Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 17, 2021

Going back home: From Stockholm to Korea

By ELIZABETH IM | April 11, 2020


March 11 (the day before)

1 p.m.:  I struggled through Mythos, a mystery board game based on H.P. Lovecraft’s writings, with my Storytelling Workshop: How a Narrative Works classmates. It was pretty scary; or maybe I’m just easily scared by horror stories. 

9 p.m.: I had an exam in one and a half days so I was at a cafe studying with a friend, who also had an essay due that night. It was midterm season! My mind was preoccupied with getting through the material.

11 p.m.: I went to bed, after setting my alarm for 6:30 a.m.

March 12 

4:30 a.m.: *door opens*

4:31 a.m.: My roommate thinks it’s a burglar and instinctively reaches for a pair of scissors on the desk. For a second it really felt like a scene from a Scandinavian crime fiction.

4:32 a.m.: It isn’t a murderer. It’s a friend who has come to tell us what happened during the presidential address. “Trump is placing a travel ban from Europe starting Friday midnight,” she says. She wanted to wake us up so that we could buy plane tickets.

4:34 a.m.: “WHAT?” Jocelynn and I are more than shocked. But I think, hey, that doesn’t mean we’ll be sent home, right? I mean, the travel ban would probably be nullified by May so we wouldn’t have to worry about it, right?

4:41 a.m.: We all get an email that the DIS Spring 2020 program is suspended. We have to return home by March 19.

The good news was that I didn't have to worry about my Neuroscience exam or the two essays that were due the upcoming weekend. The bad news was I didn't even know where to begin thinking! Where do I go? Back to the U.S.? Back to Korea?

Home seemed like the most sensible answer. However, Seoul, at the time, didn’t look that much safer (although currently Korea is in the recovery). My family was also concerned that if I were to return home, I might not be able to go back to the U.S. for school next fall. And what about internships? Perhaps it would be better for me to return to the U.S. now and stay there? 

Moreover, I heard that some international students were told that going back home could put their F1 Student Visa status at risk because they might not be able to come back to school for the rest of the semester. This wasn't exactly my situation since I was already on a study abroad program, but every piece of information was confusing and everything seemed uncertain. I couldn’t think too straight at 4 a.m. with a time constraint.

When I contacted the Study Abroad Office — whom I would like to thank very much for their speedy aid even at their midnight (EST) — they told me that I could come back to Baltimore and stay at the emergency housing set aside for situations like this. They even helped me book plane tickets because suddenly my card was not working. While both my parents and the Study Abroad Office tried to help me secure a plane ticket, I started to pack everything I had in an hour. I thought it might be impossible, but it turns out emergency situations create extraordinary human abilities. 

After a lot of emailing, calling, online banking and unprepared goodbyes through text messages, I left for the airport at 7 a.m. with a ticket back to Baltimore.

In the end, I didn't end up going back to Baltimore. Looking as if I had just emerged from a war movie, I dragged both of my 23 kilogram and 18 kilogram pieces of luggage, my backpack and the backpack with my IKEA bear through the airport. However, as I waited for the check-in desks to open, I realized that I really wanted to go home. This global pandemic was unpredictable with an indefinite future. If I went back to the U.S., I probably wouldn't be able to go back home for another year or so. Right then, I just needed my family. 

I cancelled the ticket to the U.S. and bought a new ticket to go home.

It's been almost a month since the day I abruptly left Stockholm. 

On the plane back home, as I flew over Latvia to be exact, I wished I had more time. I thought if I just knew I’d end up going home from the beginning, I would have panicked less and had more time to pack, said proper goodbyes and eaten that princess cake I had been eyeing. I left Stockholm just a day after the midpoint of my semester. I lost half of the time I thought I’d have. 

If there's one thing this semester taught me, it's that I should plan for the future, but that I shouldn’t save what I want now for later (Carpe Diem!).

I like to plan out every day in my calendar because it increases my awareness and control. Throughout this semester, however, I realized how little control I have over my own life. There were too many unexpected surprises that I couldn't stop. When life threw such unstoppable curve balls, my only option was to accept and adjust. Thus, it seemed meaningless to have an hourly plan. The plans were usually broken. 

If you read this column from the beginning, you'd know how long it took me to finally commit to go to Stockholm this term. I wanted to go, but I was also hesitant to jump on the plane to a new country yet again. Ironically, what made me commit in the end was the hesitation itself: because I didn't want to be afraid of the unknown. Despite my fears of having to uproot, once again, I wanted to see where this spontaneous semester abroad would take me. More often than not, sudden changes provided me with the opportunities to understand what I have been lacking or desiring. And I needed a lot of answers last October.

Thus, I decided to study abroad to find what I want to do with my life — to give myself the time to think from a different physical space. 

Instead, I learned how to listen to what I want, not what I think I need — and I also learned that I don't always know what I need. 

Looking back, many things happened during the two-month span in Stockholm; more than I could have imagined. Although it is sad that my study abroad-abroad experience was cut short, I think I already found what I was searching for.  

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