It is nearly the middle of August, which symbolizes for me the year mark that I have now spent living abroad as an expat. At times it doesn’t feel like a year and other times it feels even longer. If you probably would’ve told me 10 years ago that I’d be living in Korea, I probably wouldn’t believe it. I suppose that, on some level, I always felt that I was meant to travel and live in various places but I certainly wasn’t expecting Korea to be on that list.
To say the least, and as many would expect, it has been challenging. I mean, I’m living in a country where I don’t speak the native language nor do the people here really know my native language well. On top of that, compared to other countries I’ve visited, this one doesn’t always seem to favor diversity. The natives stare at you, but you can’t blame them to some extent because you do kind of stand out like a sore thumb. However, I have been told that their reactions are different to those of China or Japan, though I suppose I will find out for myself soon enough. Truly, I can’t really blame them because Korea is a country of a long unfortunate history of invasions along with their country still separated to this very day.
On a personal level, this transition was perhaps a bit more stressful than some. I came here after coping with a lot of opposition, where I was challenged to really set my boundaries and not give in to emotionally toxic actions.
It’s been a long journey in only one year and I would be lying if I said that I still didn’t have frustrations daily. It’s the days when you have a craving for banana bread, but you don’t own an oven nor can you find the proper ingredients to make it. It’s the days when your boss tells you that you have to sit at a desk for 8 hours that day, but they give you no work to do. It’s the days when all you want is a regular cup of black coffee, but they give you an instant coffee mix that has more cream and sugar than coffee. It’s the days when you just wish they would stop driving so stressed-out and crazy. It’s the days when all you want is your students to sit down and listen, but they won’t because you’re not Korean.
It’s been challenging every day, though some more so than others. Anybody that has lived here understands and it’s hard for anyone who hasn’t to get a full grasp of the experience.
As far as the community of other foreigners, I can fortunately say that there is a lot of diversity. Within a year, I’ve met and made friends with Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, English, Irish, Scottish, Egyptians, Mexicans, Italians, Germans, Greeks, Russians, Japanese, Chinese, Thais, Filipinos, fellow Americans, and more. The mixture is of people working here, visiting here, or simply traveling. It’s not too difficult to realize when you are out and about, especially in a city area, that the whole world is at your finger tips.
For myself, I can say that I knew this on some deeper level coming in. In fact, I still distinctly remember during my first week here coming to the realization of: There is no one that I know here. I can be whoever I want. I can do whatever I want. Yet, at the same time, there was a realization that I am completely responsible for my own happiness.
Was this realization the only thing that I needed? Certainly not. In fact, it has been and continues to be a process of uprooting my own self-defeating beliefs and overcoming my own inner obstacles and challenges. However, I can say that by making this decision I have learned and grown more in a year than I would have in 30 years (or perhaps more) had I stayed in the same area in the US.
When you pack up all of your belongings into two suitcases and travel to a place where you do not know a single person you are setting yourself up for a potentially great spiritual transformation. You are setting up your outer environment for a great shift in your perspective. Your limiting beliefs come up and smack you in the face and you realize how little power they truly have.
Now, does this happen to every expat? Unfortunately no. Though I have met several that have allowed transformations and changes to happen, some are for the better and others for the worse. There are also those who hold such strong beliefs that they would rather argue with someone from a different culture (or perhaps not even a different culture) about it rather than have a respectful, understanding, and accepting discussion.
It has been quite an interesting 12 months and it has proven to me the amount of limitations we can place upon ourselves due to our culture, upbringing, or our own fears.
Do I still struggle? Certainly. Balance seems to have become a key ingredient here, as it is easy to become frustrated with lack of resources that I would normally have in the US (Come on, why can’t we have a gym that doesn’t cost $80+ a month that actually has some strength training equipment?).
The key I’ve mostly found to maintaining balance here is this: I can’t always have everything that will please me in my external environment at all times. There will always be good and bad. There will be a day when I will greatly miss bibimbop, shabu shabu, green tea ice cream, speaking Korean language, the gorgeous mountains of Korea, and their ridiculously “poppy” K-pop music. It’s just another piece to the song, a chapter to the book, and there’s truly a little piece of heaven everywhere in the world. Savor it. Enjoy it. Love it.
Korea in the Spring