There’s No ‘I’ in ‘Expat’


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Laura Gabrielle, of Goings On in Bucheon, challenges expats in Korea to take more time to listen and learn from each other, instead of being so obsessed with themselves.


There’s No I in Expat

by Laura Gabrielle 


I’ve decided to give you a challenge. Now yes, I realize the amount of people who read this would ultimately dictate how far this challenge might expand, but I don’t much care about the number. Stick with me. I’m not another blogger complaining about Korea. The country and its people have nothing to do with it. What I do see is a problem with the expat community that needs to be remedied. **Disclaimer- I am certainly not speaking about every single expat in Korea. This is something for everyone to be conscious of, however.**


The problem is this. I’ve noticed, after being here a little over a year, that we expats have a tendency to be very conceited creatures. I know that most humans are, but we seem to be some of the worst culprits of this predisposition. Whether meeting someone for the first time, or talking to an old friend here, the most important thing in most conversations is where you’ve been and what your personal experiences are. I realize that as expats, we’ve been given a great opportunity to travel with limited bills to pay and a close proximity to fantastic places. Who wouldn’t want to share those experiences with others? That’s fine. You can. But let’s make sure your conversations don’t turn into the “All About Me” show. There is an infinite amount of stories to hear from others as we explore this incredible country and beyond (thank you Mr. Lightyear). People have come from every walk of earth, and we have the opportunity to get to know them! How amazing is that?


While at a café the other day, I wrote down a bit of a conversation to demonstrate my point (Yes. I was eavesdropping. Don’t you judge- you do it too.)


Girl: “I’m traveling to Thailand next month for summer vacation! I’m so excited”

Boy: “Ugh yea I’ve been there twice already. It’s so dirty and the people there are sketchy.”

Girl: “Yea, I’ve heard that too from my friends, but I still want to go experience it.”

Boy: “It is nothing like Cambodia. I backpacked there last year. Talk about an incredible experience.”

Girl: “My friend went there too! She told me to go. I backpacked too, in Europe after college.”


—-and it continues in this way until they gave me weird looks for crouching next to them with a pad and paper.


Let’s just reflect on this conversation. Looking at it, it may not seem too different that one’s you’ve had or heard from those around you. Look closer. How many ‘I’s’ do you see? How many ‘you’s’ do you see?


Both the girl and the boy’s sole purpose of having this conversation is to discuss their own personal experiences and opinions. At no point during their coffee date did one ask questions about the other. Personally, I would love to hear more about his trip to Cambodia or hers in Europe, wouldn’t you? If you share similar worldly attitudes then why not share them by learning more about each other! Talking about yourself is fine, but it must be supplemented by learning about other people around you. Tell a story and then ask them if they share any experiences or opinions. Discussion and friendly debate not only stimulates the mind but also allows for you to get closer to that other person.


Also, along with that dialogue, we tend to push our opinions onto others, especially negative ones. I’ve been told several times to not attend some festival or travel to an area, because someone’s prior experience was less-than-awesome. I understand completely that sometimes you want to warn the other person! Maybe give some advice of what not to do or eat, but please, please, please do not discourage their enthusiasm! If I say I am really excited to go on some new adventure, then that is not the time to squash my happiness like gum on a boot. Let me go and make my own memories. We are all very different people, each and every one of us. It’s natural and expected that we will have distinctive experiences despite traveling to the same places.


My purpose for writing this is not to point fingers! I love talking to other people about my trips to other places or plans for the future, but there must be a balance. If one of those expats from the dialogue earlier met with a truly good conversationalist, then the game is over. Someone who is good at conversation knows what questions to ask and is a good listener. Paired with someone who enjoys talking about him/herself, the conversation turns incredibly one-sided. I’m not going to go all “old-grumpy-grandma-on-a-porch” on you right now, but I’m afraid we don’t know how to have conversations anymore. A look into cellphone use during conversations is a whole other topic (Oh no, I’m turning into my mother).


Sometimes I think we have reverted back to our kindergarten selves. Children are some of the most egotistical people on earth. This is not a choice (for most). Developmentally, they have not gained a sense of empathy that allows one to connect emotionally to another. The only thing that matters is how I will be affected by whatever situation arises. NO, MY FAVORITE COLOR IS PURPLE! YOURS CAN’T BE PURPLE TOO!… **cough**… excuse me.  Recognizing others’ feelings, experiences, and opinions is a sign of maturity and openness. Also, having genuine care and interest about that other person. For the most part, the people you meet here you might never see again. That is not an excuse to forget their name two and a half seconds after they tell you, or zone out while they talk until it’s your turn to contribute.


So, my challenge for all of us here for however long we decide to stay, and afterwards, is to be conscious conversationalists. Let’s listen to ourselves when we talk. If we notice that we’ve been talking for quite a long time and the other person is slowly backing away, it’s time to turn the focus on them. Whether you’re talking to your coworker, a new friend, or an ajeossi who thinks you’re fluent in Korean, make an effort to learn about that other person in a meaningful and balanced conversation. Become a better listener and question-asker. Think about the other person’s story and what more you would like to know. Not only does this help with awkward silences, but also tells the other person that you care enough to ask! Now, it’s just up to us to change and hopefully make for a more united and attentive expat community. Are you up for it?



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As a recent graduate from back in the states, Laura came to Bucheon, South Korea, in August 2012 hoping for an adventure as well as the opportunity to add to her teaching experience. Leaving family and friends behind was difficult, as it is for everyone, so she keeps them updated of her journey here through her blog, “Goings-on in Bucheon”. She has met so many incredible people here so far and hopes to make more life-long connections as she continues to travel to wherever she ends up next.

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