10 Years In Korea: How I’ve Lived Abroad For A Decade Happily

Living abroad is amazing, scary, enlightening, humorous, lonely and from there the list of adjectives could just go on and on. Traveling abroad is one thing but most that take the adventure know that at some point they’ll go home which can effect an entire outlook on how they experience a place. Living abroad takes a whole host of adjustments and immeasurable levels of acceptance in many ways.

Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

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I wrote an article for Groove Korea Magazine in October on some of the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve called Seoul, South Korea my home for the past decade. While there were plenty of experiences from the positive to the negative to pull from over that time, I wanted to focus on what I’ve learned that has helped me be a successful and content expat. Of course, there are plenty more thoughts I had while culling ideas together, so I wanted to expand on some of my thoughts in the article.

How I’ve Lived Abroad For a Decade Happily

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.Jindo Miracle Sea Parting Festival, Korea

If you plan on living in another country, I highly recommend taking language courses. Not only do they help make daily chores and activities easier, but it also gets you one stop closer to understanding where you’ve chosen to reside. Have no delusions though. It’s won’t be easy to pick up a local dialect. You need to put in the hours. Locals will appreciate the enthusiasm and eagerness to acclimate and connections will be easier to make with people though. Learning a language can happen before or during a stay and that leads to another key: prepare prepare prepare. I moved abroad knowing very little about Korea but being very open to every experience I was about to have. It was naive of me to think that was a good idea in retrospect but I was young and just out of university and well.. I was naive. Now, I would recommend getting online and searching for information about a place, going to a library and checking out books on the history of a place and maybe even seeking out other travelers that have already been to that place. What has happened in the past is just as relevant as what is happening now and customs and norms are so important to learn about beforehand so there are no inadvertent rude gestures or sayings that could effect an otherwise fulfilling experience. If you’ll work abroad, make sure to get contact info for people that work there currently so you can get the real low-down on what it’s like. You can also get info from that person on what they should or shouldn’t bring. Use those resources.

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.Sungeut Beach, Gangneung Korea

I don’t mean to suggest that you should sit around laughing at local customs or the culture by any means. Living abroad can be difficult in a number of ways. Movies make living abroad seem easy and glamorous and maybe like only a lucky few can even do it, but it’s not like that. Even when something difficult does happen in a movie, the outcome or the way to succeed is humorous or beautiful in some ironic way. In real life though, sometimes a bank transfer doesn’t go through and you’re stuck without cash for a number of days or a visa expiration date is two weeks earlier than you remembered it or a waitress said there wasn’t meat in the dish you ordered, but there was spam and she didn’t count that as meat. These things happen and rather than getting angry or peeved, it’s better to have a laugh and look for the good in a situation because what else is there to do? You might not have money, but that’s when fellow expats or locals will step up in ways that you never imagined by giving cash knowing that the first few months while setting everything up is hard. That visa may have expired but maybe that means a side trip to a nearby country. And yeah, that meat in the dish isn’t great, but now you’ve learned that people don’t think spam is meat where you’re staying. Life lessons abound and you just need to be open to them and try to smile while learning them because these are what make life abroad memorable and rewarding.

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 [in Korea] 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.Gwangjang Market, Seoul, Korea

It’s okay to get annoyed. It’s even okay to get pissed. There will be great times and there will be bad times like life everywhere. Complain, vent and do whatever you need to do but afterward, pick yourself up and move on. “Live and learn,” as they say. The lessons can hurt, the experiences can be painful but they will all effect you as a person and you will have a huge effect on the place and the people you’re meeting too. Remember that. You are meeting people and living with people and you’re having just as large an effect on them as they’re having on you. People say that travel changes you, but it has far reaching effects into cultures and countries as well. Walking in and telling a group of people that they’ve been doing something wrong or inefficiently their whole lives isn’t going to end well. It’s okay to have a love/hate relationship with the place you’ve chosen to reside, but learning will hopefully make it a bit more love than hate over time.


Have you lived abroad? What tips would you give fellow travelers looking to turn expat abroad?

How I've Lived Abroad For 10 Years: Life Abroad, Expat Life. What To Expect

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5 Responses

  1. Daphne says:

    Nice write-up. Thank you for sharing your great experience.

  2. I really love the honesty in your article! I have spent most of the past 13 years living abroad and can so relate to this. I love how you say “Many people move abroad not realizing the effort it will take just to live.” That’s so true! all of a sudden every little thing requires so much effort. But, although difficult, lonely and frustrating at times, living abroad has taught me so much!!

  3. Joe says:

    Happy ten year anniversary for living in Korea! I completely agree that preparation and taking the time to get to know they country your living in is of absolute paramount importance of you’re going to settle in there and really get the most out of your experience. And yes, learning as much of the local language as you can certainly helps too!

  4. ferncoll says:

    Good for you living there so long! I’ve been an expat in Mexico for 3 years now.. who knows if I’ll this to 10 too 😉

  5. Claire says:

    Ohhh yes, I was an expat in Spain for a few years, and trying to understand bureaucracy there was a nightmare! You do have to laugh rather than cry though, as it always works out in the end! And I spoke Spanish so can’t imagine what its like without speaking any of the language!!

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