I landed in Tokyo Narita airport in February 2007 as a 21-year old know-it-all. It was humid inside the terminal, somehow, during the winter. I rushed to my next gate passing a McDonald’s and a Starbucks before immediately boarding my next flight. An hour later I disembarked at Incheon, South Korea, and hurried aboard an airport bus headed into Seoul. Then I started soaking it all in.
Nothing was familiar. I couldn’t read anything we passed by. I couldn’t understand anyone on the bus. I heard someone speak English and finally felt a little less lost and alone. The bi-lingual passenger gave a me heads up when it was my stop. I grabbed my enormous bags and fell out of the bus at Jongno 3-ga subway station. It was almost midnight and here I was, stumbling along the street with 100lbs of luggage, trying to decipher a map (80% in Korean) to my ultimate destination.
I saw a uniformed police officer. I’m not sure if it was the helpless look on my face or the fact that I was alone carrying my bags, but he must have taken pity on me. “Where are you going?” he asked in English. I handed him my crumpled printout of the map. He pointed me in the right direction. Two blocks later I arrived at my hostel. I stumbled up the short staircase and dropped my bags as quickly as my arms would allow. It woke up the older woman sleeping on the floor behind the reception desk. She didn’t speak much English, but still I showed her my reservation and paid her what was owed for the night.
With my room key in hand I slithered my way up the narrow staircase towards my home for the next two weeks. I threw my bags on the floor next to the bed and collapsed into what I thought was heaven.
I awoke the next morning (afternoon in local time) and it all started to hit me. I was on the opposite side of the world from everything that had ever brought me comfort and security. I was alone in a place where nothing was familiar and I had no control over anything. Throughout the next week I would fight intense jet lag, a severe cold, and a pretty serious addiction to instant noodles. I spent more time in bed than I did exploring my new home.
The feeling of being so far from everything familiar slowly started to diminish as I explored more, learned more, and finally became able to walk about parts of the city that became recognizable. After those two weeks I packed my things up and moved into the dorms at Yonsei University where I would spend the next 5 months as an exchange student along with nearly 500 other students from the Western world.
Though the true feeling of intense isolation subsided after merging with hundreds of other students, I’ll never forget how instrumental that initial experience changed me as a person. It took someone so sure of themselves, ready to conquer the world, and broke me down into someone with everything to learn. It forced me to realize there is much more to the human experience than what exists in my own little bubble.
I was uncomfortable at every level of my being on a near constant basis. It pushed me to live outside my comfort zone simply because there was no other choice and it has proven to pay dividends years after the fact.
Not only did I make some amazing friends from all around the world, I grew up. Humanity became real to me. I was exposed to so much of the world in a very short amount of time and I started to capture it all with my camera. The lens became my confidante. The photo it produced was my best friend. Out of the discomfort, the alienation, and the loneliness I discovered something that touched my own spirit. When I took all of that energy and focused it into exploring through the lens everything stopped being so scary.
That sinking feeling I had started to subside and I started to share my experience and point of view through the photographs I was taking. This student exchange program turned into something far beyond I could ever imagine.
Being uncomfortable forced me to strip away all of what I knew of myself and to re-learn what it meant to be “me”. It laid the foundation for where I am at today and where I will be tomorrow.
I now can appreciate it much more fully when someone says to “get outside your comfort zone”. It’s still really hard to do, but I see the potential in pushing myself and those I care about to be more, to feel more, and to look inward more often. Don’t hesitate to put yourself in situations beyond your bubble. Be uncomfortable.