People generally make drastic life-changing decisions by chopping off all their hair, getting a new tattoo in a language they don’t read, or moving to another country to “discover” oneself. “Life-changing” sounds like such a cliché term to sell such an experience, but I can’t quite find a catchier, more appropriate synonym to describe what teaching and living in Sri Lanka was like. This was the most rewarding and humbling experience of my life, that, indeed, changed me.
My life-changing decision happened randomly, suddenly, and quite calmly. I was sitting at the library café of the school I had graduated from two years ago, waiting for my interview phone call for a teaching position in Sri Lanka I had decided to apply to on a whim just two days prior from the same location. I had just quit a very well-paid job in Beijing, China, and I was in the US to visit friends and attend a graduation (a trip that also happened on a whim). I chose to quit a job at a toxic work environment, first to visit my friends, then to move back to the beautiful country that I grew up in. The Sri Lanka from my memory was not the same as the Sri Lanka I landed in in July 2015—I was 12 when I left. I was 24 in 2015. All 12 Chinese zodiac animals had made their full, 12-year cycle by the time I landed in the sweltering humidity that I had forgotten about. I knew that 6 months was not a long time, and I was determined to make the most of it.
The first hours at school was spent in trepidation—I had teaching experience, but I had never taught adults, and the sheer fact that I had to memorize about fifty foreign names as soon as possible was the most daunting task I was faced with at the time. Little did I know that two years later, I would still remember many of those names, reminisce the jokes I made with those students, and cherish the gifts of appreciation and the memories that the students gave me. The level of engagement and connection you have with the students, the kindness, good will and genuine appreciation you feel from them, as well as the immense feeling of fulfillment coming from interacting with the people you’re benefiting, is not quite sensations one can put into words that do them justice. These feelings don’t even go into the sheer awe that the beauty of Sri Lanka inspires in you once you get the opportunity to travel around the country, which requires another essay in and of itself.
I had come back to Colombo because I wanted to see how my old home town had changed. But this is not a cliché tale of radical self-discovery by revisiting my “roots”. To be clear, I am Korean, not Sri Lankan, and it would be preposterous for me to claim Sri Lankan culture as my own. However, I can now reclaim this amazing country as a “home” for me, thanks to my six months I spent teaching at SVS, understanding the country in a way I never did when I was young.
(If you’re interested in teaching in Sri Lanka, go to www.svsenglish.org)