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Friday, June 19, 2015


Expats know this where language and culture are often confounding. The days can be wonderful, filled with rich memories in the making. But the future always looms.

Expats here can be found plying social media with complaints and criticism born largely, I think, from the frustration of living and working in Korea. English teachers and professors, easily the largest expat contingent, sometimes chide their schools online for their hiring practices and overall treatment of foreign teachers. "It's not just Korea," a friend assured me. "Expats around the world do the same thing. It's a common phenomenon."

I found myself growing annoyed with what seemed to me to be a kind of xenophobia in reverse; a group of expats who more than occasionally give voice to what is ailing Korea, what is broken, dysfunctional, and needs to change. Their lives, they believe, would be easier, if only they were treated more fairly, more like what constitutes propriety in their home countries.

"Living abroad requires certain  measures of self-reliance
and strength of character"

In fact, satisfaction at work is key to a positive expat experience. English teachers spend many hours in the classroom or in other locations in their respective schools. If Korean schools, whether hagwons (language institutes), public schools, private schools or universities, were inclined to better understand and respond to the needs of expat teachers, many expat concerns and grievances could be ameliorated. Problems both in and out of the workplace can distract expat teachers, adversely effecting their productivity, and contributing to shorter stays in Korea.

The reality of course, is that most of us are not citizens here. We are instead simply guests, working stiffs, doing the job, contract by contract, at the discretion of our employers and on the receiving end of government policies here. We are not Koreans and we are treated differently. And we are, almost always, treated "less than" native Koreans.

Living abroad requires certain measures of self-reliance and strength of character. Each expat location has its own unique idiosyncracies. Here in Korea, while certainly less of an issue than 40 years ago, being stared at is still commonplace. Korea is also infamous for its crazy drivers who ignore driving laws and seem to abhor the very idea of pedestrians.

Denmark, currently home to more than 41,500 expats, regularly undertakes research on the unique experience of expats in that country. The country is genuinely concerned with the expat experience. Denmark, it seems, wants to leverage the added value that expats bring to their economy.  In sponsoring "The Expat Study," ongoing research authorized by the Danish government, it recognizes that "companies, research institutions, and nations must search for competence and knowledge world-wide if they are to gain or maintain a competitive advantage." The research findings include what expats there generally find positive and negative. Expats, for example, often find Danes "closed-off and difficult to form friendships with." On the other hand, they find the good work-life balance in Denmark to be quite positive. Positive and negative experiences, it appears, are inevitable.

For most expats there is that unavoidable "looming future." After living in China for many years and marrying a Chinese woman, Mark Kitto, then 46, one of the best-known foreign entrepreneurs in China at the time and fluent in Chinese, wrote about his expat experience in an essay, "You'll Never Be Chinese."  As an expat, he fell out of love with China as his fears about the increasing pollution in northern China, water shortages and issues around food safety brought his disenchantment to a head. Moreover, as his young children got older, he wanted to give them what he felt was "a decent education."

Expats, I think, can sometimes become afflicted with a self-inflated superiority. We can lose our humility and open-mindedness. I know this well and personally.  Having lived here in Korea from 1973-1975, I experienced my share of challenges and frustrations. In that era before the internet and computers, getting a letter home to family and hearing back took, at best, 4-6 weeks. Sitting on a western style toilet was a dream. Just eating a hamburger or pizza, our go-to fast foods, was not possible, unless you had a close buddy on one of the military bases. There were nightly curfews that required you to be off the streets by 9:30PM. In an environment with few westerners, young children regularly ridiculed my beard calling me "monkey." I left Korea in 1975 worn out, frustrated and bitter, swearing I would never return.

Today, Korea has an expat community of more than 1.5 million. We are clearly helping Korea satisfy their need for specialized workers, most usually in the area of English education, a critical competency for Korea's continuing leadership in the global marketplace. Like Denmark, there is an unmistakeable opportunity for Korea to better understand and respond to the needs of its expat community. But like it or not, we remain ambassadors from our home countries. Our behavior, positive or negative, reflects on the expat community overall. While there is certainly no shortage of things to complain about, at the end of the day, it is worth recalling, most of us are here as guests. "For, after all, put it as we may to ourselves," author Rebecca Harding Davis offered, "we are all of us from birth to death guests at a table which we did not spread."

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