This Expat Life

I.

I step into my 13th-floor apartment in a residential neighborhood northwest of Seoul. I unplug my headphones and set them on the table, then I plug my speakers into my phone and hit play to finish the song. Matt Berninger of the National sings:

“Falling out of touch/ with all my friends/ are somewhere getting wasted/ hope they’re staying glued together.”

Even though I have my phone’s notifications feature turned on, I open my computer and check email and Facebook.

II.

The next night as I’m leaving the gym after work I get a text from a Korean-Russian-American woman inviting me to join her and her friend at the city’s hottest new nightclub. Of course, I go.

III.

That weekend I fly to Hong Kong for three days and play blackjack at the casinos in Macau. I break even.

That is to say:

1. I get lonely.

2. It’s really fun.

3. The entire continent of Asia is there for the taking.

In November of 2006 I came to Asia to teach English in Jeonju, South Korea — a provincial capital in the center of the southern half of the country. The next year I took a job at an English daily newspaper working as a copy editor. After a 10-month stint back in the United States for love, I was back teaching in Jeonju. Now, in my fourth year on the peninsula, I’m again working as an editor at a different English daily in Seoul.

My daily life is much like any other 30-something office worker’s. I have an hour-each-way commute. We wear business casual except on Fridays and the occasional Sunday. There is a full gym and sauna in the basement of my building and I use it almost every day. I have health insurance and I pay into a national pension plan.

What’s different is that this is not my country. It feels like the work I do is only for myself and the company that employs me. Not for the good of the nation. Not for my family. Not for any “greater good.” In a way I prefer this. I’ve long held the belief that patriotism is for suckers. The world is kept healthy by dissidents and exiles and those of us who don’t pledge allegiance to a flag. Leave the nationalism to the pundits and the politicians.

What are also different are the novelty and the challenge of living in a foreign country. Both times I have gone back to America to live I have found my life lacking in adventure. The obvious retort is that only boring people get bored. It’s more complicated than that. Knowing the culture and the customs, how people do things, can be comforting and familiar. It is rarely interesting. No culture is perfect and there are things I wish Koreans did differently, but then there are things like in restaurants here there is no tipping and there is a button on your table to call your server.

The aspect of living abroad I don’t prefer is the separation from family. I have nephews and nieces I never see. My To Do lists always start with call your parents, call your sister, call your brother. I cross those off a lot less than I’d like. A graphic would show spikes of contact around birthdays and holidays and then the line would flatten out. Two-line Facebook messages, likes and comments on the infrequent photo, the pretense of keeping up with people by checking their walls once every few weeks — it’s never enough. But would it be any different if I lived in some obscure area of America, in northern Idaho, say, or eastern Mississippi? Maybe. At least then my friends and family would recognize the phone lines and the airlines work in both directions.

Your 20s are supposed to be the time in your life when you try new things. New jobs. New cities. But your 20s are also when you need friends and family. A sense of community. The first few years abroad all I wanted was to get all my people together. Then, when we did get together for weddings or reunions too much had happened in our separate lives to pretend like we were still walking the same road. My life is here. Theirs is there.

In a way, I’ve dodged the American status game, opted out of that struggle, and even though to me not playing is often a very good way to win, there are those in my life that don’t respect my choice to live overseas. They think I turned my back on my people to keep the party going or because I couldn’t hack it in America. There’s that old acronym — FILTH — Failed In London, Try Hong Kong. And that comes from somewhere.

To those people I would say there are a thousand ways to live and the only life you should live is the one that makes you the best possible version of yourself. If, as I’ve heard said, we should keep a distance from those that we love but try to take care of them, too, then at least I’m doing part of that right.

I thrive on living abroad. The travel. The challenge. The people I meet. I love it all. In order to have a good life as an expat you have to commit to it. I’ve seen a lot of people come overseas and not give themselves all the way, pining for their home country — for its food, its government, its pedestrian customs — and they live a kind of half life. Not here but not there, either. It’s the ones who stop wishing for home who make their lives work abroad. TC mark

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