Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to Korea: Part I

For this post, I’m going to be keeping things more general as these are things to keep in mind that anyone living abroad can relate to. There are a few times where I’ll be specific about South Korea, but for the most part, I think these things can be applied to almost any country.

1. Home is somewhere you feel comfortable spending time alone

I’ve been living in Korea for three years now, and only recently did I start to make my living space a priority. Because I moved around quite a bit growing up, I always felt that having less is better. As a more cliché and 80s version of me might say: “you never know when you may have to jam.” When I first moved into my apartment here in Seoul, I wanted to keep things minimalistic, due to the inevitably of having to move again (hah good one me). Of course, live somewhere long enough and you’re bound to collect some items, and some of these items may not even be entirely necessary (though I stand by my stuffed animals). Come December or so of last year, I realized that I didn’t enjoy spending time in my apartment, which was a problem because, well, I live in it. So I did what any girl would do: I started a crappy Pinterest board, followed too many 원룸 accounts on Instagram, and bought a ton of stuff of Coupang. Do I regret it? Only a little.

It’s not just buying homeware to make a house feel like home (we love a welcome mat saying!). Part of the process of living alone while abroad is learning how to spend time with yourself, and finding things that make you happy that can be done from the comfort of home. I think we all know this too well, especially due to the pandemic. Maybe home might even be the last place you want to be right now, but I digress: this is important for everyone, you know, mental health and such. One of the best things I’ve found I can do for myself these days is to dedicate time to preparing and cooking meals. Mostly because of my tight budget, I try to eat solely at home. At first, it was difficult because I’m not the best chef, and after classes, the last thing I want to do is come home and cook something. However, recently, I’ve learned how to make a few simple dishes that are actually pretty good (at least by my standards). I tried and failed to make some Korean dishes, and even bought kitchen appliances just to make things easier for myself. Besides cooking, I also invested in some giant paint-by-number canvas, which I only half regret. So, when I’m unsure what to do with my day, or I’m not feeling entirely up for going out, I take an hour or two sometimes in the morning, have my coffee, listen to music, and paint for a bit. I am practically an old woman by heart.

I know a lot of ex-pats have said to travel light, don’t spend unnecessary money, keep everything to a minimum because your home isn’t permanent, and maybe more of a stop along the way, a “whatever-you’re-escaping-from-in-your-life” moment of existence. That being said, it’s important to have a place that is your own where you can relax and escape to. If it’s ugly, depressing, and lacks basic home comforts, it’s not really a home, just a room. And who wants to live in just a room? Believe me, this is going to help with feelings of homesickness and normality by keeping a routine of sorts. So go outside, and buy a goddamn plant or something.

2. Friends are more than just the people you hang out with on the weekend

I have been pretty picky in the past when it comes to making friends here. I know it’s not fair, but I really have a hard time making friends with people who are inevitably going to leave. After my first year in Jeju and having to watch my roommate and good friends take off, I thought to myself, I really can’t do this again. This is a feeling ex-pats know all too well: that eventual sit-down with someone you’ve spent a good amount of your time connecting with, just to have them tell you they are going “home.” In short, it sucks. I never wanted to waste my time getting to know someone just to watch them leave, but after being here a few years I’ve learned this is pretty selfish behavior. Only recently did I start to get over myself and decide that while friends may come and go quickly, I would be losing out on more opportunities for connection by closing myself off because I’m afraid of what that future might hold.

When I feel like I can’t breathe from the stress (which is often to be honest), I go to my friends for help. Whether it be a much-needed bitch session at some bar, a trip together to the bank or other fun government office, or a simple sleepover so I can pretend my life isn’t a mess for a moment, spending time with others helps tremendously. When you are living alone in another country friends are everything. I cannot stress this enough. The support system from your home country is severed in a sense the minute you move abroad, so it becomes necessary to create a network for the sake of survival. Friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, coworkers, whoever it may be: they are your family now (imagine I’m wearing some awful helmet as I tell you this, and breath through a respirator, cloak flowing behind me).

I like to pride myself on being independent, but it would be impossible to live without help from those around me. Prioritizing friends is something I wish I started doing earlier. Too often I agonized over the most simple tasks because I was afraid to ask for help, let alone, afraid that I was the only person feeling small and lonely. And while it can be hard to make friends, simply putting yourself out there helps. Most ex-pats understand the need for more friends so they will never judge you for reaching out and wanting to get coffee or grab a drink after work. Making friends with Korean people can be a little harder, but I think just having the confidence to just think to yourself you know whatever, who cares, right? We are all just out here suffering, so let’s suffer together.

3. Don’t be defeated if people speak English to you when you’re trying to speak Korean

I’ve been learning Korean off and on for the last year (thanks COVID!). It’s been a bit of a journey, and if I have ever been frustrated about something, it has been the goddamn Korean language. It’s incredibly difficult to learn/understand and extremely defeating at times to study. If there’s anything that does not help confidence, it’s when you’re standing in line trying to order something and the employee suddenly starts speaking English to you because you are fumbling. At first, I felt like it was because my Korean was so terrible that they couldn’t handle listening to me anymore. I always want to say, “No wait, I can understand, just say it again a little slower, and maybe differently!” My brain needs to catch up to my mouth and translate everything about five times in my head before I speak. But nope, that never works. I realize now it’s because either: A. they want to help you as quickly as possible, or B. they want to practice too. There is no bitter intent behind these circumstances. It is what it is and it’s important to not read into things.

I think just go in first speaking Korean and try, then if things go south, you can always fall back on some broken English. It sucks when this happens, but don’t let it hurt your confidence too much; we’ve all been there.

And on another note: Yes, those people near you may be laughing, but it’s not at you. They aren’t talking about you. Nobody cares about what you’re doing. Stop being so paranoid.

4. Your language will change, and sometimes it can be frustrating

I’ve started to realize that my language is easily influenced by those around me. Most of my friends speak English as their second or third language, and between speaking Korean in the morning during class, then going to my part-time job to teach English, I noticed my speech pattern gradually changed. The pacing of my sentences became similar to that of Korean speakers; meaning: I break my clauses up, use certain inflections, and overall enunciate everything so it can be clearly understood. I tend to speak slower and have lost a lot of those bigger words I was so keen on using in university. Because I teach English to adults in the evenings, instead of using a word, I will explain the meaning or use of something rather than just use the word. Sometimes when talking to my family I’ll still be in this mindset and do the same thing.

I have adopted a lot of Konglish into my English, to the point where I sometimes forget that it is Konglish. I forgot that CCTV is called a surveillance system in America, and telling someone who’s stressed to “take a rest” is not how we would phrase it in English. Sometimes my Korean friends look at me funny because I say something completely wrong but just right enough that they understand basically what I mean. I also drop articles nearly 80% of the time when I’m speaking, and I’ve caught myself a lot using the wrong grammar tense because I’m so used to dumbing down my English in class (for instance instead of saying “Have you been to many countries?” “Did you go to many countries?” and worse still I’ve heard the sentence “Have eat today?” come out of my mouth more than once). There are also some awkward speech patterns I feel like I’ve begun to use just because I hear it from others so much at work that my brain just takes it in instead of corrects it. I’m like a sponge when it comes to these speech patterns so I end up incorporating a lot of Koreanisms into how I speak (these are things like little noises Koreans use in response to someone else talking, or overexaggerating gestures). I don’t really think much of it until someone from back in the States says something to me about it.

Perhaps most frustrating has been forgetting words completely. Because I use about half of the English I used to use before I moved, a lot of those bigger complicated SAT words have completely slipped from my mind. The other day I was trying to remember the word “conspire” and ended up blabbering through a definition of the word before a student corrected me. A lot of my Google searches these days look something like “the word that describes …” “synonyms of fun” etcetera. For an English major with a creative writing background, this has been my least favorite part of living here.

5. Embrace insecurity, but don’t revel in it

One of the best things for me was initially coming to Korea with one of my best friends at the time because she had absolutely no care in the world about being seen as stupid in front of others. Of course, I mean that in the nicest possible way. I’m a bit shy in new situations (maybe overly so) and coming here did not help with my social anxiety whatsoever. But, after spending time with my friend for a few months in Busan and going through the ups and downs of not knowing what the heck was going on, here I am, still, a bit lost, but okay with it. I’ll never forget the first day of visiting Seoul and sitting down at a 닭갈비 restaurant which was entirely in Korean and just not knowing what was happening. My friend almost poured the cold noodles on the burner. Like, we almost did that. I’ve never been so embarrassed. Yet, I’ve learned that this is part of the territory of living here. Sometimes, you just have to be a f*cking idiot and it’s okay!

Because here’s the thing: you’re in a new country where you might not even speak the language. Sure, there may be instances where you can get by, but going to places like the hospital, the bank, the realtor – any place of which adulting takes place – it’s going to be difficult. Before I go to any establishment where I know I’ll have to speak Korean, I practice what I’m going to say, memorize my vocabulary and go, go, go! The worst thing that will happen is there might be an awkward moment of silence where you both stare at each other and your face goes red and you mumble out something about how you don’t speak Korean well. That’s not too terrible in the scheme of things! We love an awkward public encounter!

You’re not the only foreigner struggling with the day to day life here okay, don’t worry about it. That person is not going to remember you in like two days’ time, so just try your best and push through. You’re still learning, so it’s really no big deal. Some of the most embarrassing moments I’ve had here taught me some words that I would have never learned otherwise. It also gives you confidence. Just think: “That was probably the worst it will ever get at XYZ location, so if I go again, there’s no way it will be as bad!”

6. It’s okay to feel lonely

I see this one on every single list out there. But, they’re right. It’s true. You’re going to feel lonely, it’s going to be lonely some weeks, there will be days where you might regret your decisions and want to go back home but wait it out until your mind has cleared. It’s okay man. Keep going. Keep your goddamn chin up, you’ve got it, kid.