closed.

Betty and Jean cited several reasons why I was not a good fit for their operation. My inability to log payment and billing information into an outdated piece of computer software without going through a tutorial or proper training was a major one. Then there was the time I listened to my headphones while trying to figure out said software. They said nothing and waited until the end of the day to tell me not to do that.

But what really bit Betty’s biscuit** was that I introduced a middle-aged couple to WhatsApp. They were those nice, unassuming Midwestern types about to embark on their first European vacation – a river cruise – in about a month. Betty brought me into a meeting with them as she filled them in on all their flight and accommodation details. They asked about options for contacting their adult daughter back in the States in case of an emergency, or if they simply wanted to share a photo or two. Betty began telling them about calling cards and how they worked. However, the couple were only going to be gone for a couple of weeks, and the only person they felt they would need to call or text would be their daughter. So I told them about a free messaging service called WhatsApp that only required the free WiFi that would be available on board their ship. Betty didn’t like that I was thinking “like a student traveler.” I suppose she didn’t like missing out on that calling card commission, either.

I took my chicken parm out of the refrigerator and went home.

The following Monday, I woke up wishing I hadn’t. So I checked myself in to the emergency room, which led to a process that brought me to a program that involved group therapy. Throughout July and August, I attended sessions for 3 hours every afternoon, Monday-Thursday. I listened to the stories of others and the pain and trauma they endured. Though my problems seemed comparatively petty and insignificant, the support amongst the counselors and fellow attendees remained ample and unwavering.

“25? You’re still so young. You will go back to Europe, I know it,” they would say. It echoed throughout those weeks, and for the first time in years, I lifted that pressure I put on myself. I wrote and completed a short story for the first time since my first year at art school.

Then, one morning, as I took a post-gym shower in the clawfoot tub of my new place, it occurred to me: take a contract somewhere in East Asia. “Just a six-month contract or something like that. If you don’t like it, you can just come back and figure out your next plan. You’re 25. This is your chance to see Asia – your third continent,” I told myself. And it felt more right than anything had in a very, very long time. Unlike the cat at the travel agency, I wasn’t just a picture of pure zen – I was feeling pure zen.

Less than a month later, I was running toward the ocean under a full moon on Haeundae Beach as fireworks whistled and cracked into the night.


*Names changed.

**I made this up, but the alliteration was just too good to pass up.

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One thought on “How I Got to Korea (Abridged)

  1. Living in Korea. That would bring so many stories into your life, isn’t it? From the last few lines it seems you are doing alright. But that said, I do hope you get back to Italy soon. It is too beautiful to stay away from 🙂

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