Okay, hey there. I’m coming out. I’ve had this blog for a couple of years now, and I’ve never really posted anything of emotional substance. I’ve rationalized it for a very long time, and I told myself that it’s fine to just keep everything surface level, that I shouldn’t rock the boat.
To an extent, I do think I have some merit there. I started this blog not because I’m so fantastic or whatever, but because I’m very prosocial, I’m constantly doing things, and I like to learn about what to see or do places, so I figured maybe I could provide that to others. At the same time, I also totally live in my head, and I have all these thoughts on my life (which is being an expat). I guess you could say that my biggest character flaw is navel gazing.
So, at the end of the month it will be my five year anniversary of living in South Korea. I have a lot of thoughts on it, and I think it’s always fascinating to hear other expats’ stories. What was your old life like? How did you get here? Why Korea? Will you ever go back?
I’d like this post to kind of kick things off, in what I hope will be a series of just sharing my thoughts and perspectives living abroad. I find it hypocritical that I’m always in pursuit of meaningful connections with others, yet on my own personal blog I’ve always abstained from getting vulnerable.
I definitely think a lot of ruminating and self-discovery can not only be attributed to living across the world from everything I’ve ever known but also from being alone with my thoughts for so long during quarantine. Due to a variety of external events, I’ve taken on a more spiritual path. I think mental health and self care, two concepts that might seem trite and cliche to the average westerner, are greatly underrated (and yet oh so precious!) when you are forced to live a life largely comprised of isolationism.
It takes a toll on you when you are the only person who looks like you in a sea of up to 10,000 other people, most of whom either have no idea what you are saying, or don’t fully understand the nuances of your native tongue. I may be fascinating to others (and even often fetishized) but I will never fully belong.
Needless to say, I’ve started daily affirmations. I get that’s a bit woo, but if telling myself nice things on the daily improves my self-esteem and helps me live a fuller life, then I’m all for it. One of my daily affirmations is “I am the star of my own movie.” It really makes me think of life abroad, or choosing an alternative life path, so I figured I’d get more into it.
You are the star of your own movie.
This is one of the weirdest things to get myself to believe. There’s just a giant emotional roadblock there. But why? I’m writing about this because I think it’s such a subconscious motivating force as to why people become expats. When you pack your bags and say goodbye to all your loved ones to move across the world to a strange new place, you are embarking on an adventure. A new life. It’s your movie–the expat movie. And you’re the star!
You get to live a life free from what many consider constraints. You aren’t “tied down” in suburbia with a 9 to 5 office job. You don’t have to endure a suffering morning commute, only to celebrate your Friday’s at the same pub, for the same happy hour, followed by a weekend of yard work, shopping, or Netflix binging. Here you are! A life of endless possibilities! Now that you’re a new soul in a strange world, you can be whoever you want to be.
But…wherever you go, there you are.
And as interesting as it seems, it’s still just…life. It’s still a job, with all its job related stresses and obligations. There’s still all the annoying errands (and in a foreign language at that), paperwork, bureaucratic nonsense, and inconveniences that are comparable to the morning commute from suburbia back home.
Here’s why I tell myself such a thing each day.
It’s not because I believe that Korea is some magic cure-all (although too many expats do!). It’s because of the life I lived before Korea. There’s a joke here that’s something like find an expat who’s normal. And if they are “normal”, I can guarantee you they have had some incredible, crazy story of their childhood or of their “old life” that made them so eager to leave it all behind for a life of transcience and consistent unpredictability.
I honestly never thought I would end up living such a life. I honestly thought I would be stuck living in squalor for the rest of my life. I think I’ve made it so long in Korea because what I experienced before was so terrible. I lived a good childhood and adolescence, but I was forced to move far away as soon as I turned 18. I was never the same since. At 18, I tried to run away to China because it was as far away as I could imagine. At 20, I was able to spend a measly semester abroad in Prague. It was the only 5 month span I recall feeling happiness in the years of 2006-2014. Due to where I was forced to live, travel became an escape. I was eager to do absolutely anything to escape the life I had to live in Upstate New York.
(Before everyone clutches their pearls, I am talking about a particular area in a particular place I lived. Not the entirety of a region. There are many beautiful things in the region, as there are many awful things about where I consider “home home”. It’s just my opinion, shaped by my personal experiences.)
During those years, I developed an incredible amount of jealousy towards my friends and family back home in New Jersey. I always think it’s odd how people envy the life I live now, when I spent far longer wanting to be them. There they were, all the people I loved most, achieving things, finding love, making memories, celebrating milestones, while I lived in a dumpster fire. I wanted to live the nice upper middle class lifestyle they did, and instead, I had to live in a place that maybe Tiger King would consider filming at.
Yeah, I guess my tone is bitter. I am only human and a work in progress after all. It’s a feeling I try to work through daily. I meditate and pray to try and let go of all the anger. Appreciating the beauty here certainly helps.
Here’s a little bit of what I mean.
When I came to Korea, I was absolutely shocked that my housing was not rodent infested. While people complain about the cinder blocks, cockroaches, and subsequent mold, I was genuinely grateful that I could sleep at night. It’s not a secret to those who know me that I suffer from some serious insomnia. It started from when I lived in this one terrible place that was rodent infested. It was so bad that the mice would gnaw through the insulation at night and you could hear them through the walls. They often would die in the insulation and then drop onto god knows what in the basement. If they were alive, they would tear up the plastic bags in the kitchen pantry, leaving a mess. Your food was contaminated, but you didn’t have the money to get better food. They also loved to tear up my candles and poop into them. Their gray streaks on the white countertops were disgusting, and I was often the one who had to clean it up.
Being in Korea has been really nice because I can buy new groceries at the grocery store. Back in my old life, I didn’t have money, so a lot of the food was somewhat expired from a food pantry a roommate would go to, or we got food from just flat out dumpster diving. Honestly, it’s not as gross as it sounds. There’s a whole subculture on it, and you’d be surprised how wasteful grocery stores in the states can be. Regardless, it’s just nice to get new, good things for a change.
Coming here and having good laundry has been a blessing. Back where I was forced to live, the washing machine didn’t really work at one apartment. I lived there at that particular place about a year and a half. There was a laundromat nearby, but you wouldn’t dare go there alone unless you wanted to get mugged. So, when the washing machine didn’t fully wash your clothes, you had to often handwash individual pieces in the old sink. It’s okay– it was one of the nicer apartment complexes. In Korea, I have to hang dry my clothes, but Koreans tend to have good things and thus good appliances, so my clothes are always properly cleaned.
The safety and poverty were massive concerns back where I used to live, as a family of 4 lived on $24,000 a year (I know this because I had to do a school project on it). My car’s exterior was trashed due to a gang initiation. You could walk three streets to the right and like 7 to the left, and then just pray you end up in one piece. Here in Korea, I can do whatever I want. Nobody bothers me. I can even put my cell phone on a table to claim it…and it just sits there, unscathed.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Me choosing a life abroad has been a life path of freedom. I do get sad that I chose an alternative path, that I can’t live the nice, traditional life as all my friends. There will always be a sadness deep inside that I feel that I will never be able to return, because it was all I ever wanted. I realize it’s a silly dream now, though. I’ll never be able to step foot on U.S. soil again. New Jersey was still a good memory.
I shouldn’t have been forced to live in a separate state far away from everyone. This event, I think, caused me to adapt this really messed up belief system, that I’m in the background of my own life. That I simply do not deserve good things, and that I have to constantly work for what other people easily get. If I was good enough, then I wouldn’t have had to be there. I would have been able to temporarily live at home while being able to get a job in the city, which is what my plan was all along.
Back in the states, I worked very, very hard so I could be like my friends. By the time I was 23, I had three degrees (including a master’s with honors), lived abroad, and traveled around Europe. I remember wholeheartedly believing that if I did enough then I could get to be back home with my friends. I kept doing more and more things for this recognition and what I felt would have been an award. I did not receive either. I then worked two full time jobs because I felt like if I really proved myself then I would be good enough and I could go back home. I could have that nice commute into Manhattan. I could have a simple but normal office job. I wouldn’t have to wait tables or scrape by on $10 an hour because it’s all the jobs out there could pay. I spent a lot of my twenties driving aimlessly in the countryside and walking around Walmart looking at the plastic bins I would hope to one day toss my stuff in to move.
I also developed this very unhealthy belief that I did not deserve good people who treated me well because of where I was forced to be. If I was a good person, a beautiful or smart or worthy person, then I wouldn’t have to settle for being humiliated all the time. Since I had to live in a dump, then clearly I didn’t deserve to be a person of value. I simply didn’t deserve birthdays, good holidays, or milestones. People didn’t have to be loyal to me. Why? I was not good enough like everyone back home.
Over those years, I gave all my power away. Every single last drop of it. And while I don’t think Korea changed my life, getting the opportunity to be somewhere new definitely gave me a new lease on life. It helped show me that I deserve good things and good people. I’m a good person and I’m a good friend and I deserve love and kindness. I’m worth celebrations and consolations. My victories are special, and my problems (and this is a big one) deserve attention and to be comforted accordingly.
I think that, for me, being an expat showed me that this is my life. I don’t have to live it for others anymore. But here in Korea? I can give myself everything I never got back home. I can make my own traditions. I can choose my friends (and my lovers). I don’t have to settle for a mediocre job anymore, and I’m free to spend my money traveling wherever I want.
Obviously, my story and my perspective isn’t applicable to everyone. Of course you can make something out of your life without moving across the world. However, I think there is something to be said in how powerful travel can be (especially solo travel), which I’ve had the privilege to do since moving abroad. I’m simply sharing my personal experience and feelings. My feelings aren’t necessarily “right”. My relationship with living abroad can be quite messy sometimes, and I think that’s totally okay.
I struggle with feelings of what could have been or how the grass might be greener, and I think that makes me authentic. I don’t have the answers. I’m still figuring it out. I don’t have it all together, and if you do, please let me know how to. Living abroad helped me get a better understanding of who I am and how I need to best live my life for me, and it’s been an invaluable experience.
It’s my life, and I deserve to be in the spotlight. Living abroad taught me that I don’t have to live the life that’s expected of me, and it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks in the end anyway. I made sure to treat myself well enough here that I am a someone. We are only the stories that we tell ourselves. My past is an ugly story, but I’m determined to make it something beautiful. Taking the risk to try something new and outside of my comfort zone hasn’t been easy, but it’s helped me tremendously. It’s okay for you to invest in yourself even if everyone else thinks you’re crazy or “running away”. Choose you. Always. It’s your movie after all.
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