Today marks a year of adventures abroad, and I thought it would be a poignant time to compile a list of how life is a bit different than it was 365 days ago. I could write a full list of 365 lessons I’ve learned, but I’ve compressed to the abridged version of 11, in honor of Pepero Day. Pepero Day is a “holiday” in Korea, much like Valentine’s Day, that is devoted to spreading love via “pocky” sticks.
…Yeah, those. The holiday has an interesting history, something to do with teenage girls wanting to be tall and slender. How… appropriate? Anyway, is celebrated today, and every year on 11/11. Without further ado:
1. It’s true what they say, living abroad changes you.
How, exactly, it changes you depends on where you live and your cultural experience. I hope that it has made me more patient and laid-back, and more appreciative of things I took for granted at home. On the flip side, it’s made me more critical of things back home that aren’t as great (i.e. expensive healthcare, close proximity to many other countries, etc.) and it has made me a little bit jaded about the allure of “glamorous” expat life. Hopefully the other ten items on this list give a better idea of exactly how we/I have changed. In all, I’m excited that we have at least another year abroad, and surely wouldn’t be opposed to another assignment down the road.
2. Moving abroad with a pet is much harder than I thought it would be.
This could be the specifics of our circumstances, bringing large dogs to a country that doesn’t accept them well, but this has been probably the biggest challenge to adjusting to life here. Don’t get me wrong, I would probably do it all over again because I love these furry faces more than you can imagine, but it surely has not been a breeze trying to navigate the Korean apartment experience with these two tagging along.
3. Having a job you love is totally underrated.
This one is not so much related to being an expat, but just me thanking my lucky stars that I got to keep my job while living abroad. I have yet to meet another spouse who had the heavens shine down on them in such a manner, but even on top of that, I have realized how much I really do love what I do. Thanks to Ebola. But seriously, it would be a task for me to find a job better than the one I have.
4. Living abroad today is way easier than it used to be.
This lesson is really a lot of little lessons rolled into one, including but not limited to: 1) technology is (mostly) awesome, 2) globalization totally benefits the expat who just needs her Starbucks coffee, Kenwood wine and avocados, 3) travel guides + TripAdvisor are pretty much the greatest, 4) I have an apartment with a lot of my own stuff in it, and 5) Minnie and Murray got to come!
5. Individualism vs. Collectivism
The biggest difference between Asian and “Western” societies (at least the US) is how culture centers around groups of people as opposed to the individual. This goes for so many things – the Korean “group think” mentality, the nonexistence of customization, hierarchy and the importance of age in Korean society. It even infiltrates what they wear (matchy-matchy couples outfits) and influences the number of people required to change a lightbulb. Hint: it’s not one. Community focus also supports next to zero unemployment, something for everyone to do or be involved in, and family-style meals.
On the other hand, individualism contributes to consumerism, self-centeredness, and lack of respect for those around you in some ways. Still, it promotes independent thought, entrepreneurship and carving your own path. Both worlds have valuable lessons to teach, but having been born and raised in one mindset, it’s tough not to feel overwhelmed by the other at times. Always learning.
6. Be open.
A lot of your success as an expat depends on your openness to other cultures and ideas. The willingness to consider other ideas and ways of life is crucial to having a positive experience. Before moving to Korea, I thought I was a pretty open-minded person, but that definition has become much different to me after living here and interacting with both other expats and Koreans. It serves you well to keep an open mind and an open heart. However, the whole “it’s not wrong, it’s just different” thing only works as an explanation about half of the time. The other half of the time, you try to believe “it’s just different” and you just can’t. Take, for example, the common practice of covering up mold with more wallpaper to say it’s fixed. This is the current dilemma we are facing in our apartment.
Similar to number 6,
7. Life is what you make it.
This might seem obvious, but I for one know how it feels to really, strongly dislike the place where you live. Being on the other side of that struggle and now living in a place I do like on most days, I really see the value in having the right frame of mind to be happy. What you make difficult will be difficult. What you choose to enjoy could make for the best times in your life, if you’re willing to let it. This isn’t as much of a challenge for J-Mar and I as it is for others we know, but living here has given me a new respect for “attitude is everything”.
8. Speak up.
I have learned in so many situations that problems can be solved much more quickly if you are willing to step out of your comfort zone and speak up. Especially, especially because of the language barrier, there have been so many times I just wanted to throw my hands up in the air and say “to heck with it”. I just didn’t want to try to explain something to a Korean from the 500th time in a different way. However, becoming jaded and unwilling to communicate with people only worsens the problem most of the time. Plus, Koreans are honest to a fault, so up-front communication really helps things get going. There’s no such thing as “beating around the bush” here.
9. I never knew I needed personal space.
Although my concept of personal space is a bit different after 365 days, I can honestly say that I need room to breathe. And that I never really knew that before – it’s not like I was claustrophobic or anything. I took personal space for granted living in the U.S., but then again, people weren’t crowding me in the grocery store or shoving me off or onto almost-moving trains. Or cutting in front of me in line, dammit!
10. Expat community = family you didn’t know you needed
Living in Ulsan is like living in a college dorm: you’re forced to get to know people really quickly, which often results in a lot of over-sharing early on in your new relationships. However, a lot of them are just like you. For the most part, everyone is extremely welcoming and they know what you’re going through, so they are eager to help you out if they can. This is not true of all places you go as an expat, but most of the people we met early on were already pretty involved in the expat community and it sucks you in almost immediately. I remember the countless good wishes and text messages I got after I had same-day surgery in May. I almost didn’t need my mom to worry about me since I had my expat family to step in and make sure J-Mar and I were doing okay.
11. Things you thought would really matter, don’t. And things you didn’t think would really matter, do.
Similarly, you can learn to live with a lot of things, and you can learn to live without a lot of things, too. (Even if you think you can’t, give it a few months.)
Isn’t that always how it happens, though? The challenges I saw ahead for myself one year ago in many ways were different than the ones I face every day. It’s true, I do miss my hairstylist and dilapidated herb garden, but I found a trusted stylist here and can still eat most of the produce I want. What was spot on, though, was my fear of the dog park/yard situation in Korea. It is truly crappy here.
The things I do miss most after a year include 1) easy communication with the vast majority of people around me, 2) the ease of menial tasks like getting your oil changed or your annual flu shot, and 3) going to Chipotle. (Priorities). But there are so many things I didn’t know I was missing – outdoor activities, proximity to the beach, and the opportunity to get so many new passport stamps. What a journey it’s been so far. I’m looking forward to more new stamps and lessons learned. (And eating Chipotle in 8 days. EIGHT DAYS, PEOPLE!)