A week ago I booked my flight home, so now it’s official. I’m leaving Korea at the end of next month just 5 days shy of my second anniversary of living in Korea. Living in Korea for two years has been a crazy rollercoaster ride and so are my feelings about leaving. While I still get super sentimental and sometimes even sad about having to leave, I must admit that the days where I’m just plainly looking forward to leaving and starting a new chapter back home are becoming increasingly more frequent.
Korea is a country full of contradictions and so, not surprisingly, this country at the same time has made me feel both loved and hated, has both embraced and hurt me, and has given me both the best and worst moments of my life.
I’ve learned many lessons, some more painful than others, but the most important one is that I don’t belong in Korea. I love Korea (at least many aspects of it), but no matter how hard you try, Korea will never fully accept you if you are not Korean. The social rules that apply to other Koreans will not necessarily apply to you, and your otherness will be highlighted time and again.
So, while counting down the seven weeks until I depart from Incheon airport I thought I’d list the things I’m excited about in moving back home aside from reuniting with family and friends.
- I can’t wait to breathe in the clean air every day. Korea is struggling with severe air pollution and it’s already resulted in two nasty rounds of bronchitis in my case.
- I get super excited just thinking about going grocery shopping without feeling like I’ve been robbed. Fresh produce is insanely expensive in Korea, and the selection is quite limited. Not ideal if you follow a primarily vegan lifestyle.
- I desperately want to blend in again. I’m tired of sticking out in public and have creepy old people stare at me. This weekend was particularly bad and I ended up cursing at one in Danish demanding what the H… he was looking at.
- I look forward to taking a break from teaching. I love teaching, but having taught non-stop since September makes me feel like I need a break soon.
- I look forward to being able to gradually restore my trust in other people. Koreans will lie to you all the time in order to save face, and you can never trust anything anyone tells you. The closer you are to the one who lies, the more it hurts. I’ve developed serious trust issues over the past two years, and I pray that the damage is not permanent.
- I look forward to being able to exercise outdoors. This is close to impossible if you live in central Seoul. While there are parks, they are always overcrowded, and the air makes it quite unhealthy on most days.
- I look forward to being able to take a walk without having to navigate among hundreds of smartphone zombies who will walk straight into you if you don’t move fast.
- I look forward to making plans with friends, knowing for sure that what we plan will in fact happen, and being able to look forward to the event. This is impossible in Korea, where your friends have next to no free will and constantly have to answer to parents, bosses, and, if told, will cancel plans with you at a moment’s notice without even blinking.
- The above is the one single reason why it’s impossible to become friends with Koreans, and I look forward to not having to accommodate the schedules of people I don’t even know at the cost of my happiness and self-worth.
- I look forward to being judged by who I am and what I stand for rather than what I look like. Koreans will always comment on your looks, and appearance is everything in this country. I’ve seen advertisements on the subway urging mothers to suggest plastic surgery to teenage daughters with low self-esteem, and another for laser treatment of acne which said: “your bad skin may be the reason you can’t get a job”. I’ve even had people suggest that the reason I score high on my teaching evaluations is that I’m young and female and relatively easy on the eye. Yeah, it’s probably not my passion for teaching, my hard-earned Ph.D. degree, my intellect and my sense of humor. Got it!
- I look forward to being able to speak freely. Korea is a high context culture, where even very important messages are implied. When Koreans say “hmm, that may be a bit difficult”, it means “I can’t do that”. I miss calling a spade a spade and having people speak to me in ways that don’t require me to summon Sherlock Holmes and Watson to figure out what the H… they mean to say.
Whoa, this list got a lot longer than I thought. I’m curious to hear from other expats in Korea who may be nearing their departure. Can you relate to any of the above? Do share!