Three Years in Asia
I wanted to write a post to commemorate the launching of this fancy website, a post that is reflective of where I am in my life: twenty-six years old, trying to make something, anything really, from my art, while continously trying to speak something into the world.
All the posts previous to this are from an old Wordpress blog some of you may remember. I started it after going through one of the most challenging seasons of my life; at the end of it, all I could do was come here and write.
My last post came after moving to Korea. I was twenty-three and trying to find my feet in a completely foreign place. I wrote about feeling insecure amongst my peers there, about struggling to find acceptance amongst them but mostly within myself. At the time, I had been in Korea for about four months.
Now, I’ve been calling Asia home for almost three years.
And that acceptance I was trying so hard to find?
I’m blanketed in it.
But I’ve learned that like most things in life, acceptance is fleeting. A year ago, it was nowhere to be found.
When my year in South Korea came to an end, I felt for the first time, what it was to have one solid group of friends. I never had that growing up, and I’d always marveled at those who did. I had best friends individually, and groups of people whom I moved throughout, but never a large collection of them that were mine.
Who would have known that I would find that in a little city in South Korea, made up of friends from South Africa, America, Canada, England and Ireland? Who would have known that it would take my flying across the world to discover what it means to have a sense of community amongst your peers? People who support you and embrace you, even for your oddities?
Did we love each other all the time? Fuck no.
But we accepted one another for what we were, and that was better.
None of us were perfect and we knew that. We had all come to Korea for different things, and we became friends as we stretched ourselves out and grew within the new space that country gave to us. Sometimes those stretches were uncomfortable for everyone.
As I jostled my limbs, I was confronted by myself time and time again, and by personalities that were bigger and smarter than me.
And for once in my life, I had to learn how to shut up and listen.
At the end of the year, each of us had changed, myself included. It’s a beautiful and special privilege to watch your friends become better versions of themselves, and to feel your friendship grow as a result.
It was the best and most humbling year of my life.
I left Korea because I knew I needed a little more freedom to pursue creative passions. My forty-hour work week didn’t give me the time I needed to make art, and I wanted to be in a bigger city amongst people with the same creative interests as mine. But when I left, I was heartbroken. I didn’t feel ready. I felt the loss of my friends and the country itself, a place that had become my home.
I didn’t have much time to miss it, not at first, because I flew from South Korea into Vietnam to start a backpacking trip through southeast Asia all on my own.
The Sabrina who left Canada in 2016, and who cried a dozen times the day I left, would not have been able to strap on a backpack and do that. I would have been stifled by my fear. And while it was still there when I landed in Vietnam, it was a small, undulating beat inside my chest that I recognized and learned how to keep step with.
I spent the next four months traveling through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and back into Vietnam. I mean, it’s a cliche but I met people that changed my life. I had conversations with people I met and never saw again that left me floored (I plan to write more on some of these later).
But while I was traveling, I kept feeling frustrated by a lack of connection. I would have moments with a stranger who shared their deepest and darkest secrets with me, but then I would go days with people who couldn’t get any further than the surface, and that really left me feeling tired. I wasn’t being creative, and I wasn’t getting to connect as much as I wanted to. And after four months of this ebb and flow, I had a tiredness that was more than just physical.
But I learned what I need to be happy: people who get it—who aren’t afraid to get down in the muck with you—and room to write or paint. Those two pillars are crucial to my well-being. Without them, I feel a little lost.
After four months of traveling, I went back to Canada with an excitement in my chest that kept me awake at night. I couldn’t wait to get home. I wanted to hug my family and friends, people who knew me and who I didn’t have to explain myself to.
I expected my return to be a warm hug, like coming home after a long day and getting on the couch and that warm, sinking feeling when you take a deep breath and fall into place.
It wasn’t any of that.
Instead, I felt awkward and out of step.
I went into a grocery store and found I no longer knew how to make small talk over a counter. I didn’t know how to talk to people I met at parties. It was as if everything I had done and seen had just disappeared as soon as I walked off the plane. No one cared that I had just spent a year and a half in Asia, but for me, it was the only thing I had to reference in my life. It made me feel dumb for having assigned such significance to my time away. And all the people I met, all the incredible conversations I had, they all just evaporated into the air. It was like it never happened at all.
And those people who I thought would hug me and know me completely and without explanation? Well, it turned out that I didn’t feel like the person they expected me to be. It was like stepping into an old pair of shoes to find they no longer fit.
Nothing was the same, and part of me was regretting ever leaving at all. That Thomas Wolfe quote, “you can’t go home again” was playing on a loop in my head. Had I messed everything up permanently? Would I always feel this strange amongst the people who used to be my home? Who was I in Canada before I left? Who was I without Asia?
I didn’t have a clue.
It was complete disconnect—from my friends and family, but more importantly myself. It shattered me. My relationships suffered for it. I let people down. And to top it all off, I was broke and simultaneously relying on help from the people I felt I was hurting. It all felt like failure. A big burning, stinging welt of failure.
Five months, three provinces and three long stays with my family later, I finally had enough money to go back to Asia. But when I landed in Hanoi, I began to unravel.
When I first arrived in South Korea, the welcome mat was laid out for me. People knew I was coming and because it was such a small group of expats, they brought me into the fold immediately. In Hanoi, a city of ten million people with thousands of expats, no one gave a shit that I had arrived. I got lost in the size and anonymity of the city. I had no place to belong, no people to fall into, and because of everything I had been feeling at home, I felt like I didn’t have a thing in the world to call my own.
Let’s call it what it was: I was depressed.
It was a bitter loneliness. My family and friends whom had always been my home, didn’t feel like it anymore. I would lay in bed in my empty apartment, thinking about my best friend at home with her new baby and husband-to-be, and wish I had that: a person, a family, a place that was mine. But I didn’t and the sting of it was all I could feel. I’d lay there and cry because all of it felt further away from me than it ever had before.
At the same time, my money was running out and I was waiting for my job to start. I was twenty-five, the brokest I’d ever been and feeling completely disconnected from my family and friends. I woke up in the morning and even though there was a whole wild country outside my front door, I couldn’t find a single reason to get out of bed.
I was living on the other side of the world—a dream and a privilege—but I couldn’t garner a shred of happiness from it. Instead, all it felt like was a shameful loneliness. It was one of the darkest places I’d ever been. And it was fucking scary.
December slid past agonizingly slow. Christmas came and went. I stood in an alley outside my house one night, where a Vietnamese family had made a Christmas tree with tinsel and stuck it to the cement wall, drunk and crying because I wanted to be home with my family, but simultaneously feeling like I didn’t belong there.
It sounds pathetic and it was.
Eventually, I met a couple people. I had friends come to visit Hanoi from South Korea, and their presence lifted my spirits and kept me distracted from my own misery surrounding the holiday. And when January came, work picked up a little bit and I found a routine, but most importantly, I had started writing.
I started writing every god damn day. About and through my misery. Pushed forward by this drive that felt almost manic. And by March, I had finished the first draft of a novel.
Reading it now, it isn’t very good but it gave me an outlet for how sad I was feeling. When I typed the last words of it, I felt a euphoric accomplishment. I had done something. And in writing it, a memoir about growing up in Wild Cove and moving to the other side of the world and all the awful things that had to happen before I got there, I found my way back to myself.
Getting paid and making some friends along the way helped too. And throughout the spring, I found a handful of people that I could call my own, that knew all about the things I come with. My housemate wrote poetry, and I went with her to spoken word events and began writing and reciting my own. We talked about our shit, laying it all out there without judgement. I met fellow creatives with a penchant for words and beer. My co-workers turned out to be no shame people who didn’t mind getting dirty with a past and we became friends slowly over lunch breaks and post-work beers. And when I told them about the dark place I was just crawling out of, they understood.
In the chaos of Hanoi, a city littered with thousands of people from all over the world all finding their own groove, I carved out a place that was my own, one that felt like home. And before I knew it, it was time to go back to Canada again for my best friend’s wedding. But when it came time to go, I realized I didn’t really want to leave. I had built a beautiful life that was mine, one I had suffered for, and I wasn’t ready to let it go. The depression that had so heavily plagued me nine months ago felt like it happened to a different person.
And when I landed in Canada this time, the awkwardness of last year was nowhere to be found. Everything felt okay. I knew who and where I was.
I chalk it all up to just another season of my life—one in which I had to undergo a seismic shift in the foundations of my world. I had to figure out who I was without all the things—Korea, Canada, and the events of my life—I used to identify myself with. Those shifts aren’t supposed to be easy. Uprooting the pillars of our identities and moving them around sounds like it should be excruciating and it was. But I came through on the other side with a better understanding of who I am.
I’m back in Hanoi now, and coming back brought an intense fear. I was terrified that I would fall into the same space I occupied last year—of sadness and loneliness, shame and intense failure. I should have known that would not be the case, that I had friends here, that I had already laid the foundations of a good life. And while the first few days brought discomfort, as I stretched out my arms and tried to find ways to take up this space I left, everything feels like it did when I left—like home.
When I returned to Canada this summer, someone asked me, “Sabrina, you didn’t seem to share as much about being over there this time. How come?”
I guess there’s my answer. I was busy—busy being sad, busy sorting my shit out, busy figuring out who I needed to be for whatever was coming next.
And man, when I look back on the last three years, when I see 23-year-old me stepping off the plane in Incheon airport, who didn’t have the slightest of clues of what was to come in her life, I can’t help but sit back and feel astonished by the trajectory of it. Maybe it’s my sentimental reflective nature, but it knocks me out. And there are parts of it that feels like a story someone wrote, fairy-tale endings that couldn’t possibly be real. But they are. And they make me feel like this is where I’m supposed to be.
Anyway, here we are. I’ve got this pretty website that I’m quite proud of, that really captures the biggest change of all over the last three years: Sabrina, the artist. How the hell did that happen?
This space will be where all of my internet-self lives.
So, hi. Thanks for stopping by. It’s nice to have you here.