It pains me to admit that it still surprises me just how many foreigners I come across in South Korea who are exposed to one of three stereotypes about why we’re here. The pigeonholing usually comes from well-meaning friends and family still in their home country. They are either asked what they are running away from, put on a pedestal of bravery that they could never muster up, or that they’ve consumed too much K-pop and K-dramas and have culturally lost their mind. Why does this happen?
When I decided to live abroad, I was 14 years old. I didn’t act on that desire until I was in my 30s, but it was always there. When I began talking about the goal in my late 20s with loved ones, I was faced with a lot of questions I didn’t anticipate. Your family is here, why would you want to leave? What if something happens? Why are you running away from everything that you know? Honestly, it would offend me at times. I wasn’t trying to run from anything or anyone — I had a goal and I wanted to achieve it. Why does leaving what’s always been familiar terrify some people enough to never move beyond what they know? Where were the questions about how I’d make things work, the research I was doing to prepare myself as best as I could and the online friends I was making who made the future move more welcoming?
Speaking of research, some are legitimately here for academic purposes. The facial expressions I remember seeing when I’d mention this still cracks me up. What, you thought that there were no foreign students at Korean schools? This happens when you forget that, once outside of your country, you are the foreigner.
Assuming that stepping outside of the box is the same as running from one’s current circumstances is biased. Getting away doesn’t have to lead to continental differences. Locking a bedroom door, ignoring a text or phone call, and binging Netflix are sufficient enough for some. They aren’t running away just the same as I and many others living in Korea aren’t. If nothing else, we’ve moved towards our own sense of happiness.
Some call us brave for it, too.
While meeting a visiting friend at Incheon airport, we ended up sandwiched with a couple from Nevada and started chatting a bit. Turns out, one of them had lived and worked in Korea for a few years before returning home. She and her husband had since flown to several other countries together at least twice a year. Half-jokingly, she said, “A few of our friends made such a big deal about us coming [to Korea right now]. ‘Oh, we can’t afford all the trips you take, you’re so lucky,’ or ‘I just don’t know how safe it is over there, you’re so brave.’ We’re just living our lives. I don’t get it.” I believe that expats define being brave differently than most. We think of it as something far bigger than packing a traveler’s backpack or a couple pieces of luggage. There are varying degrees of inherent danger wherever we decide to go, but it doesn’t hit us as being brave. It’s adventure and it’s a choice that we commit to. Logic and (sometimes) stable finances? Hold our beer.
I get it, for every circumstance there exists someone who will fit the bill. I actually do know of someone who bravely ran away to Korea and now, they cannot return to their home country. Certainly a story for another time. For now… for many somewhere in this country, we’re simply trying to live. We’ve our own goals, bucket list wishes and moments of uncertainty while on our job or in our university classroom.