AS milestones, new years are good for any number of things – starting new habits, trying to break old ones, and making the usual resolutions and to-do lists. Since New Year’s Eve in 2008, I’ve celebrated the holiday in a number of different ways – walking around the backstreets of Busan, singing Auld Lang Syne and looking up the lesser-known verses on my smartphone, sipping champagne from a plastic glass at a punk show, and at a random party in Itaewon. I’ve met the woman I’ll marry here, I’ve traveled the country many times over, and have been incredibly fortunate to meet some wonderfully talented people. I’ve grown as a photographer, a writer, and have hopefully influenced or encouraged a few people along the way. Like most expats, you come expecting to stay just a year, and find yourself attracted to the country (or perhaps looking to avoid the reality of the job situation in your home country).
I’ll be leaving Korea in early March, most likely for good.
This decision has not come lightly, nor without a serious look at what comes next. A few things I know:
- Seoul is a freakin’ AWESOME city. Having the vast majority of expats and restaurants from around the world isn’t enough, though – if you’re in Seoul, you have access to plenty of public space to do almost anything you please. The apartments may be small, but then again they’re small across the country.
- English teaching in Korea is not for everyone. Sure, I can do it (and have for years), but knowing how to make a lesson plan or explaining the pedagogical reasoning behind your approach often takes a back seat to having the right color of skin or hair. Worse, too many other factors get in the way of actually accomplishing the educational goals that are laid out – from abstract things like ‘student satisfaction’ to concrete things like test scores not going up.
- There is a glass ceiling for anyone that isn’t rich or not married to a Korean. Starting a business has gotten to be harder than it was in previous years, and currently requires a 300,000,000 won (about $300,000 USD) investment to qualify for the business-class visa. Finding a job that isn’t teaching English is still tough, since those are in short supply and are rarely what you might call stable.
- There’s very little left for me to accomplish or do in this country. The blog quickly morphed from letting friends and family know what was happening in Korea to writing for a more international audience. Photography started with a 2 megapixel point-and-shoot (I’m NOT proud of some older posts!), and morphed into a DSLR a few years ago; today I shoot with some wonderful equipment that continues to amaze me. I’ve written two books (with a revision of the second and a third book on the way!), taken tens of thousands of pictures across the country, and plenty more.
- The language barrier will continue to be the expat’s biggest hindrance to success. The people that are most able to help you succeed are most likely monolingual, and the people I’ve seen have the most success are typically able to hold a conversation in Korean. Your personal definition of success may not require reaching out to the locals, but they do own the vast majority of venues.
- Korea is a great place to develop your creativity, but not the best place to make a career out of it. More venues than ever feature foreign singers, dancers, and performers of all kinds, and more resources than ever before exist to get talent in front of a stage. Korea remains a great place to network and meet like-minded people, and there’s plenty of opportunities that await once you’ve said goodbye to your students and welcome the weekend. With that said, the group of English-speaking expats in Korea is too small a market – you’ll either need to appeal to the locals or find a way to market yourself abroad.
- Going back to the Western world is not an option I’ve seriously entertained. Sure, it would be nice to see the family and some old friends, but the reality of finding a job (or even making my own) is only part of the reason. It’d be starting over in many ways – buying a car would be a necessary expense and quite likely to drain whatever savings I’m able to take with me. It sounds incredibly lame, but “home” is not where my parents live, where I lived before coming to Korea, or even where I was born. Home is where you happen to be storing your stuff and sleeping at night, and isn’t tied to a specific location. It’s where you’re comfortable in your own skin, and don’t have to change who you are.
- There are plenty of opportunities out there – it’s just a matter of going out and creating the ones you want. I’ve watched a number of folks hustle and do some cool things, and I’ve seen many an expat drink their manwon away while complaining about their jobs. Who you know and who you’re around make all the difference.
So what’s next?
My lady and I are planning to move to Thailand for at least the next few months – she’s been there in the past, and I’ve heard some good things about it. I aim to write, take pictures, and definitely blog. There’s also a book idea or two to explore. She’ll be working as a Korean-to-English translator, and has been pretty good at taking pictures herself. In coming weeks there will be plenty of Korea posts; after I’ve left I’ll wrap up this blog with a look at what’s similar or different between the two countries from an expat’s perspective.
Also, don’t worry – all the old blog posts will be archived for your viewing pleasure even years from now. For now, keep calm – there’s plenty more posts about Korea still to come, and there’s still a few things I intend to do before leaving.