Home was a fixed concept to me for most of my life.
I was born and raised in Canada, and I’ve always been grateful for it. Still, as I grew up and grew into my own interests my feet began to itch. I started to travel. My trips grew longer and longer, and at one point I even held a job briefly in France, but if a form ever asked where I resided the answer was always Canada. Without hesitation, without a doubt.
Six months ago, that changed. I took on a full-time, year-long job in South Korea. Now I’m a card-carrying Alien Resident of my new country. In the beginning I thought this would be like an extended version of my previous travels, but it turned out to be something else entirely.
Somewhere around the four month mark, I began catching myself in moments where South Korea felt like home. The confusion that was a regular feature of my first few months here ebbed away, leaving the comfort of familiarity. There was a time when I had to account for an extra half hour of wrong turns and missed connections any time I took public transit, but now I find myself giving directions and sharing shortcuts. Some of the Korean phrases that used to float over my head have started to register when I hear them on the street. I can make sense of the medley of restaurants I pass every day, and I have some favorite spots where I’ve become a regular (although my chopstick skills are still woefully lacking).
The examples above are specific to my surroundings. Building a home in a foreign country, though, goes beyond picking up the local language and customs. It requires an open mind and a lot of positivity. I’m about halfway through my contract in South Korea, and while I’m sure I’ll keep learning from the experience up until my final day, I’ve also come far enough to reflect on it. The most impactful things I have learned by moving abroad are not bound by borders. They would be true in any country, so I’m sharing them here in case they can be of benefit to you in a future transition.
Here are a few of the beliefs I’ve adopted or affirmed since I moved abroad:
Distance Isn’t Detrimental
Popular opinion seems to be that a long distance will diminish your relationships with friends and family. The fear of this keeps a lot of would-be wanderers at home. Relationships are key, but I really believe that they can thrive across the miles. We have so many ways to communicate. An excess of apps let us share thoughts on a whim or things that make us laugh. For a deeper conversation you can call anywhere for free – with live video, even.
True, there’s a quality in face to face time that FaceTime will never capture. Long distance relationships have their unique benefits, though. From South Korea I’m much more conscious of staying in touch with my Canadian friends. I’m more present in our conversations because they aren’t a given. Overall, people are choosing more mobile lives. If you don’t move, chances are someone you love will. Go where you need to go – it’ll make you happy and fulfilled, and that version of yourself will have more energy to invest in your relationships than the one sitting at home pining for elsewhere.
Normal is Always Relative
All of our ‘common sense’ is rooted in where we’re from. Keeping this in mind can demystify a lot of the situations you run into abroad. It’s also helped me to become a better teacher in South Korea.
I started my job in October with a kindergarten unit about autumn. My curriculum book was written in America and included many songs about raking leaves (probably the same ones I was singing back in kindergarten). These fell on deaf ears in my classroom, where all the students have grown up in high-rise apartments with no yards to rake. When grammar exercises include Western names, I often have to help the students determine the matching gender (“does Zoe go with he or she?”). Christmas is observed to varying degrees by Koreans, but come December I was explaining the magic of Santa Claus to some of my five-year-olds for the first time ever.
More often than not, though, I’m on the receiving end of these little explanations as students tell me stories and fill in the cultural blanks. I now walk into every class as ready to learn as I am to teach. The attitude serves me well outside the school, too. Situations that baffle or even frustrate you when you first encounter them usually make perfect sense when put in context.
Live with Less
I was never a hoarder, but moving to South Korea has introduced me to new levels of simplicity. I had to pack for a year of unknowns within the confines of airline restrictions and my new home, a tiny studio apartment. I whittled my life down to the essentials and then carted them across the world only to realize that the shortlist could have been even shorter. For every last-minute addition to my suitcase I’ve found a better, cheaper version available here in South Korea.
Forget being prepared for anything. If you need something, you will be able to find it – all of the people at your destination are not just going without. And if you can’t find it, you’ll find a way to get by. That’s how I’ve come to love life in a small apartment. I have a space to cook, to relax, to sleep – they just happen to be one and the same. If something calls for more space (like exercising or socializing) it draws me out into the neighborhood. With fewer things, I have more freedom. Less is definitely more in that regard.
Staying Still is Still Something
I love backpacking: the freedom of connecting dots on a map and waking up in a new corner of the world every day. That’s the mindset I was in when I moved to South Korea. From my new city, Incheon, buses can carry me across the country in hours and the airport offers a tempting launchpad to the rest of Asia. I took advantage of this from the start, using every weekend to get away. My mind was always wandering off into the future: where to next week? Where to next year?
My bank balance began to catch up with my jet setting, though, so I allowed myself a few quieter weekends and I discovered another side of travel: the slow, thorough exploration of one area. I live in Incheon, an expansive coastal city that’s just a stone’s throw away from the endless attractions of Seoul. By spending aimless days in my own backyard I’ve found hidden gems, connected with Koreans, and witnessed the ins and outs of daily life. We all want to fill the pages of our passports, but it’s nice to flesh out the story behind each stamp, too.
You Can Go Your Own Way
You only find out what you’re capable of when you test your limits, and there’s no greater test than a solo adventure. I work at a very small school in South Korea. When I was debating accepting the job, a major consideration was the fact that I would not have any other foreign co-workers to navigate my new surroundings with (like many expat teachers do). I knew the transition might be harder that way, but my doubts were drowned out by the draws of a job and a plane ticket. I decided to make it work, and I have.
I’ve settled in and made friends, Korean and foreign, who have been a great support system in my new home. But I’ve also faced a lot of challenges alone. Absent anyone to bounce ideas off of, I’ve honed my own intuition. And moving away from everyone who knows your past is an opportunity to get a little creative with your present. When no one around you has any preconceptions about you, you start to drop your own, too. Since I came to South Korea I’ve done countless things that I never saw coming, from taking up scuba diving to tutoring refugees. I’m grateful that I didn’t let the prospect of being alone stop me from making this move, because in the end it’s been one of the best parts of the journey.
Claire is a Canadian who moved abroad to teach English and see more of the world. She currently lives in Incheon, South Korea. She’s a certified yoga instructor and an uncertified coffee enthusiast. You can follow her forays into South Korean culture on Instagram.
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