Sheer excitement and the thrill of the unknown were quickly replaced with panic and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness when my jet lagged feet hit the tarmac. Landing in Seoul, South Korea, marked my second trip via commercial flight and my first trip to a foreign country. I was 20 years old, did not speak the language, traveling alone, and an ocean and a lifetime away from home. It was November 2001 and the tragedy of 911 was still very much a fresh wound. I somehow fumbled my way through customs toting several heavy costume filled bags. I was the USA delegate for the World Miss University pageant and packing light was not exactly realistic. Out of breath and nearing tears, I scanned the airport for my taxi. I willingly went with the unknown man dressed in a black suit holding a sign that read, “Ms. USA.” He carried my luggage to the car and we rode in silence to the hotel – my home for the next couple of weeks. My concern grew with each mile – or kilometer I should say. When we arrived at the hotel, I was wholeheartedly regretting my wild and brazen decision to take a 3 week hiatus from my junior year of college and travel across the world.
Once in the hotel lobby and waiting for a pageant coordinator, I finally yielded to my anxiety and let the tears flood from my eyes as uncontrollable sobs escaped my lips. I was a mess. I was scared, alone, and could no longer suppress my emotions. It was certainly not the look expected of a composed and proper beauty queen, but I really didn’t care anymore. I was downright terrified and consumed with my vulnerability. We were provided sashes with our titles and suddenly, a woman in the lobby noticed mine. A beautiful blond woman, with large blue eyes and an infectious smile, unexpectedly and warmly hugged me tightly. She was wearing an “I love the USA” flag shirt and her embrace was genuine. Others took notice and immediately flocked to my direction. I was concerned that my lack of composure was causing a scene. Instead, women from the around the globe, began hugging me, nodding my direction, squeezing my hand, and offering words of encouragement. One of the pageant body guards asked where in the USA I was from. As I explained I was from Washington everyone gasped. The guard exclaimed in limited English, “terror, terror.” I tried to explain that I was from Washington State and not Washington, D.C., but it didn’t matter, I had an entire group of strangers from all walks of life, from all corners of world, rallying around me, willing to offer comfort to someone they’d never met. I was already stunned with emotion, but experiencing such a beautiful outpouring of true humanity touched me in a way that has never left. Even as tragedy continues to plague the world, I maintain faith and hope because I have witnessed genuine compassion and unity at a global level.
I met many amazing women on that trip, women from all over the world. I met women with vastly differently life experiences, of diverse backgrounds and cultures. I was honored to share my room with the delegate from Poland and I adored her and her stories about her country. I delighted in the conversation of Ms. Lebanon and Ms. Finland. Ms. Germany made everyone smile. Ms. Sweden was wonderfully sweet and Ms. Vietnam was incredibly soft spoken and strong at the same time. I learned so much in such a short amount of time. I was privileged to observe so much of South Korea as we took a road trip from Seoul to Busan. My host country was very welcoming and experiencing the culture firsthand was priceless. I learned a lot from my first exhilarating, yet terrifying trip abroad. I learned how connected we as people really are. I learned how no matter how different our lifestyles and backgrounds are, we can all find a common ground. Finally, I learned by pushing through fear and casting out doubt, we can find the kind of bravery in ourselves necessary for growth and responsible for lifelong inspiration. Many years later, I’m still inspired by the 20 year old version of myself, the one that took a 20 hour journey to a new place where I met some endearing people with lasting impressions. When I’m reluctant or hesitant to embark on something new, I remember the fear that once consumed me as I scanned that airport for a stranger in an unknown country, which was later replaced with admiration and comfort through unexpected acceptance. Although I was solo in Seoul, I was never really alone.
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