An expat’s advice on living in South Korea.
Ten years ago, I took a step off of an airplane into the darkness of night and the neon lights of Seoul, wondering what the heck I’d just done. Couldn’t read a lick of Korean. Couldn’t speak one word of the language and, to be frank, didn’t have an inkling of the massive history of this tiny peninsula, a world away from whence I called home in Dayton, Ohio.
Korean culture wasn’t mainstream enough to have stereotypically inspired jokes on American sitcoms, and North Korea was not nearly as scary because it wasn’t on the news every other day like it is now — or so my mother calls to tell me. I was ready for an adventure; got a job in Seoul and I took it. Ten years ago, I came to Korea and life happened, as it does. After ten years in Korea, here’s what I have to say to anyone considering living in Korea for an extended period of time, even if it’s not planned but just sort of happens, as life truly can just sneak up on even the most planned among us.
Live. Many people move abroad not realizing the effort it will take just to live. Daily errands like heading to the market or the post office become chores akin to washing the dishes and taking the trash out when we were little. What’s more is that now they have to be done only during the hours when a translator is on call, likely during working hours, which makes it almost impossible to get anything done. When going to the grocery store, bank, or café requires a translator to figure out things like what the ingredients are in that soup, or why that chai tea latte can’t be purchased in a large size like the vanilla latte (Ediya, I’m talking to you), it can get exhausting. But don’t let the chores get you down. There are numerous clubs, organizations and associations just itching for more members, all with amazing classes, activities, and events all over the country. Moving abroad can be an adventure, which can sometimes be exhausting, but the adventure is what we make it. Get involved.
Laugh. It’s inevitable that a situation will arise that will bring you to the cusp of banging your head against a wall or yelling in the face of another person. Just laugh. I mean that quite literally. Turn that frown upside down. Open your mouth and make the most ridiculous sounding ‘hardy har har’ you’ve ever made, and at some point it will turn into real laughter. Whatever it is, from the seemingly football inspired way that people run into each other to get on and off the subway, or the ridiculous assumption that you can be asked last minute to write ten pages of student reviews for the next morning, it will not seem so bad after a good belly-holding bout of laughter. Yes, no one likes to be told by one immigration officer that something is necessary and subsequently hearing after waiting in a line for five hours that it isn’t necessary by another officer. The questions every day about age, marriage status, and whether or not you’ll be able to handle a spicy dish because you’re an outsider can be a nuisance but really, get over it. Just laugh. Your expectations for life and how a day should go are different from reality. Rather than cowering in a hole or lashing out aggressively at people that have grown up bumping shoulders, and who are merely taking your taste buds into account before you complain that something was too spicy to digest, laugh. You’ll be happier and so will everyone around you.
Learn. Take the time to learn about the place rather than arriving, having experiences, and making the assumption that everything is wrong or backwards. There are reasons for numerous things that people consistently complain about or just don’t take the time to read up on. Koreans were actually taught to walk on the left side of the path up until 2009 for instance so if someone ends up on the left while the opposite wanderer is on the right, there’s going to be a little pavement dance but it’s no fault of anyone and to no one’s benefit to get upset about it. It’s just one of the many “annoyances” people find while living in Korea, yet it doesn’t have to be one. A part of moving abroad is effectively learning and accepting that life will change and we will change with it; and more often than not it is a good thing.
Most people don’t come to Korea expecting to stay a few years let alone a decade. In that decade so much has changed that sometimes it is just mind-boggling. There’s more than one option for peanut butter now, thank goodness! Sure, a lot has stayed the same, too. Buildings are torn down and rebuilt in an extremely short time, and that’s been happening for ten years straight. There’s never a no-construction period and it doesn’t seem likely there will ever be one. Becoming a local-foreigner, a title I dubbed myself while writing this piece, can be extremely rewarding in so many different ways; but chief among them is learning how adaptable we humans can truly be.
Hallie Bradley is a writer, educator, editor and more who has lived in Korea since 2006. Check out her website TheSoulofSeoul.net for more articles on culture, Korean traditions and the life of her growing multi-cultural family in Korea or follow her on Instagram @thesoulofseoulblog for photos along the way.
Story By: Hallie Bradley
Photos By: Hallie Bradley