Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Living Abroad: One expat says, "I don't know if I'll live in the U.S. ever again."

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Since many of you have expressed an interest in knowing what it was like for me to live and work abroad, AEM has launched a new series entitled, "Living Abroad." These pieces are about American expats who have lived or are living abroad. I am also exploring options of moving abroad again in a year or year and a half, and will be writing about that possibility (primarily here), as well as sharing my own experience of living and working in Korea. If you are interested in sharing your story with my readers, please don't hesitate to send me an email ( Those of you who have yet to leave the country are also welcome to submit pieces. This series is part of a public service to let indentured educated citizens know that there are other options, and that they can find fulfilling opportunities beyond U.S. borders. 

It is with great pleasure that I introduce Todd Bruns, an expat who is currently living and teaching in Seoul. I have known Todd for over a decade. We met through my brother, and we've spent time together in Italy, Kansas, and Korea. At this point, I have a feeling we might end up hanging out again in Hongdae, because I already received a decent job offer in Korea again. But that is another complicated story. As for Todd, he runs an absolutely hilarious blog, Nintendo is Right, Nascar is Wrong. He has a quirky, highly-intelligent outlook on things, so his blog comes highly recommended (hint: if you enjoy numerous laugh-out loud moments, while reading, then check his work out now). 

Let's hear what Todd had to say about life abroad and in Korea. 

Johannsen: Tell us what you do and where you live?

Bruns: I'm an English Teacher at a private language academy.  I live two miles northeast of downtown Seoul. 

Johannsen: How long have you lived in Korea? Why did you choose Korea to work?

Bruns: Oy, I feel like you're a drunken ajjoshi at the bar right now.  I worked here for 2 years, returned home, then came back, and I've been back about a year and a half.   I came here because the money/benefits here are better than Taiwan or China, and it's too difficult to get a job in Japan.  

Johannsen: What are the things you enjoy most about living in Korea?

Bruns: I love my new neighborhood. It's easy to get anywhere in town, and the hood itself has a lot going on, with tons of good restaurants.  Korean public transit is awesome.  For my money, Seoul has the best subway system in the world. Traveling around Korea is easy too, there are tons of buses and trains, and they are much cheaper than those in the US.  I like waking up at noon every day.  The internet connections are often super fast, and there's really no copyright law to worry about.  Lots of the people are very cool.  

Johannsen: What are the drawbacks?

Bruns: Stares, jingoism, super obnoxious nationalism.  Everything is last minute.  Schools often change parts of the schedule with little to no notice.  

Johannsen: [Laughing]. Yes, I remember once being on the subway and a man used his head like an escalator going downward to stare at me being whisked away. I found it quite shocking, because I was in Seoul and close to Itaewon. I thought, "oh, come on! You've seen a Westerner before?" Oh, well . . . maybe I was his first. So, yeah, I definitely don't miss the stares and the hundreds - or so it seemed - of random strangers coming up to me on the streets to merely say, "hello!" every time I stepped foot out of my apartment. Being a museum object is no fun. Now I'm back in the crumbling Empire and am anonymous. Hooray! 

Bruns: Yup.

Johannsen: I've also heard that it is becoming more difficult to find decent jobs in Korea, do you think that's accurate? How have work prospects changed for, and I hate this term, newbies?

Bruns: It is. Until the U.S. economy rebounds, it won't be any easier to get a decent gig here.  I recently went through a job search, and I was rejected by a couple of schools that I didn't actually have any interest in working at.  Pay has been stagnant here for years, but prices continue to climb.  

Johannsen: Do you think you'll ever return to the U.S. and live here permanently?

Bruns: I'm not sure.  I definitely won't stay in Korea forever, but I don't know if I'll ever live in the US full time again. It's a big world.   

Johannsen: Since you've been gone, how often have you come back to the U.S.?

Bruns: I moved back once before returning here.  Since then, I made one trip to the US for 2 weeks.  

Johannsen: Do you have any student loan debt or credit card debt?

Bruns: Nope.  I had credit card debt when I got here, but I paid it off my first year.   

Johannsen: Any tips or advice for those interested in living and working in Korea? 

Bruns: Live in Seoul.  If you want to live like a Westerner and embrace the bubble (and trust me, after the honeymoon period, most people do),  then Seoul is the only place to live. If you have romantic notions about leading the most Korean life possible, then again, live in Seoul.  Half the population lives in Seoul and its suburbs, so it's obviously the most "Korean" place in the country.  If you don't want to live in Seoul, live in Busan.  Busan is awesome too.  You don't want rural.  Korea doesn't have any pastoral New England towns in the countryside.  Rural Korean towns are impovershed hellscapes with nothing to do.  Learn to read Hanguel.  It's easy to do and it's the single most helpful thing you can do for yourself.  Also, don't believe the idiots at Dave's ESL.  

Johannsen: Dave's has a propensity to attract all sorts of folks, so I think it's important to take some of their comments with a grain of salt. Todd knows Korea like the back of his hand. I do not. But I do agree with him on living in Seoul. That's where you want to be, or least on a subway line that goes directly into the city. 

Seoul's Best Hidden Secret: The Subway

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From Margins of Everyday Life


John in Boston said...

So, um, who's Dave?

Cryn Johannsen said...

We're referring to Dave's ESL Cafe -

Anonymous said...

Something I've always wondered... are income taxes more or less burdensome overseas? I don't mean tax rates, but the chore of filing and keeping your records straight... I know how complicated it can be just moving to another state, so I worry what it's like to go to another country and have to comply with all different tax codes.

Laurel said...

Here is an alternate point of view:

Cryn Johannsen said...

Hi, Lygeia,

Thanks for posting that link. I've visited it many times in the past, and before I went to Korea. It's worth being aware of . . . however, it is quite dated. That is not to say that people are not exploited abroad (I intended to include that in my recent article in USA Today). That most certainly happens. But I am trying to provide people with information about living abroad. It is important that they are aware that there are options beyond the U.S.

Laurel said...

I've thought about this too. I'm worried about the direction things are going in this country. Korea has also been affected by the radiation from melt down of Japan's nuclear reactors, so I'd be worried about going there.

I've thought about Argentina, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Uruguay (never had an earthquake). If you like Asian countries, maybe you could look into Singapore.

DJ said...

Anonymous @5:12,

When living abroad, you have to deal with two sets of income tax forms, so of course the tax reporting burden is greater. On the other hand, you don't have to deal with state taxes, which helps a lot. Of course, if you live in a foreign country (like Canada...) which itself has state taxes, then you don't save anything there.

The biggest problem is (as you implied) keeping track of all the interactions between the various tax codes. Two sets of tax forms implies more than double the number of interactions. I'd put the number at about triple. If you're trying to minimize your taxes, it can be a real pain to keep track of tax strategy. Assuming you make under $91500 abroad, the easiest (but not necessarily best--see below) strategy is to make sure you spend a FULL YEAR outside of the US (331 days in a consecutive 365-day period). That way you can use the foreign earned income exclusion to exclude the $91500.

In some cases you can actually make money off of US taxes. Certain credits like the Making Work Pay credit or the (additional) child tax credit are *refundable* -- if you owe less than the amount of the credits, you get a check. You have to plan carefully to, for example, forgo the foreign earned income exclusion in order to qualify for certain credits that are based on income. This happened to me last year and it felt damn good.

It's worth mentioning that, to the best of my knowledge, the US is the only country in the world that taxes all its citizens on all worldwide income regardless of residence status abroad.