If someone had told me 5 years ago, even 2 years ago, that I’d move to Korea, I’d have thought they were joking: I’m a homebody with a close family and friends, and have never really had the ‘travelling bug’ tempting me to go out and explore the world. The thought of leaving everything behind would have seemed absurd, something only someone way more adventurous than me would do. Even when I did a TESOL course with the intention of going abroad, I always imagined going to Europe and making frequent trips home.
Then, when job hunting for ESL jobs we saw how good the deal was in Korea (flights paid, rent paid, cheap bills? Yes please!), we changed our plans immediately, and 2 months later moved to Korea. Quite an impulsive move. I don’t know if other people thought we’d stick it out for the year, I didn’t even know myself. I definitely never thought that once the year was up I’d extend my contract.
We’ve experienced a whole lot since being here: the honeymoon period when everything in and about the country is perfect, the scared feeling of being in a completely foreign country where you can’t communicate and just want to see something in English, the homesick feeling when it’s a holiday or birthday of a loved one.
Over time we’ve realised that there are a lot of highs and lows of being an expat, especially in a country so foreign that you can’t even read the language, let alone begin to understand it. Here are some of the good and bad things about Expat Living:
♥ Exploring and Adventure
Let’s start with the most obvious: moving to another country is the best way to experience new places, to have adventures and experiences that you’d never have otherwise. And not just in the country you’re living in, but surrounding ones. If I wasn’t living in Korea, would I have visited Japan, Singapore, Malaysia or The Philippines? Most probably not.
× Missing Holidays
Even when you’re older, there’s something special about holidays: Christmas, Bonfire Night, Easter. It is, I have to admit, quite rubbish being away from friends, family, and festivities at these times. Sure, you can go to a delicious overpriced buffet for your Christmas lunch, but it doesn’t compare to a home-cooked meal.
♥ New Culture
It may be an adjustment, but being exposed to a new culture is not only interesting, but eye-opening. It opens your eyes to a world outside your own. Not only that, but it makes you appreciate things which you never thought twice about before: England may have many faults, but thank goodness I had a fun school-life without incredible pressure and insanely long hours studying.
That horrible feeling of being ill and having no idea what any medicine is, where your nearest doctor is, or even if they speak English? It’s likely to happen at some point, and it’s one of those times you just want to be at home, in bed, being looked after by your mum (yes, even if you’re 24).
♥ New Friends
Meeting people from all over the world is one of the great things about being an expat. I’ve made friends with Americans, South Africans, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, and of course, Koreans. Similarly to being in a different culture, making friends with people from backgrounds different to your own opens the doors to a whole new world.
The one negative to new friends? Having to ultimately say goodbye to these people, knowing there’s very little chance you’ll see them again. Unless you happen to be flying a few thousand miles across the world, it’s hard to just pop by for a chat and cup of tea.
× Paperwork and Errands
Banks. Bills. Setting up the internet. Tasks can suddenly become a lot harder when you don’t speak the language. Like trying decipher a bill in Hangul. Or telling a plumber what is wrong with your hot-water tap. The smallest things can turn into a mission, which isn’t always fun…
Here I go again with my love of Korean food, but it is a definite positive to being an expat. Going to a restaurant is all the more exciting and way more of a novelty than at home. Plus, the lower prices means it’s something you can enjoy far more often.
No matter how much you love foreign food, there will be times (as I mentioned here) that you long for the comfort of home cooking: that sandwich from your favourite cafe or your favourite chocolate bar. This craving can lead to you spending a small fortune on getting your favourite things delivered. £50 on Maltesers chocolate? Guilty.
It’s weird, but I love the fact that you care less in a different country; people stare more because you’re foreign, but I find that you feel less judged on many levels. You don’t have to worry about the latest fashion, whether your haircut is trendy, because you’ll never blend in anyway! And when you’ll always be the outsider, you don’t really care about trying to fit in. Roll on wearing a baggy man’s jumper to the gym and sporting your welly boots with pride…
So you always stand out if you’re an expat of a different race. And while the vast majority of people are friendly, there is always a small minority of xenophobic people who glare at you, disliking your presence in their country.
My most memorable experience? A little boy tugging on my coat in the supermarket, only to scream and cry (actual proper tears) when I turned around and he saw my face. Did his mother apologize or look embarrassed by his reaction? Not at all- she laughed.
♥ Lack of Responsibility
There’s a certain lack of responsibility when you’re an expat, things that you can’t take care of which are consequently taken care of for you: getting your internet set up, setting up a bank account. Instead, there is someone who speaks the language to take care of these things; after all, you can’t call up a company to complain when you don’t speak the language, can you? It’s kind of nice, like going back to a time when your parents doing things for you. Quite a relief sometimes.
× Not Knowing the Language
A pretty obvious one- the language barrier. Of course, you can learn select words and useful phrases, you’d be stupid not to. But unless you’re a genius (or know the language before you move), you’re going to find that a lot of the time, you’re clueless. It can lead to some pretty tough situations: being stranded without a clue which bus to take and no one who can help you, or paying someone else’s bill by accident because you couldn’t read it properly. True stories.
Nothing will help you become more independent than moving away and leaving the people you depended on in the past to move to another country. There’s suddenly a lot less people around to influence or direct you as you make a new life for yourself; it’s suddenly up to you.
× Online Access
This might be a petty one, but how annoying is it when you go to use a website (usually to watch something online) and you can’t because the website ‘isn’t allowed in your country’. Bye Bye BBC, MTV and ITV. Now I’ll just have to stream things elsewhere…
10 years ago, even 5 years ago, being away from family and friends would be pretty horrible: having to spend a ton of money texting and calling people. Now, there’s so much social media to immediately share information, updates, and pictures so you feel closer to people… and it’s free. And, of course, the saviour that is Skype, allowing you free conversations and actually seeing your loved-ones too. The pain of missing people is far easier to deal with due to technology, thankfully.
× Missing People
Probably the most obvious one. Even with Skype, of course you miss people. Saying goodbye is the biggest sacrifice when leaving home. And do you ever find that you sometimes miss your pet more than you miss people? Just seeing them on Skype makes you want to be at home giving them a big cuddle.
♥ New Appreciation For Things
The last and most important thing. Being away from your home country makes you appreciate the little things: the ease of going into a shop and asking for help without any complications, only having to take a 2 hour train journey to visit a friend. You have a new-found sense of gratitude for the weirdest things, which is pretty great.
So, with all the positives and negatives weighed out, is being an expat worth the downfalls? 100%, yes. It’s never been easier to keep in contact with people from home, unless you’re unlucky you’ll be looked after and have amazing new experiences, and if you’re a native English speaker, you’re lucky because wherever you go, there’ll always be at least a minimal understanding of your language. I would bet that everyone can understand the word ‘Hello’. Would everyone understand ‘안녕하세요’ or ‘привет’? Probably not. So if you’re an English-speaking expat, you’re in a favourable position.
And as far as expats go in Korea, I think the fact that the majority of people end up staying for longer than their planned year proves that the difficulties can’t be too bad…