I remember the first time I thought about living abroad in my post-graduate life. After studying Korean for about 3 semesters, I was getting increasingly frustrated with my progress. I was advised by my professor to learn as much as I could in the classroom and learn abroad through experience. The job market wasn’t great anyway, so it seemed like a great idea. The original plan was to teach English in Daejeon, South Korea for a year and head back home. Little did I know how much I would grow to adore the city and think of it as my second home.
The expat community really helped me when I first landed. My predecessor at my school, Annie, guided me through paying my utilities bills (by teleprompter – genius!), and told me where to shop and hang out. She introduced me to a group of friends and made sure I wasn’t alone my first Christmas away from home. The sense of community was a running theme during my time in Daejeon. Being thousands of miles away from home is hard, and every expatriate I know has and would help another first-timer.
When I first got to Daejeon, my Korean was so bad I couldn’t even order street food on my own. I had to point to pictures my first time in a restaurant and was so mortified, I resorted to buying packaged food from the grocery store, so I wouldn’t have to speak again. I kept letting grammar rules and my need for a perfect delivery get in my way. As difficult as it was to get over the hump, I finally began to use Korean as a way to communicate ideas and not as a way to communicate my fluency. It took me a few years, many Korean television shows, and several conversations for me to finally let go of my control and become comfortable with my Korean voice.
But furthering my Korean wasn’t my only reason for staying as long as I did. I enjoyed teaching my preschool and kindergarten students and becoming a core part the development of my school’s English Department. The ability to travel throughout East and Southeast Asia was also an advantage. My friends (both expatriate and native Daejeonites) helped me tremendously and helped me build a real connection to the city.
There are simply too many aspects about South Korea that I loved, but here’s a short list of things I miss about being in Korea:
High Speed Internet: And I mean high speed where you’re not charged extra for it being super fast. It just is. And the great thing is depending on where you go it gets even faster!
Public Transport: Buses, high-speed, and regular speed trains make traveling between cities a breeze. Within cities, one is able to travel from one end to another by bus or subway (or both if you like) for about $2 (Something I really wish the Washington DC metro would adapt).
Pop Culture: Oddly enough there’s actually more to South Korean pop culture than Gangnam Style. I’m talking about the return of boy bands and girl groups singing annoyingly addictive love songs, variety shows where celebrities battle and throw each other in water, television shows that make you immensely sad and happy at the same time (I’m talking about you, Secret Garden).
Late Night Culture: Bars, clubs, and computer rooms are literally open all night which was a great help when watching the World Cup four years ago. It’s seen as a norm to bar hop, end your night at a private karaoke room, and then really end your night getting food at a restaurant because you spent so many calories singing your heart out and drumming the tambourine.
Food Delivery: You can pretty much get what you want, when you want delivered to your house or apartment. This might tie into the Late Night Culture mentioned above, but I’m not sure. All I know is, I ordered McDonald’s to my apartment several times in my last few months just because I could. My friend thinks America isn’t ready for that kind of accessibility yet, but that’s neither here nor there.
South Korean Health Care: For most ailments, I opted for Traditional Chinese medicine as my main form of health care over Western medicine even though both were relatively cheap. While I’m on the subject of price, did you know that in some cases it’s cheaper to get a plane ticket to South Korea to get dental work done than it is to get it done in America? I can attest to that, as I got 2 wisdom teeth pulled before I left for around $20 (including meds).
Well, I can see my descriptions are getting longer and longer, so I’ll spare you and end it there. I will say this: living abroad tested me and my beliefs. It taught me to take in my surroundings in a far more critical way than I ever had before. Some of my beliefs completely changed, while others just got stronger. It gave me time to breathe after college and figure out what I want in life without just going through the motions. I met wonderful people and created bonds I know I’ll have for years to come. I truly believe that everyone should in some way go out of his or her comfort zone and open themselves up to new experiences. You might be surprised at the new bonds you can forge and the strengths you can unlock.