A Recipe for Being Happy Abroad
Homesickness: Conventional wisdom is that it strikes expats in Korea around the three-month mark, but for some it can come on far more quickly. For those sorely afflicted, follow Lauren Zink’s recipe for loving your life abroad.
Originally from Wisconsin, Lauren now lives in Brooklyn, New York. She finished her time in Korea, and is currently publishing a book on the transition from West to East. This article, on being happy in Korea, is an excerpt from that book. She is the first of several new writers to join the Expat Lounge,and we look forward to reading more of her great work in the future!
First thing’s first: The forums about teaching in Korea tend to attract negative posters, not positive ones. They can be used as a place to rant when things are going to garbage around you; they’re like virtual bars, probably with just as much alcohol. Take the things you read on forums with a grain of salt, and if you’re susceptible to outside influence, consider avoiding them altogether. And if you do read them, hold on tight. Before you know it, you could be sucked down into a toxic, panic vortex. It’ll be a bit like the tornado from The Wizard of Oz, except instead of a witch on a bicycle swirling past you, it’ll be angry phrases like “Hagwon screwing me over” and “Labor board a joke,” and your brain will suddenly start looking for Korea’s escape hatch. “Oh God, I’ve made a terrible mistake! What was I thinking? Nobody likes it here!” And then you’ll click on over to Kayak and start searching for flights home.
“With countries as with lovers, it’s best not to compare new to old.”
With countries as with lovers, it’s best not to compare new to old; instead, look at each with fresh eyes. You will only spin yourself into a dreary sort of unhappiness if you spend your days in Korea thinking, “We didn’t do this back home.” You are an explorer of this land and of its culture; imagine if Neil Armstrong had gotten all the way to the moon and then thought, “Ugh, what is up with the gravitational pull here? This shit is bananas. I’m just going to stay on Apollo 11 and see what’s happening on Facebook.” (Or, you know, whatever they did in the 60s. Drugs, I think.)
“Get off that space shuttle and take a few giant leaps.”
Get off that space shuttle and take a few giant leaps. Get lost in this strange place. Buy vegetables from the elderly man with the deep smile lines on the street corner. Notice the delightful details: that ajumma wearing the “Frankie says Relax” T-shirt, the vibrant red color of the kimchi on your table, and the way the mountains play peekaboo over the tops of the buildings.
“Make friends anywhere you can find them.”
Make friends: Make friends with foreigners; make friends with Koreans; make friends anywhere you can find them, because it is these friends who will pick you up when you fall. And there will be days when you fall. But when you do, I can assure you it’s better to get up than to lay there on the ground and watch the world pass you by. Your foreign friends will understand you when you can’t articulate what’s going on except to say that it’s sort of like the pressure of living in a new environment is threatening to crush you, like a fish that’s been lifted out of its bowl and placed on the counter. They will get it, because they have been there, and they will breathe the life back into you. Your Korean friends are essential for the day-to-day-ness, like when you haven’t quite grasped Hangeul yet and you’re not sure where this bus is going. Or what the menu says. Or if this motel is actually a brothel: A Korean friend can tell you.
“Find the movie theater that offers English flicks or the used bookstore with the worn copies of literary classics”
Infuse each day with a little something-something from home that makes you feel awesome; no shame, sometimes you just need the familiar. Head on over to Facebook or Waygook and search for a used X-Box and some games you could take off the hands of an expat leaving the country. Find the movie theater that offers English flicks or the used bookstore with the worn copies of literary classics. Make it your mission to discover the best Western food in town. Track down a good foreigner bar and go there—judiciously.
“Infuse each day with a little something-something from home that makes you feel awesome; no shame, sometimes you just need the familiar.”
Skype your mom; she misses you. Laugh at the way she says, “I don’t know how to hang this thing up” every. single. time. Make a list of all of the things you like about your life now, and remember why you decided to come to Korea in the first place.
At school, give your students your full attention; they deserve it (most of the time). Plan lessons you will enjoy teaching, because your passion will show through to your kids. Be patient with your boss and your coworkers; they have more on their plates than you know.
“You are living in this new country, not traveling to it”
Understand that you are living in this new country, not traveling to it. Do some things to set yourself up for long-term happiness. Get to know your city and, if possible, your neighbors—even if it’s just the person behind the counter at the convenience store in the alley near your apartment. (I maintain that some of my strongest relationships in Brooklyn were with the bodega owners. Just as I knew that I could ask them for help if shit went down there, I know I can call the local BBQ guy I’ve befriended if an emergency arises in Korea. Weird as all that sounds, I promise people will have your back if you give them the chance.)
Pick up new hobbies, and a bit of the language too. Visit some of the unique sites you can only find in Korea. Be brave, and give it your good faith effort. Do good things and leave those you meet in better shape than you found them, and you will be happy anywhere.