Archive for the ‘Trials and Tribulations of the Expat’ Category



January 3, 2013

The leap

I’ve been a bad little girl. I’ve been behaving like a drunk, obnoxious tourist on the pristine beach of my own life.
I can’t tell you what delicious naughtiness I’ve indulged in, except to say it is probably not near as shocking as what you have going through your brain. It is closer to the truth to say that I’ve fallen out of character.

The truest version of me is the one that is always polite and kind, always follows the rules and does what is right. How, though, do you maintain that in a world gone crazy? Atrocity is nowhere near my doorstep, but it is all around every one of us in that moment where our breath is caught reading the CNN headlines at night. That intake of breath holds within it a moment of wondering of how people can be pushed so far and every headline holds a little bit of permission to move the line of what you will accept a little further away from your heart. The end of 2012 was brutal in its onslaught of horror-packed news. I too, developed a taste for the dark and thrilled and shuddered at how I could splash a headline across my life, watch it come spinning up to my consciousness like a scene from a 60’s B movie.

The new year finds me calmer, and wondering why. Why have I been playing with the moral code which I have carved out for myself? Don’t misunderstand. My moral code would probably never stand up to any set of church or government rules. It comes closest to the Wiccan rede, “Harm none, and do what ye will.” Love. Be loved. Tell the truth. Don’t judge. Always ask a question before you make a statement. Play within the rules when it is important. Break them when it is essential. Empathize, even when it hurts. Above all, keep the peace. Even When It Hurts.

I haven’t been following my own rules, though. The end of the year saw me fighting, lying and judging, swinging my hard-earned peace around me head like a spiked club, doing damage.I suppose it is easy to blame disillusionment with society, or perhaps just being middle-aged. We are all supposed to rage a bit at this age, aren’t we? No leather pants or motorcycle for me, I’ll stick to my snaked tongue and two faces, thank you. Oh, and pass the tequila.

No, I can’t blame any of these things. I have, however, settled on an excuse…a very special, unique excuse for why I’ve been less of my true self. I’m displaced, dislocated. That is to say, my identity is out of socket.

Being an expat can be glorious in its freedom. You float above both your worlds, and no one ever really gets to own you or define you. You play both cultures when you want or need to and can tune out either when convenient. This has consequences. There is a day when you come to feel like you don’t belong anywhere. When you don’t belong, the rules go spinning away from you, like yesterday’s headlines. A little too free, we expats sometimes find ourselves dropping beneath moments, doing things we would never do at home. Except, we are supposed to be at home, aren’t we?

Maybe, also, this spreads to all of us. Yes, I am a Canadian, a Newfoundlander, an only daughter who built a life on the other side of the world. And you? You may be living in Alberta when your TV starts flashing scenes of war, mass shootings, gang rape into your living room. Are you not then, too, an expatriate…living far away from the landscape you knew growing up? Are you not also dislocated, displaced? Does your heart not move a little left of where you last saw it? Do you not turn off the TV and go lie down in your bed and rearrange what you thought you knew and your rules for living?

I don’t have the answers. But, I’m back to asking questions first. And that begins the process of repatriation that maybe we all need to do. We are all far from home, right now, if you trust the headlines. Here’s hoping the New Year brings us all a train ticket back to the centers of ourselves, the ones that were built before the world got in the way. Here’s hoping you have a window seat and a chatty, interesting companion. And maybe, a shot of tequila.



October 12, 2012





O wake up, my love, my lover, wake up
 – Nick Cave, ” Where Do We Go Now, But Nowhere?”There are a handful of us who have offices in the Humanities Building. We are all accomplished teachers, long-term expats who have married into the culture, or been here long enough to have worked our way up from  academies, national schools  and university-based language centers. We are a collection of about 12 really talented, really good teachers, consistently scoring on the high end of student evaluations. We are off by ourselves – the other two buildings which house the rest of our department – the Institute for Technology and the Second Engineering Building  – have large groups of teachers in communal offices. We are the old guard – in small, dingy rooftop offices of two or three people.  We know each other very well; we have both a coffee and a whiskey fund. Some of my dearest friends that ever I will make in this lifetime work in my building. We love to bitch and gossip, we love to share amazing lesson ideas, we love to give more when it is asked of us, and we love to share a shot at the end of a mid-term Friday evening. Above all, we love to teach..most of the time.

There has been an ennui that has spread through our rooftop corridor, sticky like melted candy on fingertips, the kind that doesn’t come off no matter how much you wash, the kind you are forced to live with for hours. We are all still very solid performers, yet we all seem tired, nowhere near the turned-on, fully engaged teachers we have all been in the past.

When I am on the train home,  I close my eyes. I put my earphones in my ears, filling my head with my music, shutting  my eyelids against the people standing in front of me, the landscape flying past my window, crossing my arms against my heart, and turning my focus inward. I numb myself, until a particularly hot pepper, or a particularly kind smile wakes me up.

I am a jaded foreigner. I have an understanding with the other foreigners I meet. We love the country. Yet we have been here long enough that we have earned our right to complain. Motorcycles driving on the sidewalks, people pushing, two-faced culture, chemical-laden alcohol, sooty skies, empty music, crazy drivers, grade-obsessed students, laws and customs that cause you to shake your head and curl your lip…. we long-term foreigners sing this like a chorus of a hymn. We are part of and yet we are apart. We are strange….everywhere. We respond with boredom and disdain. How can we not?

I always thought this particularly strange experience made me special. The internet proves me wrong. It seems we, collectively, are bored and disdainful. We’ve seen it all, We’ve earned our right to complain, to deride. Life? Nothing compared to the immediate irritation of waiting in line more than one minute. Falling in love? Can’t compete with the glee I find in judgement of the fashion choices I find watching the latest Housewives Of Wherever.

Rewind to 1995. I was cleaning hotel rooms to pay the bills my acting work couldn’t pay. I had just accepted a job to teach at ECC Nam-Pundang ( pre-romanization change for those of you who have lived in Korea forever). I had no idea that Nam meant South. As the hotel maintenance man asked me where I was going, I pronounced Pundang like a slur, sure and happy that I was headed for a cultural and literal jungle. “Korea”, my friend V said. ” I don’t know much, except that everytime they’ve poked their head out of the sand, it has been kicked back down.” Dr. Greenlee, my history professor, stoppped me in the concourse of the Valley Mall and said, ” Korea? There’s going to be another war there. I don’t know when, but it will happen. Be careful.”

Still, I came. I landed with my best friend, Didi, and we navigated our way through seedy motels, yoghurt bottles we thought were shampoo, Gotham City-like rows of apartment buildings, beer halls where you couldn’t just order beer, bullet taxis with tires that left the ground when they hit the riverside road, coffee sold in hot cans and hot, buttered squid peddled  in movie theaters. We lived in a building where our neighbors informed our boss of our every move and the children followed us through the streets like we were the circus come to town.

Yes, I went low – I had my moments, preserved in frantically written diaries, where I questioned my sanity, longed for my family and Mary Brown’s Fried Chicken in alternating bouts of intensity. I also took a concealed tape recorder with me as I went through my day, so that I could record the little bits of Korean the corner “supa” – supermarket owners spoke to me, the way that the Mandu shop owner called me “Miss Canada”, the sound of the drycleaner as he walked the corridors at 7 am to collect laundry,  the classical music rip-off that the academy bus used as it backed up… I made a tape and sent it off to my one of my dearest friends, G, so that he could share in this amazing, other-worldly, teeth-on-edge, ears-pricked-up, skin-tingling experience that I was having.

These days, when I meet a new American  or Canadian, our commonality is complaint. I go home to Newfoundland, have a drink in a bar and my commonality with the bartender is how much life pisses us off, how we have so many better things to do than to be there, together in a room, listening to music, telling our favorite stories, meeting someone new.

What human had ever earned the right to be bored by the smell of a changing season? What traveller has ever been so far gone that they should close eyelids against a people so similar in spirit and yet with such differently-shaped faces, different-smelling skins? When did this stop being amazing to me? When did I stop counting myself among the lucky? When did you?

I’m waking up. The curve of a cat’s tail because I feed it…. that’s enough. That’s enough to make me happy to open my eyes in the morning. Not much more is needed. It holds everything… something to learn, love, and understand. The same is true of every tiny thing that happens in my day. The big things hold more pleasure, fear, danger and beauty. How dare I even begin to close my eyes and tune these things out?

Last Thursday, I sat in the back of my classroom, watching my Introduction to Acting students as they presented forum theatre pieces dealing with what they condsider to be big issues: the plight of working moms, age discrimination, lookism and mandatory military service. The pieces were funny and focused. I hadn’t slept well the night before, was coasting on coffee, and waiting to share a bottle of wine with another teacher to mark the end of the teaching week.The students were full of adrenaline and passion, given a voice and using it. They were pushing beyond a very strict set of Korean lines, to say something about the meaning of their lives, to look for alternatives, solutions. I woke up. I connected, again….the first time this whole semester. How dare I think I’ve seen all I have to see in this country? In life? What gives me the right to take a few very limited experiences and turn them into an all-encompassing world view?

Yes, I know what I know.

What I know is nothing.

Oh, wake up, my loves. My lovers, wake up.




August 1, 2011

Because my friend and first guest-poster, John, is leaving soon, there have been a few farewell parties over the past couple of months. Inevitibly, John and I end up in a half-joking conversation about writing a book, and which of our coworkers would “take up a whole chapter”. Over time, “He’s a chapter in my book”, became a perfect, summative, polite way of saying that Korea attracts some very unusual people.

If I wrote literal interpretations of some of the people I’ve met here, they would probably be dismissed as too far-fetched to be believable. They are caricatures if written in words, yet underneath the otherworldly exteriors they are deeply human and vulnerable. Korea is a haven for those who don’t fit in elsewhere. Here, just being foreign makes you a freak and becomes a bigger cloak under which all your personal eccentricities are hidden.

At the end of any night at the Wa Bar near the university where I work, after sharing gossip and Grolsch with my coworkers, I eventually find myself alone on the subway home, the lone white person in the car, and I make the transition from judge to judged. I am the one that doesn’t belong. Always, underneath the bright subway lights, two questions fill my head:

Does Korea attract weirdos or does Korea itself make people weird?

Am I a chapter in somebody’s book?


Guest Post: Korea and the Shawshank Redemption

August 1, 2011

John Morgan of Morgan Recruiters is a dear friend and colleague who is leaving Korea after many many years here. He has a sharp sense of humor and a treasure trove of stories gathered in his years of teaching and recruiting. He is planning to start a blog about his experiences and observations, and thought he’d like to dip his toe in the blogging pool by guest-posting here. I’m honored. As soon as John gets his blog up and running, I will be sure to share the link here.

Korea and the Shawshank Redemption
-Reflections on leaving Korea after 14 years

“I find I’m so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.”
-Morgan Freeman narrating in the Shawshank Redemption

I chose the above quote for a couple of reasons. One is that I simply love Morgan Freeman narrating anything. Morgan Freeman could narrate his shopping list and make it sound important and dignified. But more importantly this quote adequately sums up how I feel about getting ready to leave Korea after being here for 14 years.
As I prepare to leave Korea in just a little over a week, like Morgan Freeman’s character Red in the Shawshank Redemption, I find myself unable to keep a thought in my head. As the days wind down until I board the plane to leave Korea, the place I’ve called home for so long, my insides have become a mixture of feelings – sadness, excitement, fear, anxiety, wonder. So many emotions course through me that most days it feels like riding on a roller-coaster with some days being at the top of the world and other days being total downers. The idea of leaving behind what I have known for the better part of my life might very well be the most daunting thing I’ve ever had to do. I am leaving behind some of the most wonderful people I have ever had the honor of knowing, people that I have come to think of as family and that is the hardest part about leaving.
Leaving Korea after so many years brings me to another idea in Shawshank that relates to how I feel, and that is the notion of being “institutionalized”. In Shawshank Red expresses that he is “institutionalized”, that he has been in Shawshank for so long that he can no longer make it on the outside. I too have spent a lot of time wondering about “making it on the outside”. What is HST? What is a playdate? Which one of my jokes will get me charged with sexual harassment? (probably all of them). How much should I tip? Am I “institutionalized”? Are those of us that have been here for over a decade (hereby known as the “D+ club”), doomed to struggle if we were to leave Korea? Perhaps not, but I would wager that the reverse culture shock in going back is going to be very difficult. Being in Korea has changed me so much that the young 26 year old man that walked off the plane at Kimpo International Airport on December 4th, 1996 with the intention of staying one year to pay off his student loan no longer exists.
But the central theme of Shawshank that I hold onto, that gives me the strength I need through preparing to leave – is that of hope. Red tells Andy that “hope is a dangerous thing”, but it is Andy who goes though some of the most despairing and horrific experiences any person could possibly endure while still holding onto hope who ultimately teaches Red the most important lesson of all – “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies”. This is the lesson that I want to carry with me when I go back to Canada. That no matter how difficult some of the days may get, no matter how much I might feel despair, there is always hope.
I hope Yunhee, Joshua and I will be able to live a happy and successful life in Canada.
I hope I will be able to see all of my friends in Korea again soon.
I hope.

John Morgan
July 30th, 2011

*My name is John Morgan, father, husband, teacher, recruiter. I lived in Korea for 14 years and had a great time here. In this blog, I’d like to share my experiences throughout the years of living and teaching in Korea.

Next week: “My last class in Korea and the notion of the ‘Expiry Date’


The shorthand of culture

October 31, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I was having coffee with my husband in our living room. As I was looking through my news headlines, I said to my husband, ” Oh, look at that… Tom Bosley died.”
” Tom Bosley. You know? Happy Days? The Fonz? AAAAYYYYY!”, I said, pantomiming pulling a comb out of my jeans pocket, pulling up the collar of my motorcycle jacket and giving the double thumbs up, hoping to somehow trigger a memory in my husband which he had never had.
” Didn’t you guys have Happy Days?”, I asked.
” Sometimes, happy, but not because of combing our hair”, he answered.
At that point I gave up trying to explain who poor Tom Bosley was, and added his name to the column of things which don’t belong in our marriage.

When you marry someone from another culture, one of the things you must be willing to sacrifice is cultural shorthand. Koreans have words for concepts that don’t even exist in English. Bong ( my husband ) can use those words anywhere in his life, and have instant understanding – except at home. If he drops one of those words at home, it usually will involve a one-hour history lesson, a bottle of wine and a game of charades before I start to understand the weight that the word carries.

The good side of all this, is that it keeps things fresh. We have been together more than 10 years. He may not yet know about my obsession with Duran Duran when I was fourteen. That could take a 3-hour dinner at a barbecue restaurant and two bottles of soju to explain.

Yet, for someone who has grown up in a totally different culture, my husband “gets” me on a level so deep, it transcends everything else. When we met, his English was still a smidge above basic. That first night, we met in a bar. As we stood trying to talk over the music, he told me he was a jazz musician. I said, ” I’m sorry…I don’t know much about jazz. ” He was silent for a few too many beats, trying to put together what he wanted to say. Then he looked at me and said, ” You are jazz”. I decided at that moment that anyone who saw me that way was Mr. Right. Ironically, the concept of “Mr. Right” is also in the column of cultural shorthand that doesn’t translate.

This December, I will be bringing my husband home for his first real Christmas. Christmas is celebrated here in Korea – in a very different way. Christmas Eve here is a date or party night. Everyone buys cakes and goes out to get drunk. Perhaps not so different from home after all? Yet, it is a recent holiday with little emotion surrounding it. For us North Americans, Christmas holds so much – family, memories, romance, hopes, pressure, stress, warmth and tradition. It can never be just another day.

In the early days of our relationship, I tried to recreate a Christmas back home. I would buy a turkey at the Black Market shops ( where you can buy items smuggled out of the US army base at triple the normal price.) I would play Bing Crosby and decorate a small artificial tree. I would make desperate phonecalls home for gravy instructions. Through all of this, Bong would humour me, and try to play along. I could see it in his eyes, though. None of these things meant anything to him, except that he understood they meant something to me. No napkin drawings or hand gestures could possibly communicate the feelings that Christmas evokes. Eventually, I gave up trying to recreate an empty shell of a holiday that I left behind when I moved here. The best Christmas Bong and I shared was when I stopped trying, and we went to the horse races. Like everything else in our marriage, we are at our best when we meet in the middle to create something just for us.

Last Christmas day, we went to a friend’s bar to drink and have dinner – Korean traditional alcohol and pasta. I called my parents to wish them a Merry Christmas – because of the time difference, I had no choice but to call while I was in the bar. It might have been the warming effects of the Andong Soju I was drinking, or it might have been the fact that a gorgeous unexpected snow had begun to fall, but I found myself on the phone for hours while my husband chatted with his friend. I was missing home. I was missing my culture. When I hung up, my husband said, ” Why don’t we go next Christmas?”. Again, he ” got” me on a level beyond the shorthand of culture.

So, this Christmas, we are going to my home to celebrate. I don’t expect he will totally understand, but I’m hoping a little of the feeling will seep into his skin and warm him to the tradition – become part of him. At least, the next Christmas after, when I mention stockings or shortbreads , he won’t need a one-act play to understand what they mean to me. He and I will have a shorthand.


Calling My Tribe

October 16, 2010

I recently joined the Mondo Beyondo Dream Lab, thanks to a nudge from the fabulous Kyran Pittman of Notes to Self. One of the themes of this particular dreamlab is the idea of “tribe” – surrounding yourself with people who support and nurture your deepest self. One of the exercises I was supposed to do last week was to describe what my tribe would look like. I had no idea.

When I was a university student majoring in English Lit, my school opened up a fine arts department with majors in Theatre and Visual Arts. Suddenly, there were little pockets of delightful strangeness opening up all over the very small campus. The department had just opened, so there were just a few of those Fine Arts students walking around. When I saw one of them, usually dressed in black, and looking like they were laughing at a secret joke, I would feel a pull. I didn’t think of myself as any kind of artist. Still, these people were different. Having grown up just a little odd, I instantly recognized and appreciated that difference.

Then I met and fell in love with one of the Acting majors. This was such a sweet time for me. Not only was I in the middle of a very innocent and open-hearted love, I was quietly being accepted by his Theatre friends as one their own, even though I was still an English major. About a year later I decided to join the department. My father worried that I was just following my boyfriend into a path that would lead to the unemployment line, but I knew that I had found my tribe. I don’t think I was particularly meant to be an actor. However, the hours I spent around the green room talking about BIG THINGS were home to me. Classmates gave me mixtapes so that I could hear new music. Professors gave me books to read that they thought would interest me. Many bottles of wine were consumed. I was being nurtured on the deepest level.

Sixteen years later, my primary identity is “Foreigner”. I am not a woman, a Canadian, a teacher, a writer, a coffee-drinker or a goofball. Before all those things, I am foreign first. When I first came to Korea, it was a novelty. Trails of kids would chase me in the street yelling “hello” over and over like like talking dolls stuck on repeat. I thought it was cute. The blatant staring made me feel special and exotic. I became pleasantly aware of my soft pink curves. The feeling of walking through a society without having to really be part of it was freeing.

That is different now. Usually in Seoul, people don’t stare or point anymore, and kids usually have a foreign teacher of their own and don’t feel compelled to chase the ones they see in the streets. I have married a Korean, participate in traditional Korean family ceremonies, and have made a very good life here. More importantly, I have learned how to blend. I know which of my “foreign” behaviours will call attention to me, and I know how to put on “Korean” manners. When I meet new Koreans, they sometimes say that I am almost Korean. For them, that is the highest compliment they could pay me. Still, I will always be a foreigner. I have a Korean family, I have Korean friends. What I don’t have is a Korean tribe.

Being an expat and making expat friends is also tricky. In the beginning, I put a lot of effort into making friends with other foreigners. The problem is, most other expats eventually go home. We share coffees, dinners, secrets and trust and on the other end of it, I find myself alone again. This has caused me to turn in on myself, keep myself company, and close my heart a little. Today, though, I am rethinking. One of the really good things about the expat world is the opportunity to become friends with people whose path you would never cross at home. We are all very different, yet we are all foreigners and that binds us into some kind of a misfit tribe.

So, I am calling my tribe. I am ready to open up and be nurtured, to let people pass through my life and enjoy them while they are with me, let them go with love when they need to move on. I still don’t know what my tribe will “look” like. But, I’m sitting here with an empty chair on the other side of my coffee shop table and enough money in my wallet to treat you to an espresso. Come find me.