I am an American expat living in South Korea. Glamourous, right?
I grew up as an expat living in Kuwait and Dubai. My American dad hung out with Arabs and Westerners alike, so we had friends from all over. My sister and I went to an American school and were taught English at the expense of Arabic (actually, many wealthy Arabs sent their kids to the American school as well. It was the trendy thing to do). While most kids might have spent their lazy summers playing baseball at the neighborhood park or just playing in the street, we spent every day rambling around exclusive beach clubs. We were able to afford luxuries that we wouldn’t have been able to have in the States, like a live-in nanny. I grew accustomed to a lifestyle that was very different from what I’d find in America when we ‘returned’.
Because I’m a complete nerd, the word expat brings to mind Ernest Hemingway or Gertrude Stein, chilling at cafes in Paris where they can be free to think their own thoughts which eventually find their way back home to change society.
Now that I’m living in Korea, I realize that the reality is more like my childhood in the Middle East. Being an expat is about escaping responsibility and living it up. It involves a surprising amount of alcohol (though I’m sure Hemingway, at least, did not limit his imbibing to dainty French coffees), and a lot of partying.
I don’t think this perception is limited to my experience in Korea. I just finished John Wood’s book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, and the author shares his commentary on the lifestyle of Microsoft expats living in Sydney and Beijing, which is one of glamour, escapism, and entitlement. Those who epitomize the lifestyle do it because they can live the high life, making a relatively high income and taking advantage of favorable economics.
In Wood’s case, he and his girlfriend were both emblematic of the expat lifestyle in China. As a Microsoft employee, Wood had plenty of money, and living in China, which was less developed than it is today, he was able to have all sorts of luxuries he wouldn’t get otherwise, such as a personal driver. His girlfriend had come from the rural Midwest and was so hooked on the glamorous life that she refused to go on vacations that didn’t involve resorts and 4-star hotels.
I don’t think I would be going too far to suggest that for many, living abroad is seen as an extended vacation with perks.
Nothing wrong with that, and if it occurs in a context of learning new perspectives living in a new country, all the better.
Expat: Ur Doin’ it Wrong
For A and myself, this has made us sort of outcasts. Korea has a famous Mud Festival, which is a big draw for expats and tourists. All the guidebooks and hearsay tell us that it’s basically one giant, mud-covered, alcohol-sodden party: generally a good time. It’s famous. It’s the Korean Expat Experience. How could you live here for a year and miss it?
Problem: A and I are not into that sort of thing. We have no intention of going to the Mud Festival. Our idea of fun is hiking up one of Korea’s gorgeous mountains and spending an afternoon in the woods. We don’t think this is better or worse, it’s just what we enjoy.
But it seems we are missing out on the expat experience. We haven’t made it to all the Places You Should Go, we haven’t seen all the Things You Should See. Or if we do go, we mess it up pretty badly.
Our best trip was to a no-name inn situated in Korea’s eastern mountains, totally off the beaten track, where we were the only guests and treated to a family meal with the inn’s owner on the Lunar New Year. It was a total mistake, and it only happened because we were crazy enough to want to visit Korea’s highest peak in the dead of winter. In other words, a genuine adventure.
We tried to see the World Expo, and that went terribly thanks to poor planning (on both sides), but we loved lunch at a Buddhist temple on Buddha’s birthday celebration, again something more in line with our particular interests.
I wouldn’t call those failures, but we certainly learned our lesson: stop trying to be something we’re not.
It seemed we were just no good at expat living (though we do spend a fair amount of time at cafes writing).
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet…
Instead of the Mud Festival, we are planning a visit to a random beach along the western coastline in one of Korea’s biggest nature preservations. We’re excited to see some birds and other rare animals.
Boring? Perhaps. Glamourous? Certainly not.
But, that’s how we roll, and if there’s one thing Warrior Spirit is all about, it’s accepting your own unique version of life. Trying to fit ourselves into the Expat mold did not go well, so we’ll just do our own thing.
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