Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Living Abroad: Returning to Korea

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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. 

Many expats who venture to Korea to teach will stay there for a year, maybe longer, and then quickly return to the states, South Africa, Canada, England, etc., etc. While living in Korea, I used to read about their feelings of reverse culture shock upon returning to their native countries. Oftentimes people would complain that it was "too quiet back home," "boring," and wailed about the lack of "night life." I also found it interesting that there were a number of people who hated the fact that they understood everything being said around them once home. One friend told me that when she returned home for a 3-month vacation - that is, mind you, one of the perks of teaching in Korea (more on that later) - she couldn't believe how "bloody loud and obnoxious people sounded." Interestingly, she actually knew a fair amount of Korean.

There is something about Korea that has expats wanting to return - I'm experiencing that desire right now, and it's awfully strange. It is not just the decent living you can make, or the fact that you can pay off your student loan debt (and trust me, if you find the right job, you can). I can't quite put my finger on it. Plus, there are so many reasons why people find themselves back in Korea. Our stories are all quite different. That said, many do go there for a shared reason: they are part of the indentured educated class. I recently spoke to a friend - Corrie Hulse - who is headed back to Korea in May, and asked her if she'd be willing to share her thoughts on living abroad. This will be the third time she has lived in Korea. Incidentally, if you're interested in reading more things by Corrie (she's a great writer), you can check out her writing on The Mantle or on her personal blog. This exchange occurred after we chatted a few days ago via Facebook. Both of us were expressing frustration about the state of affairs in the U.S., and I have to admit, I feel a wee bit envious that she has decided to go back to Korea. (I have had two interviews for jobs in the U.S., and they took place last week and on the same day, but the future and where I will end up remains to be seen).

Let's hear what Corrie has to say about her first experiences in Korea, and why she has decided to return.

Johannsen: Where have you lived abroad?

Hulse: I have lived in South Korea on two different occasions. In May, I will be returning and living there for the third time.

Johannsen: Why did you choose to go abroad?

Hulse: The first time I moved to Korea is sort of a funny story. My parents had just moved to Hawaii to start their own new adventure. I was 24, sleeping on an air mattress in their empty house, working in a painfully boring temp job building databases for the city, and had everything I owned packed into the back of a borrowed car. Let’s just say I wasn’t thriving. I still remember the phone call from my friend. It was 10 o’clock on a Saturday night and I was out at a birthday party. All I heard on the other line was, 'we’re moving to Korea . . . there’s an open spot . . .  you have to decide tomorrow . . .' I immediately dismissed the idea in my mind, but agreed to meet them for lunch the next day. I mean, really, who just up and moves to Korea? By the time I made it to their house the next day I was a complete mess. Was it really possible to just move to a foreign country? Just like that? Before we began to eat, my two friends listed off everything I would need for the application; including passport photos, official college transcripts and my original diploma. Being that I was basically living out of my car, I had in my possession every single item I needed to send out the application right then and there. Fate had decided for me. Six weeks later I was on a plane to a foreign land that had previously not even been on my list of places I hoped to visit.

Johannsen: Where are you living now?

Hulse: I am currently living as a vagabond. I left Korea at the end of February when my most recent contract ended. Since then, I have been traveling around the states, networking and job hunting. At this very moment I am in Hawaii with my parents, but will soon be back on a plane to the land of morning calm!

Johannsen: (Laughing) I can certainly relate to your comment of 'living as a vagabond.' Tell me, how many languages do you speak?

Hulse: Fluently? Unfortunately, none. However, those I can get around a country with would include German, Spanish and Korean. My goal is to focus on my Korean fluency this next trip.

Johannsen: If someone were to come to you and express an interest in living abroad, what tips would you give them about the process?

Hulse: The funny thing about this question is that, beyond the family and friends who want the dirt on what I’ve been up to lately, it is the one I have been answering the most since I have been back in the states. I have had countless coffee meetings with young undergrads and recent grads looking to find better opportunities than what our current job market is offering. More and more are seeing living and working abroad as a realistic option. My best advice is for them to first decide what area of the world most interests them, and then via Facebook or Twitter, connect with those who are already living and working there as expats. It has been my experience, in Korea at least, that expats are more than happy to give you advice, let you know about job openings, and steer newcomers away from the not so legit agencies (an unfortunate reality in every country). I would say though, if you are serious about it, get your paperwork started early. The FBI background check alone can take 6-10 weeks.

Johannsen: Do you think it’s important for people your age – millennials – to be thinking of careers outside of the United States? If so, why?

Hulse: Absolutely! I could go into my whole philosophical diatribe about cosmopolitanism, and how we are becoming an ever more interconnected, global society (which is true), but I think even more importantly for millennials, right now, there is greater opportunity for us internationally [my emphasis]. We were built for this international market. We are mobile, adventurous, tech savvy, and grew up knowing the world was at our fingertips. More importantly, the international market wants us! In a time when someone with a master’s degree is lucky to get a job making coffee in the U.S., opportunities abroad are limitless. For all the talk of the job market making a turn for the better, companies still seem to think we should be thrilled with the unpaid internships they are offering. Not sure about you guys, but I myself have become accustomed to eating and would like to continue doing so.

I believe opening yourself up to the possibility of living and working in a foreign country is one of the best decisions anyone can make. What you gain from the experience is worth far more than any dollar amount (though the financial advantage of living and working somewhere such as Korea should not be overlooked). For me, my life changed the day I decided to move to Korea. I am on a completely different path than I ever imagined, and couldn’t be happier about it. The number of stamps accumulating in my passport isn’t half bad either.

Women, wearing traditional Hanbok (한복), in front of a Korean palace


EvrenSeven said...

Just the food alone would have me going back. Luckily I live near a Koreatown and I can get the business when it comes to the bbq, tofu soup, etc. etc.

Cryn Johannsen said...

@EvrenSeven - that's funny. I liked Korean food, but I'll admit, I got tired of it. Funny thing is, I've been craving dishes here like crazy, so I recently headed to Koreatown in Dallas and ate galbi again. Man, I missed that stuff!

Liz said...

They want us? They need us, and our work?

That line actually made me tear up a little. Americans seem to assume any job is a favor. It really isn't a healthy attitude, if you think about it.

Great post - thanks!

Serg said...

I just graduated with a BA in Poli Sci in Florida. I have gotten emails from Aclipse and Greenheart Travel. Do you know these recruiting agencies and could recommend an agency?

Anonymous said...

Serg, I am not familiar with those agencies in particular. I would suggest you look on Dave's ESL Cafe. There are job boards and forums on there. Good luck!