The Expat Life

Seoul is an unbelievably diverse city. My coworkers alone come from New Zealand, England, South Africa, Canada, and the US. Other neighborhoods are teeming with people from Turkey. I have students from Japan and Saudi Arabia. Just last weekend, I met Indians and Iranians inviting me to their homes for an authentic dinner and the next day a pair of Frenchmen were handing me a bottle of soju and teaching me how to play a drinking game with their Korean coworkers. A Kuwaiti took a friend and I out to celebrate his arrival in Korea, and then I went bowling with some Libyans.

Yes, the majority of westerners here are English teachers. Others are just traveling through, studying abroad, or working for the Korean branch of their home company. Some have more Korean friends than others. These Koreans are often English teachers themselves, hence how they have foreign friends. Many foreign guys have Korean girlfriends, and few foreign girls have Korean boyfriends. And if you were curious about the homosexual scene out here, it’s basically the same as home in California. Some flaunt it, others don’t. It’s kept low key for the most part, but there are certain areas that are openly known to be gay-friendly. Ironically, though, Korean men and women alike are far more touchy. It’s common to see girls holding hands and guys with their arms around each other. I like it. It gives off a nice sense of comradeship.

But there’s a stark contrast between my life here and my life studying abroad in Brazil two years ago. I had no idea that I had chosen to move to the polar opposite of Brazil when I decided to come here. Korea is fast-paced, busy, crowded, everyone is in a rush and only wants to get there faster. People think you’re a martian if you don’t own a smartphone. Especially here in crowded Gangnam, bumping into others is an accepted and tolerated way of movement. No apologies are exchanged. Oh, and the amount of ajimas (older women) who cut me in line everyday is astounding. One day, I rode the subway with my feet hovering an inch above the ground because of how packed it was.

It’s also been 6 months and I can maybe say two sentences in Korean. I can read. That’s it, and it’s been unbelievably helpful since most words are Konglish (Korean + English) so it’s like playing a game each time you read the word: “suh-tuh-law-beh-lee? suh-tlaw-belly? strawberry!!” I have no motivation to learn more since almost everything is bilingual. I can order in restaurants and let’s be real, that’s the most important thing.

As for Brazil, it was so slow you would never even see someone eating on the go. They’d order their coffee and calmly stand there enjoying it before meandering on with their day. My laundromat was always closed because the owners were out at the beach, and to this day I do not know the regular working hours of the restaurant next to my apartment because they were open whenever they felt like being open. But I made Brazilian friends and learned about the culture so much faster than I have here. I had to learn Portuguese since few people spoke English, but I also assimilated a completely different way than I have here.

The overarching reason I believe my experience here is so different is this: the Korean mindset. I am a foreigner and I always will be. No matter how long I live here and call it home, I am a foreigner. Marry a Korean guy? Still a foreigner. Speak Korean? Helpful, but no difference. I do want to emphasize that the majority of Koreans have been extremely friendly and helpful people who have never shown me discrimination or prejudice; it just feels like there is a divide. At times I almost feel used, like the only thing they want from me is to practice English or to simply be seen with a foreigner.

There are actually some clubs with signs outside that say “No foreigners allowed”. Most of the time it’s because of an incident involving the excess of US military here.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t surprise me, because the majority of Americans I meet do seem to feel entitled and prideful, living up to the stereotype others have of us, and all the more reason I specifically say I’m from California and not America. Just like in California, where I say I’m Persian instead of Iranian. It’s not a matter of shame, it just receives a reaction that I don’t care to deal with. This stigma that comes with being American is something I’ve felt in all countries I’ve traveled in. People tend to think we’re sheltered and self-involved, and if you take a look at our media vs. the rest of the world’s, you’ll see why. The  so-called “world news” revolves primarily around the US. My coworkers know so much more about world events than their American counterparts. It’s an aggravating topic I could go on about for days! But let’s get back on track.

Overall, Korea is a country of transition. Foreigners come, teach through their contract and go home. Almost every one I meet leaves days or weeks later. The majority of gatherings I’ve been to are going-away parties. I’m bracing myself for December and March, the typical intake/outake months, when people start or finish their contracts. On the one hand, it makes for fun adventures since people want to live up their time here, but it’s frustrating to make friends only to say goodbye soon after. Sure, my global network might be rapidly expanding, but every now and then I crave consistency, stability, someone I can depend on and develop a deeper friendship with.

I feel like I’m constantly being reborn. Imagine what it’s like to have a clean slate everyday because there is no one here who knows your past simply because you meet new people everyday. You can present yourself anyway you choose. You can choose what to share and what to hide. And although I don’t have much to hide, the idea is exhilarating. But it gets old. I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Some continuity would be nice.

In the end, I suppose living as an expat here is just another lesson of living in the moment, soaking up the present time for all it’s worth and all that hoopla. All this movement has caused the time to go by unbelievably fast- I can see how many end up staying here years longer than planned. As for me? Only time will tell..

0 Comments The Expat Life

  1. Greg September 18, 2013 at 8:23 am

    Like the ending paragraphs you added. And don’t do that, come back to your SC family 😉

    1. Shireen September 23, 2013 at 3:25 am

      absolutely 🙂

  2. Woo-Young Kang September 26, 2013 at 6:16 am

    Hey, you remember me? A korean guy who was going to the US for his PhD. Wearing glasses, a bit short… and we met twice at Direct English before I left my country. Whatever… This writing makes me think a lot of things. I wish I could talk more to you about Korea. I regret that I was too busy to have a cup of coffee with you. I know many “foreigners” feel just the way you do when they visit my country. Believe or not even I felt just the similar feelings you have had.

    Like you said, Korea is country of transition. I think so. Yeah… transition. That’s probably the best way to explain what’s happening in my country. If you have some time, I recommend you to study a little bit about the modern history of Korea. I think it helps you a lot better understand Korean people’s dividing characteristics.

    They are just scared of world. Particularly our old generation. They’ve tried to develop Korea as fast as possible (from nothing in the 1950th to more than $ 20,000 of GDP in the 2010th), and to be careful not to make their neighboring big, powerful countries (Russia, China, Japan, and USA) pissed off for any reason, and to make sure younger generation live in much safer, more stable country at the same time. The things they have tried to achieve at the same time was actually so overwhelming job for them to do within that short decades (60 years). And this endeavor has changed them. More precisely, it has distorted their lives as a whole.

    So the education in my country is in sort of chaotic even though you cannot literaly see it’s chaotic. We, no matter which generation s/he is in, are obsessed with English. That’s the truth. One undeniable, obvious truth. So they just think of you as a “foreigner” who can speak “English” as like a “native American.”

    Without a practical language, everybody from all over the world can be a real friend. But, that’s theoretical. You know that. Even your husband or someone’s husband/wife dosen’t talk much for their marital lives, they eventually end up with divorce. Lack of communication. That’s the point.

    We Korean are so busy. Because of so-called geo-political reasons. We have to. If not, we will lose our country again. That’s our potential fear. So we have to be stronger than past, now, even tomorrow. So we have to be an important economic, political partner to those big, powerful countries; USA, Russia, Japan, China.

    You know, it’s about 2 am. here in the US. I gotta go to bed.
    I just hope this reply helps you better understand Koreans.
    And I am not that good at this type of writing so that it seems a bit incoherent throughout the writing.
    I believe you will get what I meant with this reply since you’re smart.
    I remember your eyes when we talked. They were smart girl’s.

    Have a good day!!

  3. Shireen October 1, 2013 at 6:27 am

    Woo-Young! Thanks for the thoughtful response. I’m proud to call myself your English teacher! Even if it was for a short time. This was really interesting to read… do you have some recommendations for things I can read/watch to learn more about the history? Hope the US is treating you well!


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