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!