Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Thoughts After a Year of Being Home

I returned home December 19th 2009  after living abroad in South Korea for 2.5 years. I thought that it would be important to reflect on life back stateside after one year to the day that I returned home and what life has been like after being an expat.  Before I continue, I have been looking into getting a Masters in TESOL to do go back and do this professionally.  I may not be there yet, but I could see it something I do in the future.  

One thing I can tell you - it's unbelievably easy to fall back into old habits. Eating unhealthy, American sized meals is awful. Not going hiking or being as active exploring new cities and different countrysides doesn't help. Everything is familiar and at first it feels odd, but wonderful. My first trip back into an American grocery store was actually overwhelming and I walked out with absolutely nothing. Even one year later I find myself spending crazy amounts of time in the local Wegmans just perusing all of the different options that we have - but that store IS so awesome, people do that anyway. The difference being when you're abroad, you meet other like minded people who want to travel and try new things.  At home, things are a bit mundane, and it can be hard to rally the troops for a silly weekend.

When you're living in a foreign country - especially in a place like Asia where everyone looks different than you, talks differently than you do, and lives quite differently than you, you get used to the unusual. You come to expect that something at least once a day will shock you and not because it's shocking, but because you experience so many odd things daily that you're only shocked that you're not shocked. When you're living abroad your brain is practically a sponge that just takes in new information at alarming rates.

For me, I taught myself to read Hangul, the written Korean language. I practiced on the subway and walking down streets and reading menus, (It's incredibly easy to learn, so don't be too impressed). One year later, I crave seeing it to make my brain work to understand something out of the symbols. I get excited when I see a local Korean supermarket or restaurant just so I can read the Hangul.

It's amusing to me to think that while I was in Korea I craved American foods like Pizza, Peanut Butter Cups, and Cheese and got excited when we'd find a new American chain to go to. Honestly - Korea has a number of California Pizza Kitchens and Outbacks and TGIFridays and Bennigans - American food is NOT hard to find. I can remember going to a store in Jeongja called "I Love Cookie" and paying TOP dollar for a jar of Nutella. It was so easy to find Western food after awhile.

On the flip side, it's really hard to find Korean food here, not unsurprisingly. I haven't had Korean BBQ in 365 days and I would maybe kill a man for just one more dinner at the Yellow House in Garak Market, or Tteokboki from my favorite street stand near my old apartment in Ogeum.

Things to Miss That No One Tells You
The ease of getting around without the need for a car. The entire country is on a perfect continuous loop of effective transportation. Everything is on one card - the bus, the subway, and even the taxis, which are SO cheap.

My friends. You say goodbye to your home friends and family knowing you'll most likely see them again.  When you leave a foreign country after years of living there you're potentially saying goodbye to them for an indefinite amount of time.  Who knows when you'll see them again, especially if they're native.

Cost.   Living abroad in some countries (if they pay you well) you get used to the costs.  Baseball games were $8, beers are $1-3, World Cup Qualifying Soccer games are easy to get to and $20-$50 a ticket.   My apartment in southeastern Seoul was $500 to be split with my roommate.

World Events.  Americans are unbelievably shut off from the world... surprisingly.  It is a lot easier to feel a part of a greater good when you're outside of your home country.  Things like the Olympics and the World Baseball Classic, or the World Cup Qualifying Games really demonstrate an interest in all other countries, NOT just America's point of view.   It doesn't stop there -  I can remember the entire country of Korea coming to a grinding halt to watch Obama's acceptance speech or the first Asian woman to go up in space during a Chinese launch.

Education & Health Insurance.   I once broke a tendon in my foot in Seoul and for xrays, doctors, medicine and bandages I paid a whopping $8 and was in and out in an hour.   Without health insurance I would have paid $26.     No WAY could you get an ace bandage in America for $8.   Or the education systems in Asian countries -  there are reasons why Hong Kong, China, Korea, and Singapore are amongst the top 10 most educated countries in the world.  I wish America had a fraction of their tenacity for education.

Glad to be Home.
It's home.  My life is here, my friends and family are here, more professional opportunity is here.  America is one of the best countries on earth (I do not subscribe to it being the "Greatest country" because we have a NUMBER of broken systems in place, and I have seen first hand that many other countries do it better).   I wouldn't give up my citizenship to this great nation because of all the potential that it has, but I do see myself going abroad again sometime in the future.  For now, I'm happy with just vacationing and traveling.   India is up next...   

One of the best things that I took away from the whole experience?   Looking forward to all the times I'll meet up with those I met who live in other English speaking countries.  I'll be spending time in England, Ireland, and New Zealand at points in my life, without a doubt. 

If any of you are considering going abroad.... do it.   No matter how it turns out - good or bad - do it.  You only live once and there's a whole big wide world out there to see.  You won't regret it.

Monday, January 11, 2010


Alright - I've purposely waited to write this final post. I've been home now for 3 weeks and have had time pause, catch my breath, and really kind of figure out what's what.

I flew home on December 19th. I partied in Gangnam on Friday night with some of my favorites, walked an hour in the blistering cold to find a cab, was home at 4am, packed, and was out the door by 6am to catch the bus, and take my 930am flight. I flew to Beijing where I waited for 2 hours and soaked in my last remaining Asian moments. I hopped on a plane that was something straight out of the 1960s, complete with lack of any in-flight entertainment and cigarette ashtrays in the armrests. There were some very pleasant conversations with random people on board, and 14 hours later, I landed at JFK in New York City, literally minutes before an impending blizzard ravaged the east coast.

Sharon, Jess, and Jennette were waiting for me amongst the hundreds of people outside the door, and I only knew they were all there because I could hear their 3 voices somewhere in the crowd bickering (in a good way). We drove to Manhattan, I purchased an iPhone, partied until 4am - including bowling at the Port Authority - and finally got myself to sleep after 48 hours. I woke up on Sunday - completely exhausted.

Spent a few wonderful days in Manhattan, very wide eyed and happy to be home. Moved on upstate to be with family for Christmas and New Year's, seeing old friends, and sleeping - A LOT - because of all the jet lag and excitement.

The first week of 2010 has seen a lot of excitement and the same amount of boredom. I've settled into my house - cleaned out my room, donated tons of things to charity, and sent out dozens of emails and resumes. I've got projects to work on, a lot of writing to get done, and have settled into a great workout routine at the local gym (and struggling to stay on top of it). Things still seem new and exciting.

So far, there are only a few things I really miss about Korea... my friends, the randomness, constant entertainment, celebrity status, food, transportation, and neon lights. That was probably the first thing I've noticed actually - how dark everything is. Even in New York - EVERYTHING is that depressing orangey light. All storefront signs are dim or missing letters. Sure, it's probably more green and such to not have a thousand bright flourescent lights on every inch of space like in Asia, but it sure does keep you happy.

There are a lot of perks about being home though - for one - my mom makes me dinner everyday and I spend no money. And we're talkin', good old fashioned homemade Italian sauce and things of that nature. I can talk to anyone I want about anything because there's no communication barrier. I can go to the grocery store and be overwhelmed by all of the choices for everything, and the deli - don't even get me started on that. I can jump in my car and drive anywhere. I can go to Syracuse basketball games again. I get to be a part of my friend's lives again instead of just hearing about it.

The only negatives come from the fact of being unemployed and the uncontrollable weather (it has snowed for the past 12 straight days). Everyone's doing something exciting in Seoul, in New York City or in Denver, and I'm sitting in CNY attached to my computer looking for a job that will get me somewhere where I can have a rewarding career, money to travel, and a daily routine again. However, I have to keep in mind that this is only temporary and there are plenty of things on the horizon. The faster the better.

Coming home has been good. It's an adjustment for sure, but it's also nice knowing that chapter is closed and I'm starting a new one. One thing I know for sure, that living in Asia wasn't my last extended abroad experience, because I will live abroad again someday (soon if I can't finda job). For now - wish me luck, and if you're someone I don't know reading this - I'm only an email away for Korea/Asia related questions. I can't wait to go back and visit Seoul - that's for sure.

It was the experience of a lifetime, and I don't regret a minute of it.

PS - I'll be speaking on my time in Asia at Syracuse University's Career Center Lecture Series in the spring. I'll post once more when that gets closer.