19 December 2014

The Two Types of Expats in Korea

Now that I have been living in Korea for six and a half years it is interesting to look back over these neglected pages and see the ways in which my perspective has changed. One way to frame this is to think about how I perceived my journey when I came here and how I think about it now. Reflecting on this I theorize that there are two kinds of expats in Korea (at least in the teaching community): those who are "short-term" and those who are "Lifers." I never intended to become the latter. I still want to think of myself as a "short-termer" and of my time in Korea as temporary, but somehow, as the years here have passed I have never really found the motivation to seek out someplace else to go. Like many people (mostly men) who come here, I have fallen in love with a Korean person. This has made finding an exit strategy immensely more complicated. Luckily, the Korean person I am dating is ok with the idea of immigrating elsewhere. But the logistics of doing so (finding jobs for two people, finding places where we can both get resident status, etc.) make moving two much harder than moving alone. And then there is the cat to think of. I have also been fortunate to procure a good job at a university here. And I have one of the better jobs at one of the better universities in Korea (imho). I teach American Literature in an English department, something that would basically be impossible in the US given the glut of unemployed PhDs floating around (I have an MA). My job is incredibly rewarding from the personal standpoint, and while the pay isn't fantastic, it supports the travel that I love and allows me a comfortable lifestyle here. Another issue is the matter of where to go and why. I have heard people talk of greener pastures in the Middle East, BRICS countries, Eastern Europe...and while all of them have their upsides, (money, adventure, culture) somehow none of them offer anything (at least for me) that can motivate me to give up my cushy sinecure here in Korea at this time.

"An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion..." Newton's First Law
It seems ironic, to me at least, that the forces that moved me to pick up stakes and leave my country (which have been enumerated ad nauseam in this blog) have not affected me here. I still face many of the same challenges and frustrations, but the cumulative effect is lessened somehow. I think this points to a fundamental difference between Short-timers and Lifers that may explain why they end up leaving quickly or staying forever, respectively. Short-timers, I have noticed, are always talking about going somewhere, planning for some goal, using their experience here as a stepping-stone to something else. For them, the expat experience is often less a destination than a stop-off on the way to someplace else, most often back to where they began. This is a fundamentally good way to look at the opportunity to live in another country. I have also seen that Lifers, people who tend to stay here long term, often talk about escaping from something in their past. In my case this is certainly true. I have heard Lifers talk about escaping from addictions, bad relationships, bad jobs, frustration with political or cultural conditions, poverty, unemployment, and many other things. For these people, finding a place where we felt loved, valued, safe, healthy, or whatever is an end in itself. "Going back" is something with negative connotations,"moving on" a prospect with inherent risks. We are, in many ways, objects at rest...happy to have found a place to exist in relative peace and comfort. There are exceptions to every rule, and everyone has a different perception of the expat experience, but I have seen this pattern again and again as I visit with people living in Korea. People seem to have some idea of what they are after, whether it be a place to land or another step on a journey. And both are ok. I am not sure what the future holds for me. For the time being I am here, doing what I can to live a good life and help those around me.