Which Expat are you?

There are three types of people who live in a foreign country. The first are those who live in the country as an observer, never participating in any of the culture, but merely observing it as it passes around them, completely content to live in a clear bubble of cultural comfort. The second are those who refuse to even acknowledge the culture around them, they insist on having everything the way they are “used to” and will most likely try to force their own culture upon the native resident who have the bad luck of making their acquaintance. The third type of expat is what I like to call an “authentic traveler”. This expat is one who invests into the culture around them, not simply observing but actually participating in the culture that they find themselves in. The interesting part is that the first two types of foreigners don’t last long abroad. Expat one might stay a few years, while expat two will most likely be packing his or her bags by the end of the first year away from their precious country. Expat three, however, is the one who is in it for the long haul.

It’s easy to see why that is. Because even if you are perfectly content to observe and appreciate the people and culture around you, if you do not find yourself invested in your new home country, there will never be a sense of belonging. Psychologists have said again and again that a sense of belonging is vital for a happy, fulfilled life. Seems pretty basic right? You might be thinking right now, “of course you have to be invested; I would never just be an observer!” However believe it or not the line between Expat one and Expat three is difficult to cross.

To be an authentic traveler, or long term expat, you must have three things in your new home country; a home, a family and a passion. Again, sounds basic, but it’s not. The first one, a home, seems like it’s a straightforward fix. Your school will most likely pay for a small apartment, and all you have to do is pay the electric bill once a month and voila! A home. Wrong. What I mean by “home” is not a physical building; the concept of “home” is more connected with the concept of belonging than it is with safety and comfort. You need to build yourself a place that really feels like “home”, which might be easier said than done if you live by yourself in a strange country.

For me “home” was a nearly impossible thing to build, or find, because I never quite felt like I really was comfortable in my small studio apartment. I was too alone, and surrounded by unfamiliar things. Even my attempts at decorating my walls with pictures of family and friends, and old letters from my students did little to mask the sense of strangeness that had leaked into the moldy walls. It wasn’t until my second month in Korea that I began to realize that “home” doesn’t necessarily mean where you sleep. Sounds crazy, but for me, my studio apartment is simply a building. My “home” has become the street near the local college, where I spend most of my nights with my friends. In the last six months I have come to know every bartender and restaurant owner that operates on this street. Now, when my friends and I enter an establishment we are greeted warmly by name, and served our usual. This kind of feeling is “home” for me. Surrounded by my friends, I can relax in a place that knows me best. The walls of each of the establishments on this street hold memories, and those memories are what makes my “home”. Perhaps later, when I become more settled (and move to a more appealing apartment) I might find my home elsewhere, but for now, it’s good to know I belong somewhere.

And that brings me to the second thing, family. Expats are famous for building quick and intense relationships, both romantic and platonic. This is because when you move away from your home country, you are also moving away from your safety net. No parents, no friends, no one who even really knows who you are except for a name on a contract. It can be a scary, humbling and even depressing thing, and even the most independent expat will feel homesick at least once during the first few weeks abroad. That is why building a family in your new country is so important. Humans are made to live in close proximity to each other. We are biologically wired to need a family. And when yours is thousands of miles away, you create a new one. The friends you make abroad, whether it be for two years or twenty-seven, will be some of your closest friends for a lifetime. There is something about the need to connect, as a person living alone in a strange culture, which makes those bonds so forever strong.

However, a word of caution, one of the biggest differences between an observer and an authentic traveler is who they choose to be a part of their family. An observer will gravitate towards those from their own culture. They will make fast, easy, bonds and spend their time observing together. Whilst on the other hand, an authentic traveler is open to accepting those outside their own culture into their family. The most invested expats are those who have forged strong bonds with native residents of their new country. This doesn’t necessarily mean marriage or romantic relationships; a family bond can be that of an older sister or brother, or even just close friend.

For me, the family I have created in Korea includes my sisters, Filipino, Swedish, Chinese, English and American girls I consider to be my steadfast rock here in Korea. But also my Unnis. At my school, I have forged a strong bond with three of my fellow teachers, two math teachers and one English teacher. These Korean ladies, not much my senior, have become my 언니s (the Korean word for older sister). They have helped me through my break up, fights with my best friend and my bad habit of forgetting to pay my electric bill. Because I was open to building a strong friendship with these ladies outside of school, I am able to invest myself so much more into Korean culture. I am no longer observing, but participating, by way of my older sisters who introduce to me the nuances of the Korean culture I might not have experienced as an observer.

The last ingredient to be an authentic traveler is perhaps the most difficult to actually grasp. A home and a family are physical things, people and places are easy to see and comprehend, but passion is an idea. However, passion is essential to living authentically. Many people have ascertained that without passion for what you do, or at least passion for something in your life, you are simply breathing air, not living. This can be said about people living anywhere, it is not necessarily a unique concept to expats. However, I think that for expats, passion is an absolutely necessary aspect of life, because without it living in a strange country can be very stressful and frustrating. Passion is what keeps us going, it is the spark to this thing we call life. And for an expat, passion for one’s job, or simply passion for living abroad is what helps us get over the many obstacles that come as part of the expat package.

An authentic traveler doesn’t necessarily wake up every day excited to do their work, but they also don’t “live for the weekend”. Passion for what you do while you are living abroad is what keeps you there for longer than one or two years. A person can stomach a job they are not particularly fond of for a few years, but after that it begins to eat at you, and you can become bitter and disenchanted with your life if you stubbornly refuse to change.

I have seen it over and over again, expats who have no passion for teaching or for helping people learn English, yet they stay in Korea for four or five years. Many of them become bitter complainers of everything that makes Korea, Korean. You will find them on the blogs and in the bars (foreigner bars of course) sitting around and complaining with each other about everything that is wrong with the country they are choosing to live in. Perhaps these expats started out as authentic, with a zest for life and an interest in the Korean culture. But without a legitimate passion for what you spend 40 hours a week doing; life can get very boring, very quickly. The happiest people I have met in Korea are those who genuinely love what they do and who genuinely love Korea. From the food, to the music, to the culture, if you can’t find something to be passionate about here, then you might as well pack your bags because Korea will never become home.I realize that there are plenty of people who hate their jobs and their culture in their home country; there are also Koreans who are the same. However, when you are an expat you don’t have the luxury or safety net of being in your own country to sit back and complain. Being an expat means you made the conscious decision to move to this country, and there should be reason for that outside of boredom or running away from your own problems.

For me, I have always had a passion for teaching. I obtained my secondary teaching license in language arts and communication in Minnesota, with the full intention of never using it. I had planned for two years while I was at university to move to Korea full time. Living and teaching in Korea is my dream, which is why I find myself happy and excited about life here. There are obstacles, to be sure. But I find that being genuinely excited about my life here helps me navigate through those obstacles. I wake up every day happy to go to school to see my adorable students (yes, even my second year high school students are adorable). While not everyone is lucky enough to feel this way about their job, many of the happiest people are simply delighted to wake up because they love living in Korea, and do not dread what the day has in store for them.

That is really what this is all about, being happy. You can be perfectly happy as an observer, but it will not last for long. Or perhaps you are happy to stick to your own culture and ignore the “Koreaness” around you, but that will last even less time. If you are here out of boredom or to travel, perhaps your joy will last a while but eventually the happiest among us are the authentic travelers. Because a real sense of belonging is imperative to feeling comfortable and happy. Yes, happiness is not something that can be measured or judged by outsiders. However, if you want to make Korea your home, my advice is to start living, authentically.