9 Lessons I’ve Learned as an Expat

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9 Lessons I've Learned as an Expat

I’m going to make a bold statement, so get ready for it. It might sound ridiculous or even impossible, but that doesn’t make it any less true. 

So here it goes.

Living overseas has taught me more in one year than I’ve learned in my entire life. 

That’s right — more than I learned in university or working a full-time job.

Living in South Korea has taught me little things: I can proudly open a bottle of beer with chopsticks (though I can’t promise the chopsticks won’t end up broken). I know how to properly use a squatter toilet, as unenjoyable as the experience may be. And I can sing the chorus of at least one K-Pop song, karaoke-style.

As I pack my bags and prepare to say goodbye to this place that’s been my home for the last year, I’ve found myself reflecting on a few of the more serious lessons I’ve learned.

Lessons I’ve learned about South Korea. About the world. And at the risk of sounding cliché, about myself.

1. There’s no such thing as “normal”

During my first week in Korea, I attended an intensive orientation where they fed us three meals a day. I remember being totally weirded out when they served us rice, pork and kimchi for breakfast. Where’s the normal breakfast food? I remember thinking.

And when I arrived at my school and saw my classroom, I was surprised by the world map. Asia is on the left side where the Americas “normally” are. Why is it backwards, I wondered.

I’ve had my share of these moments over the last 12 months. But I’ve learned that I am the weird one in Korea. In this country, pancakes for breakfast is a strange idea. And the map I’m used to is backwards to half of the world. 

When we use the word “normal” to describe food, routines, or ideas, it implies that our culture is superior to the one to which we are comparing. It has been a humbling discovery to learn firsthand that in a foreign land, it is indeed the foreigner who is strange. 

2. Understanding how it feels to be an outsider

There’s nothing quite like being plopped into a foreign country to teach you what it’s like to be a minority. I feel like an outsider every day. When I walk down the street, people stare for an inappropriate amount of time, and small children point and shout excitedly, “Waygookin!” Foreigner. I can’t forget that I’m different.

At work, I’m often excluded from conversations because it’s too complicated to explain to the foreigner. It can be lonely when everyone is laughing at a joke that you just don’t understand. No matter how long you live in another country, there are always going to be things that separate you.

But I’m going to come right out and say it: I’m lucky. I am in a country where I’m appreciated, treated well, and respected. My heart breaks for minorities who don’t feel valued in the place in which they’re living.

Living in a foreign place has also shown me the comfort one finds in being with people like themselves. The expat community in South Korea is huge. As much as I love talking to my Korean friends, there’s just something comforting about spending time with other foreigners. We come from all different parts of the world — the United States, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa — but we are all alike in the sense that we are foreign here. We’re similar because we’re different.

3. What the rest of the world really thinks of my country

Living in one’s own country can often shelter you from the opinions of the outside world. Sure, you may have some idea what other nations think, but it is likely watered down. 

America has been in the spotlight over the past year, and mostly for negative reasons. With police brutality and mass shootings headlining the media (to name a couple events), I have heard a gamut of opinions from Koreans and other foreigners alike. 

Looking in from the outside has given me a really interesting perspective. I feel like I have oversimplified opinions on complex topics because I haven’t been there to experience the dynamics firsthand. But I also feel like living overseas has introduced me to viewpoints from people of all nationalities and backgrounds — something I might not get closer to home. I have heard news reports from around the world (not just American sources). I’ve learned about gun laws and racism in other countries, and have heard different ideas about healing a society with deeply entrenched injustices.

In my case, leaving home was the best way to learn about where I’m from. And it’s not all bad things I’ve learned. I have certainly realized some pretty incredible things that I take for granted about my own country. Unlike many parts of the world, people in America are free to express their opinions without fear of punishment from the government. Gay couples can now be married, and socioeconomic status doesn’t have to determine your future. And on a lighter note, quality cheese is abundant. Unlike in Asia.

4. Every country has good and bad

Traveling often only reveals a country’s best features. You typically choose the top destinations and fill your days doing things you enjoy. Living somewhere is entirely different. Yes, I have seen the wonderful things Korea has to offer — the lush mountains, cutting-edge technology, delicious food, and friendly people. But I’ve been here long enough to see the bad too.

I’ve seen the vanity of a society obsessed with appearance and plastic surgery. It’s not uncommon to see young women with fresh scars from a popular operation that promises the coveted double eyelid. And every day on my walk to work, I pass by elderly garbage collectors balancing huge wooden carts of other people’s trash on their shoulders. These men and women, the same age as my grandmother, make a measly salary for their (literally) back-breaking work. It’s a job that seems dated given the amount of technology in this country. 

Traveling can sometimes allow us to put the country we’re visiting on a pedestal — for we see only what tourists are meant to see. But when you stay a while, you’ll learn that no country is perfect. Every place in this world has its beauty and its scars.

5. A better understanding of friendships

Being thousands of miles (and several time zones) apart has undoubtedly put my friendships to the test. I am waking up as my friends and family back home are getting off work. And when nighttime falls on South Korea, the day is just beginning in the United States. It can make setting up times to talk seem impossible, and therefore makes me sincerely appreciate those who go out of their way to make it work. 

Some friends have paid ridiculous amounts on po stage to send me my favorite cookie recipe or deodorant (because they know how difficult it is to find in Korea). I can say from experience, sending a thoughtful gift to a friend overseas will absolutely make their week.

There are other friends who I haven’t spoken to since I said my final farewell. And that’s fine. It’s no more their fault than it is my own. We will pick up where we left off when we’re in the same place again, but distance has illuminated where our friendship stands. And to be blunt, being far apart has shown me who I miss most. 

This year has also reminded me that you’re never too old to make new friends. Living in another country has brought new people into my life whose friendship I can’t imagine my life without. My time in Korea has shown me that friends you make while living overseas are special because you go through an incredibly unique experience together. One that outsiders can’t completely understand.

6. Living overseas isn’t always glamorous

A lot of people have this idea that living in a foreign country is exotic and exciting. And it is. But not every day is Instagram-worthy. I live a normal life for the most part. I wake up early, go to work for 8 hours each day, and run errands in the evenings. I cook dinner, work out, and go grocery shopping just like anyone. 

Day-to-day life in another country isn’t all that different than what it’d be like at home. It’s the surroundings that change. My grocery shopping is done with Google Translate and I’m stared at when I go for a run because it’s a strange pastime here. 

I’d expect to have a similar routine living just about anywhere in the world. There are mundane moments in the Galapagos just like there are in Minnesota. There are the same chores to be done in Bali as in suburbia. We all have to make money, feed ourselves, and clean up after our messes. 

7. How to live more simply

Korea is a country where you can have everything you could ever want with the click of a button. The online shopping scene is insane. With incredibly fast and cheap shipping, you might not think Korea would be a place to simplify life, but for me it has been just that.

The past year has changed how I look at material things. I’ve known from the beginning that my stay here has an expiration date, so I think twice before every purchase. Knowing I’ll have to pack anything I buy into one of my two suitcases when I leave makes it easy to walk past the endless isles of cozy duvets and cute coffee mugs.

Living in a place that isn’t permanent can help you differentiate between necessity and comfort. When you have to pack all your belongings into a suitcase, you’ll find that many things add bulk instead of value to your life. By eliminating those material items, I’ve earned a sense of unparalleled freedom that comes with a life of few possessions.

8. Take pride in patience

There is no better way to learn the art of patience than to move somewhere completely foreign. At home, I could walk into a bank, speak to a teller, and have my entire transaction taken care of in under 10 minutes. Not the case in Korea. Before visiting the bank, I need to translate anything I want to ask. And when I finally end up speaking to someone, it can take hours to communicate simple questions and even longer to fill out paperwork in a foreign language.

And then there’s grocery shopping, paying my phone bill, and navigating public transportation. Every simple errand takes exponentially longer than I’d expect it to. But you know the great part? It gets easier. And each seemingly mundane task I successfully complete gives me a little boost of pride I certainly wouldn’t feel at home doing all those things on auto-pilot.

9. The world is small and big at the same time

I am constantly surprised by the connections I make when I’m far from home. In fact, I feel sometimes that the further you venture, the more people you meet who dated your college roommate, attended the same conference way back when, or grew up in the same town. There are all these connections, however significant, that intertwine us and make the world feel so much smaller and accessible.

But in another vein, this year abroad has taught me how big this planet is. It’s interesting to think back on how little I knew about Korea before moving here. I feel like an entirely new world has been revealed to me over the last 12 months, yet I know I’ve only just skimmed the surface. I know the same is true for every corner of the globe. 

There are so many places to explore, cultures to learn about, and people to meet. I didn’t think it was possible, but it’s safe to say my wanderlust has been kindled even more by the experience of living in a different country.

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Lessons Learned as an Expat
Lessons Learned as an Expat

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Comments (9) on “9 Lessons I’ve Learned as an Expat

  1. gb says:

    I’ve been doing work in Daejeon since 2007. I work about a year, then I am gone for a few years, then return for a year, etc. It is April 2021, the pandemic is not over yet.

    I’ve seen a lot of changes since 2007. In Daejeon, joggers are fairly common now. I’m surprised at the number of remaining Korean smokers.
    One hoped that the high education level would finally end this terrible health menace.

    Korea now has the lowest birth rate in the world, even lower than Japan. Marriage is a dying institution here. Religion (Christianity) seems to be finally declining, a natural consequence of education and the Internet flow of information.

    Like almost all people in the U.S., most Koreans are largely ignorant about health. They continue to adopt the toxic Western diet of high amounts of dairy, meats, and sugary foods/drinks. As expected, cardiovascular disease and stroke are on the rise in Korea.

    Still a lack of diversity in deodorant choices, but one can always get Nivea online. Bed sizes are still not standardized, so bed sheets are very hard to get, unless one orders on-line.

    One still sees the heart-wrenching sight of very elderly people dragging heavy carts full of cardboard, and other recyclables.

    The good? The Korean people have a wonderful culture of courtesy, and are especially kind and gracious to foreigners. Of course none of that is true when they are behind the wheel of a car. Just like us westerners, the Koreans also lose their minds.

    The fast food delivery motorcycles are worse than ever. They don’t even pretend to obey traffic lights, and ride sidewalks and bicycle paths with impunity. The cops are nowhere to be seen.

  2. pkmaui@yahoo.com says:

    Yes, in Sofia Bulgaria for 12 years—Many……
    I like your views on “9 ways”…and may submit something to expand on what you wrote!

    • hello@twowanderingsoles.com says:

      Very cool, we loved Sofia! What a fun city to call home! Yes, definitely so many lessons to learn as an expat! We continue learning each and every day 🙂

  3. stephaniedguevarra@gmail.com says:

    I love your blog!!! Thank you for sharing your experiences in Korea. Been contemplating whether or not I should teach English in Korea. This definitely helps me decide. Thank you !

    • ktdieder@gmail.com says:

      Hey Stephanie, thanks so much for the nice comment. Teaching in Korea is such an amazing experience that allows you to see the world in a way you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. We made some of our best friends there and miss it daily! If you end up teaching in Korea, we’d love to hear how you like it! Best of luck 🙂

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