Lessons I’ve learned as an Expat in Seoul

Two months back, I watched Sofia Coppola’s ‘Lost in Translation’ for the second time. I couldn’t make it to the end of the movie without escaping moist eyes and feeling a sense of loss. If you’ve ever lived away from a place you call home, or spent months away from family, or just followed your heart/partner/spouse (even if your mind tells you otherwise); you’d know that feeling. We’ve completed 2 years in Seoul and the past few months have been a rough roller-coaster ride — with the lows outnumbering the highs. It’s also the reason for the long gaps between my posts. Fortunately, life has a way of wooing you back by making a reasonable peace offering — after you’ve been patient enough to tolerate its heavy artillery.

It seems like yesterday that we moved to Seoul. We had lived for brief intervals in other countries, but I never liked being an expat. Travellers can explore new worlds without having to conform to their surroundings or change who they are or how they think. You can wear a mask and people will accept you with that mask. You can believe a story and few will want to question it. Sadly, you lose out on those liberties once you choose to stay back. Now, you’ve got to learn, adapt, and survive. The past 2 years have been an education for me and the lessons I’ve learned will shape me forever — no matter where we choose to live in the future.

Live in the Moment

I always needed to have a plan in my life. I couldn’t bear to have uncertainty call the shots. Occasionally, I tried to make a half-hearted attempt to follow the ebbs and flows of life. But, those moments weren’t long-lasting and I would go back to creating elaborate plans. As an expat, unpredictability is the first friend you’d ever make. You never know when you have to move into a new apartment or be called back or say goodbye to a close friend. And that can be hard when you have to learn and adapt quickly to a new environment.

Last year, things got more uncertain with the political condition of the peninsula heating up. I’d receive concerned messages from friends across the globe. Those messages made me more anxious and I couldn’t think straight. Living in fear isn’t easy. I turned to my Korean friends and found strength in just living in the moment. They’d been doing that for many years and it worked for them. A year later, things have turned sweeter and it’s hard to imagine last year’s panic.

Be Generous with your Smile

Being an introvert I’ve always waited for the other person to say the first word or smile. I used to find it hard to smile at strangers. In Seoul, people don’t smile easily if they don’t know you. If you’re a foreigner/waygook, you have to practice that smile — to win one in return. Smiles can remove any discomfort associated with communication. And people are friendly, once you take the first step towards forging a bond. They might even forgive you for not learning Korean.

Make your Apartment your Comfort Zone

In Seoul (like most big cities), an apartment is more than a home. It’s a symbol of how much you make and what kind of life you live. People don’t need to ask the number on your paycheck. They just need to ask where you live, the name of your building, and which floor you’re perched on.

I didn’t choose where we lived. I just got used to life away from tourist zones and other expats and I didn’t mind living in a district characterised by grey buildings. In February, our landlady decided to sell the studio apartment we were living in and I had to make a choice of moving out of a space/locality I called home for 2 years. After a while, it was easier to move out rather than stay back. We found an apartment 20 minutes away from where we lived, but she never let us leave before the lease got over. So, we had to wait until April to hunt for new apartments and finally moved into our new apartment (across the street) in May. The paperwork that followed was exhaustive and it’s been two months since the big move. We don’t live in a studio anymore and it feels good to have more space for friends and family. It’s been worth the effort and sleepless nights.

Don’t Talk/Listen to Strangers on the Street

Two years back, after we settled into our apartment, Basil had to leave for a conference in Jeju. As an introvert, I’ve always cherished my lone time. But, after he left, I remember feeling crushed by loneliness in a foreign city. That afternoon, I walked down the street, feeling invisible, whilst people laughed and had more friends than I did. I wanted someone to notice me or even stare at me. Lost in my thoughts, I bumped into an elderly Korean man (ajusshi) and instinctively apologised. He turned out to be chatty and a bit high on his afternoon soju/magkeolli. I didn’t realise he wanted to practice his English (because he had a business trip to the US) and I was polite while he reduced ‘where-I-came-from’ to stereotypes and the news. I grew up in a patriarchal society and I know how important it is for women to find the courage to speak out. I’ve always thought a developed nation is defined by the liberties its women enjoy. That day, when he was surprised by our childlessness and said, “Isn’t your husband strong enough to give you kids!”, I realised that development and the choices women enjoy are not necessarily linked. I found it hard to shake his words out of my mind for months. Later that night, my Korean friend introduced me to ‘Noksapyeong’ — a utopian world — for foreigners especially native English speakers. I bawled whilst we bonded over stories of sexism and too many glasses of wine.

In the following months, christian evangelists tried to get me (an agnostic catholic) to their fold, more people tried to practice English (or Hindi) with me, and I also realised I was an ajushhi magnet. Two years later, and many kilos lighter, I’ve been told I look like a college student. So, now I have young boys try to chat with me during my solo outings (no one looks at the ring).

In February, as I walked in Hongdae (popular with college students and partying expats) a drunken foreigner called out, “You’re not Korean, you &^%*”. I spent the next few weeks trying to get over it. Winter was bad and I almost thought of throwing every overcoat that I had bought in Seoul. It was silly because temperatures were in the negative. Struggling with my identity never felt harder.

But all these situations have taught me a valuable lesson. It made me stronger and I learned to ignore what’s around me. If I was patient enough, I’d meet the right people. I just needed to look in the right place.

Make a Pool of Good Friends

As a kid, I was my brother’s sidekick and a partner to his imaginary games. I spent my early twenties in a class where boys outnumbered girls. So it wasn’t very strange that I had more male friends and fewer female friends. I liked being a science geek and I also liked wearing torn jeans,  no makeup, swearing, and saying whatever came to my mind without worrying about hurting anyone. As a dependant spouse in Seoul, most activities are attended by other dependant spouses — mostly female. I’ve never known how to conform to what’s expected from women. Thankfully, I’ve met an incredible set of strong and smart women from different parts of the globe. Women who try to shape their own path despite following their spouse’s footsteps. They’ve formed my support system and help me through those rough moments.

Be True to Yourself

I’ve always looked for confidence outside. I became what people wanted me to be and that’s difficult when you meet people who expect different things from you. It’s hard to stay true to yourself. I’ve met many people here and each had their own perception.

The first group were sold on the idea of oriental mysticism or spiritualism that’s associated with where-I-come-from. They were disappointed in me and felt I was a sellout to the west or worse — Netflix.

The second group seemed to be indifferent. But they were curious and would look at me with condescending eyes waiting to spot a grammatical mistake, a head bobble, an impromptu jig perhaps, or a slip in the accent.

The third group was into current affairs and the news. By the third sentence of the conversation they wanted me to prove the veracity of what they’d read or seen in the news. Unfortunately, I was the wrong person again.

The fourth group is my kind of group. They’re cultural shapeshifters and have the unique ability of seeing through me and touching my soul. I’ve met some incredible shapeshifters here and they’ve accepted me for who I am and helped me be me.

Don’t Stop Travelling

As expats, it’s difficult to travel when you’re juggling a new life and getting through setbacks. But, I think, it’s important to take a break from it all. Go around your neighbourhood. Take a walk in the park. Visit the nearest province and after you’ve settled — explore other countries.

We’d like to thank you for following us for the last couple of months/years. It hasn’t been easy to continue blogging and thank you for making me want to keep writing. It looks like we will spend another 2 years in Seoul and we hope you continue to enjoy reading our adventures, experiences, and journey across Korea. We’re just back from Indonesia and I can’t wait to start writing about our trip!

42 responses to “Lessons I’ve learned as an Expat in Seoul

  1. And don’t stop looking at how far you have come (just a quick look over your shoulder) before setting your sights on tomorrow. I admire your great courage.

  2. As someone who only relocated within Europe – not another continent as you have – i understand completely much of what you talk about. There’s a freedom in being foreign, certainly – you can get away with things that residents can’t: but it’s hard not being on the same page in conversations because the ‘backstory’ of your new home’s culture will always be a closed book to you. I thought coming back to the UK though would be easier than it’s proved to be. Perhaps I’d idealised my own country in my absence. It looks as if the lesson is, appreciate where you’re living for what it can offer, and try to ignore or minimise as far as possible the difficulties. Good luck!

    • Ooh, we haven’t relocated to another continent. We’re South Asian (Indian to be more specific) and have moved to East Asia. 🙂 But, the challenges of moving to another city/town/country/continent are similar. I agree, there are certain concessions an expat gets and it’s hard to truly fit into the local culture without knowing the backstory. Hmm…I’ve gone back ‘home’ multiple times and I know I’ve felt disconnected. I feel like I’m stuck in limbo right now. I don’t want to think about the future or where it will take us. I’m happy with living in the moment. 🙂

  3. What an incredible journey you’ve been on Cheryl, and continue to be on, both inwardly and physically, in adjusting to a different way of life. You’re one brave and determined woman and I so admire your tenacity and resilience. I hope you’ll keep blogging and inspiring us. Hugs and warm wishes from a chilly and windy Melbourne. xx 🙂

    • Awww! You know you (and your writing) have been such a big support in my journey, Miriam! I don’t leave the best comments (lol), but your posts inspire me to stay strong and enjoy each moment. I must confess, I thought of quitting blogging during the past few months. It’s been over 4 years and I wonder if I have anything new to say at all. So thank you for the encouragement, I’ll wait till we turn 5. Sending you a big hug from a sunny Seoul! xo

      • Cheryl, if you only knew how I struggle too at times. You say I inspire you but you inspire me as well my friend. And as for that feeling of saying something new, yep, I can relate as well. But trust me when I say, I always enjoy your posts. Sending you a hug from cool grey windy Melbourne. xx

      • That’s the sweetest thing to say, Miriam. I’m so happy you enjoy my posts. Writing is cathartic, but I feel exposed and vulnerable. I can’t seem to read any post after I hit publish. But, I will trust your judgement. 🙂 xoxo

      • Good, I’m glad you trust my judgement. I think we all feel the same, exposed and vulnerable. Keep writing and smiling. xx 😁

  4. Sometimes expressing our vulnerabilities makes us even stronger. I love how you written it here. Oh that sexism, it’s everywhere. I am in it, even get it from fellow women *sad fact*.
    Cheers!!! ❤

    • You couldn’t have said it better my dear friend! I wish I could meet you in Jakarta. Ah, damn sexism (along with many other ‘isms’)! I know it’s everywhere! That’s why I wanted to talk about it. 😦 You need to re-educate those women. Although, at times, it’s better to dream of a far-flung holiday destination whilst they give you valuable advice or nod your head! lol. And do want you want to do anyway! Sending you a big hug!

  5. Wow I admire they way you wrote and your absolute strength. Most people stay in their comfort zone and would never understand these challenges you face as an expat into depth. As an expat you grow so fast, especially in those hard times en when you have, and you certainly have it, the ability to reflect on it. Looking forward to your next posts about your trip through Indonesia. Keep it up. Big hug from a Dutch expat living between Cape Town and Paris

    • Thank you for your comment! It made my day. 🙂 I completely agree with what you say. I feel so different in 2 years (I am more at ease with who I am) and I have certainly learned a lot. Meeting so many interesting people has also shaped the way I think and view the world. We visited Amsterdam & Paris in 2010! We’ve got fond memories of both. Sending you a big hug! Thanks so much for stopping by and joining the conversation.

  6. I guess it is not easy to live with uncertainty. It is much easier when you know if you have moved in for good because you start making deliberate choices. I hope many things must have been sorted by now for you guys. Hope to see you around on a regular basis, Cheryl. Looking forward to your Indonesian adventures.

    • That’s true, Arvind! I think it would have been easier if we knew how long we were to stay here. Our initial stint was for a year and that changed to two. Now, we’ve got an extension of 2 more years. Fortunately, things are working out now! Thanks a bunch for asking. :)We caught quite a few sunrises in Indonesia. I think you might enjoy reading about it. Have a great week!

  7. As others have said, your resilience and inner strength are admirable, but your vulnerability is what makes you human and interesting to me. Not that I want you to suffer for your art, of course (ha!), but in your struggles you have found universal themes that we can all apply to our lives, expats or not. I felt a connection to some of them even in my own life in the last year and a half, and I only moved to Texas (which some people might actually say is like a whole different country!). I’m super excited to hear about Indonesia, and I’m happy you are on an upswing these days overall.

    • I think you’re a shapeshifter! 🙂 You read through the layers and understand exactly how I feel. I could hug you!
      I focus on my weakness (it’s not easy), because I feel we celebrate ‘strength’ without considering those weak moments one has to overcome to become strong. I think a certain sadness helps with writing as long as you know how/when to switch off before it consumes you! 🙂
      Moving to another city or state (in the same country) can be equally challenging. I’ve done that. It’s already been a year and half for you? Wow! Time flies. One of my friends, in Seoul, is a Korean-American from Texas! 🙂 It’s a small world right?
      We’re facing a heatwave here, but I’m happy because things have fallen into place. 🙂 Fingers crossed!

      • I thought about your words on weakness and strength here when I re-read my recent post on hiking. And the connection of sadness with writing … I think you’re right about that, or just that some of us use writing to dig into the feelings that stir us up in some way, good or bad. Hugs back!

  8. I’ve always admired folks who can slip the moorage of their home cultures and live in one that is completely different. I doubt it is easy for anyone, despite what they might say. I’d say the closest I’ve come was the contracting/consulting phases of my career; going from job site to job site for anything from a few weeks to a couple years. I expect the challenges of being an expat would be something like that, only more extreme.

    • I completely agree, Dave. Some of my friends never moved out of the place they grew up in. I wonder how that would have turned out for me. I guess, it’s nice to feel secure in a familiar environment. Being an expat isn’t very different from moving to another town or city in the same country. The experiences an outsider encounters depend upon the number of interactions with a local and how vulnerable he/she feels at that moment. Some expats don’t leave their safe haven and they do just fine. Sadly, they miss out on the experience (good/bad) of living in an unfamiliar place.

  9. Living in Seoul seems to be a very rewarding experience for you. you’ve learned a lot of things. Thanks for bringing your experience closer!

  10. Ah, expectations…they’re so difficult to get rid of and always end up kicking us hard when we least expect it. Even after all these years I too think about quitting before every blog post. I’m so happy you haven’t. Reading about your struggles reminded me that it’s always our vulnerabilities that connect us to one another. And I love being reminded of that over and over through your perspective. Thank you for continuing to motivate me.

    • Oooh, your comment made my day! I love your posts and they never fail to inspire me. And I’m such a huge fan of your writing! 🙂 I can’t believe you think of quitting before you write a post. It’s so hard right? I wonder if writing gets easier after a while. 🙂 Can a writer and a blank page ever become friends? Thanks for stopping by. It’s always good to hear from you. Hugs!

      • Oh, thank you so much! It’s lovely to hear that my posts inspire you! It’s such a conundrum, isn’t it? I’m sure there are writers who are confident and best friends with a blank page. I think it’s more to do with my personality in general that I feel so torn between needing to write while wondering why I’m doing it. It’s also why finding the right community is so helpful (as you mentioned in your post). Not just to say nice things to one another, but so that we can not feel so alone with our thoughts. Hugs back! 🤗

      • ” I think it’s more to do with my personality in general that I feel so torn between needing to write while wondering why I’m doing it.” I’m with you on this one! We’re mirroring thoughts. 🙂 It’s true that WP has been such a great tool to find kindred souls.

  11. Can’t believe you have been in SK for two years. I recall your first blog when you arrived. You were apprehensive I think and look at you now. Well done!!! Great tips.

    • I know! Time flies! You remember my first posts were so despondent. 🙂 I’ve grown stronger and that’s the best part of expat life. Thanks for being a part of my/our journey for 2 years! xo

  12. What an honest piece of writing, Cheryl. I applaud you for showing your vulnerability, and hence your strength. Expat life is a strange one, especially as the “trailing wife”, as it brings its own unique set of
    challenges. And being an introvert certainly does not make it any easier. I feel for you, especially as my own self-confidence has taken a huge knock over the last couple of years. But whatever you do, don’t stop writing.

    • Thanks for the support, Jolandi! The first year was really hard. But I’ve found ways to cope and tap the strength within. 🙂 Confidence is essential for expat life and I’m working very hard on that. I think I’ve become more accepting of who I am and that helped me the most. I hope I continue writing. It’s one of the hardest things to do! 🙂

      • I cannot agree with you more, about writing being really hard. Being an expat definitely gets easier over the years. And like you’ve pointed out, we definitely learn a lot about ourselves in the process. 🙂

  13. This was great and enlightening to read! Living in a place is much different than visiting. I visited Israel once before moving there for 4.5 months- which isn’t nearly 2 years long through cold winters, but the different cultures and customs got to me a bit. Keep sharing your story! Thanks

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