Have you ever wanted to run away to a foreign land, learn a new language, try new foods, and meet different people? I did, and chose to study and work in South Korea. It’s been an unforgettable experience, and one that has taken my life on a course I would never have imagined. But what is it actually like? Well, let’s just say it’s tough, yet inspiring; challenging, yet enriching. Most of all though: it’s rewarding. Below I’ll give a brief insight into just some of the things one can expect when moving overseas, and why it’s a must.
Be prepared to change your worldview
The most rewarding part of living abroad is how you grow personally. I first moved to Seoul as a bright, young 18 year old. Perhaps due to my age at the time, I was easily moulded by my environment, but during that first year, my opinion of many things changed dramatically. I feel as though I became more aware of the world around me; more specifically, I realised that the way in which I was raised and the way things are in my own culture aren’t necessarily the ‘correct’ ways or the only ones. I wasn’t brought up in a bubble or anything (Australia is a pretty multicultural place), but the little things people did differently, the way they interacted with others, the things they held in high regard, or how they behaved in unfamiliar environments; it all began to open my eyes to a radically different world than that I had known.
And that is what is most exciting! You learn, you grow, and you get inspired. I know that when I went back home to Australia for the first time, all I could do was ask ‘why’? Why do we do things this way? Why can’t we do that, too? Things that I had taken for granted, or had entirely given up hope on, suddenly didn’t have to be that way. I realized that with a little bit of willpower and know-how from my time abroad, I could change things.
Struggle with culture shock
As they say, the struggle is real. Culture shock is one of those things that creeps up on you when you’re not watching. At first, you don’t even realize you have it. You find yourself slowly feeling agitated, uneasy, and down about everyday things. And despite having lived here on and off for a number of years now, I still got culture shock when I returned for my third stint last August. It takes time to get past it, and you have to actively choose to overcome it. For me, it’s little things. I’d get frustrated at the sheer amount of people everywhere, on the way people would push you on the subway, the dreaded ajummas, or just not being able to find my favourite food. But like I said, you need to focus on other things, or it will eat you alive and ruin your trip before it really even begins.
Even scarier is the reverse culture shock. REVERSE? What’s that, you may be asking. It’s the culture shock you get when you go back home. Yes, that’s right, back in your own country. After you’ve become a pro at dealing with the ajummas, and even better at giving a slight nudge back on the train, you’ve now forgotten what it was like to live back home. In my case, it was that things costed more, were not as convenient, or that everything shuts early! After getting used to living in a truly 24-hour city, with McDelivery on call, beer free flowing all hours of the day, and trains pretty much at my door every 2 minutes, moving back to Australia was harder than I expected. And then there was the Internet speed. My god, don’t get me started. In all seriousness though, this is something that a lot of people forget to prepare for, myself included. Make sure you begin winding things down in the weeks leading up to your departure, so not as to leave abruptly. I didn’t, and it just felt like I was plucked from my life in one city, and dumped in another where I hadn’t been for over a year.
So yeah, culture shock is a real thing, and it can really get you down unless you actively try to get past it! Something to be aware of.
This can be one of the toughest things. It doesn’t always happen, but there are particular times of the year or certain things that will just make you wish home wasn’t a 9-hour flight and $1500 away. Christmas and birthdays are the obvious ones here. I spent last Christmas in Korea and it was amazing, but it’s still nothing like spending it at home with family: opening presents together, and tucking into that typical Aussie summer Christmas lunch. Other than dates on the calendar, whenever I’m feeling really stressed, worn out, or just down, home comes a-calling.
Also, you end up missing a tonne of events with your friends, and it can often feel like you’re missing out on a lifetime of memories. But just think, you’re making new ones here in this new place that are just as amazing, and just as memorable, and ones that you’ll look back on with pride.
So enough of the tough side of it, what about the good?
Learn another language
The one really tangible thing I gained from living abroad, has to be having learnt Korean. This more than anything has opened so many doors for me, I can’t imagine my life without it. I’m by no means fluent, but even knowing just a bit makes a world of difference. The conversations you have, the people you meet, and the stuff you learn. Knowing another language is truly a one of a kind experience. In Korea, one thing you’ll never hear the end of, is apparently how great you are at the language, even if you can only muster a croaky ‘hello’ or ‘where is the nearest bathroom’. Koreans love it when you speak their language, and will literally praise you for mumbling the most basic of expressions. You make their day when you speak to them in their language, and it really brings you that one step closer to the culture as well.
There are just some cultural things you can’t express in English, and when you learn them it’s like opening your eyes to this hidden concept that you never knew about. While not the best example, take 고소하다 (gosohada) for one. This word is used to describe that nutty, savoury flavour that you often find in certain foods like oils, and nuts. Sesame oil, often eaten with Korean BBQ, is one example. It’s not really nutty, and it’s not entirely savoury, it’s just somewhere in the middle. When you get to know it, you can pick it in foods instantly. It left me wondering, how do we not have this word in English? Schadenfreude, from German, meaning ‘taking enjoyment in others’ misfortune’, has to be another personal favourite of mine.
More than this, though, is just being able to talk and converse with a whole group of people that were previously out of touch. That old lady down the street, the gentleman in the coffee shop, or your neighbour. This leads to all kinds of stories, conversations, and tales that I would never have heard had I not learnt Korean. It can also be a lot of fun, too. There were times when I was working part-time back in Australia and I’d have Korean customers, completely unaware, saying this or that, when I’d pipe up with a ‘감사합니다’ (thank you) at the end, and catch them off guard. In retrospect, I’m not sure how polite of me that was. Nevertheless, learning a language enriches your life in more ways than one, and regardless of any plans to live overseas, I encourage each and every one of you to start today!
Make amazing new friends
People and friends are what make life interesting. I couldn’t even begin to list the countless number of inspiring, brilliant, and downright amazing people I’ve met in my time here in Korea, from all over the world. I now have friends on pretty much every continent and from all walks of life. They’ve helped me grow, helped me learn, and shown me that no matter where we come from, we’re all pretty much the same: human. I now have a very long list of people I have to visit whenever I go abroad, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Along with language, the friendships you make are another thing you take with you when you go home, whenever that ends up being.
So, to conclude, I’ll say this: no matter how much risk-taking is necessary, how much faith in yourself you need, no matter how much you miss home, or how hopeless you are at another language… no matter what happens, living abroad is a worthwhile experience that I can’t recommend enough. Really. Go. Take that leap of faith. Meet new people, see new things, experience new tastes, and find a new you. Because in the end, what else are we living for?
You can read more from Blair at his blog here.
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- The experience of living abroad, and why it’s a must: Blair Williams - October 7, 2014