After an extended break, Brit abroad guest posts are back. This month's post comes from Ruth Dear, who's currently living and working in Seoul, South Korea.
I think wanderlust is in my genes. It definitely runs in my family. My parents used to take me and my two older brothers on holiday when we were still babies. There are numerous pictures of me in a nappy running around on different beaches, and certainly we didn’t go to run of the mill places either. 25 years ago, Greek islands and Portuguese towns that are now tourist traps were small seaside villages where we could wander around interacting with the local people. I was too young to really remember these places, but I think some of my parents' desire to see new and exotic places was instilled in me and my brothers too. We are now a family spread across the globe: one brother is in Copenhagen and the other is currently in Afghanistan (he’s an RAF officer). This appetite for exploration led me to inter-rail around Western Europe after university and then pack my bag for a British Council teaching job in Suzhou, China about a year later. I wasn’t finished with being an expat after China; despite returning home and managing to find a really good teaching position. I have nomadic itchy feet! So I upped sticks and moved abroad yet again, much to the dismay of my mum. This time I made the move to Seoul, South Korea.
When you’ve made the decision to live aboard, people always seem to ask you ‘Why did you decide to live in ____?’ My answer about China was a simple one: ‘It’s a developing nation, it has a fascinating history, and it’d be cool to speak Chinese!’ I’m afraid my reasons for moving to Seoul weren’t as innocent. I was lured back to Asia because I feel there is so much more to explore and discover. I wanted to see the beaches of Thailand and Bali, float down the Mekong delta, explore the temples of Angkor, dance all night at the full moon parties of Ko Pha Ngan, witness the splendor of Laos’ 4000 Islands. Basically, I wanted to travel more. I came to Korea because of the fantastic public school teaching programme run by the government. Although there are more private language academies in Korea than you can shake a stick at, a teaching job there would have meant only 10 days holiday a year. The public school programme allows me to plan extended travels around Asia for my winter and summer vacation. It also offers me a good salary and rent-free accommodation. Why did I choose South Korea? Because it was too good an opportunity not to.
Having said that, of course you can’t live somewhere you don’t like. It really is great to live in this part of the world. Seoul has a fantastic amount of different neighbourhoods, perfect for exploring at weekends: trendy Sinsa-dong, posh Gangnam-gu, vibrant university districts like Hongdae and Kongdae, tourist-friendly Insa-dong… and foreigner town Itaewon (where the US military base ensures your fix of all things western). Korea is a country of national parks and a nation of hikers. Even in Seoul, the city is surrounded by mountains. Travelling around the country is simple, quick and cheap so it was convenient for me to visit the friends I had down in the seaside town of Busan; a great place to visit in the summer months.
My favourite experience out here so far happened almost exactly a year ago. A group of us spent the afternoon at Lotteworld, a (mostly) indoor theme park right in the middle of the city. We had a great day on all the rides, even witnessing a rather early Christmas parade. Lotteworld is situated within a wider entertainment complex so after we’d exhausted the rides, we headed down to spend an hour on the ice skating rink; after one too many falls we then headed into the bowling alley. As day swiftly glided into evening we headed to the gangnam area and a BBQ restaurant we’d been regulars at for a while. The proceeding shenanigans saw us become a little bit more than tipsy, taking over the music choices, blasting out ‘Wonderwall’, digging into an ice-cream cake and generally filling the places with much joviality. It was one of those days that just keeps on going, and no one wanted it to end.
Living in Asia can be tough though; along with the homesickness that every person living abroad encounters, this area of the world couldn’t be more different to England. The concept of personal space doesn’t really exist here, as it does in the west. You can quickly and easily become agitated by the amount of pushing and shoving that goes on in Seoul, particularly on the subway. Public transport is incredibly reliable, clean and cheap, but travelling on the bus can be dangerous! Just this morning I had a maniac bus driver, accelerator on the floor one minute and slamming on the brake the next, woe betide any passenger not gripping onto the hand rails! I quickly learnt to hold on for dear life and only relax once both feet have made it safely to the pavement. The weather here is another thing you have to get used to. I never thought that as a Brit abroad, I would actually prefer the weather in England but seriously, I miss it. Korea boasts about its four seasons. Yes, it has four seasons, but spring and autumn both last for about a week each, and are squeezed between 5 and a half months of blistering heat and humidity combined with torrential rainfall, and bitterly cold days full of snow and ice. Korea has a climate of extremes.
Seoul is the largest capital city in the developed world, with a population of 10 million. It is the world’s second largest metropolitan area with the third largest subway in the world. With these statistics in mind it might be impossible to see how living here could be lonely. However, the friends I made during my first two weeks of orientation all live in different parts of this huge city. The availability of transportation makes it easy to see each other, but the journeys can take over an hour sometimes; making popping over to a friend's house for a cup of tea rather a mission. I think this is the biggest hurdle to overcome here in Seoul, and one that I still struggle with. In the heady first 6 months of being here everyone is filled with the energy to travel everywhere and meet up as regularly as possible. But as this desire gives way to the reality of budgeting and burn-out, mid-week outings die out. This is perhaps a natural progression of life abroad, and it forces you to enjoy your own company and explore at your own pace.
I enjoy living in Korea though; in August I re-signed to stay another year. It’s a long commitment, especially for someone whose soles get itchy quickly. But so far second year is moving along smoothly. I’ve pro-actively made a list of things I never got round to doing in my first year: hiking the mountain nearby my house, picnicking in Seoul forest, skiing, volunteering and plenty of eating. I’m more settled in a job than I’ve ever been before. Things have become more mundane as expat life starts to just become normal life, but for now I’ll continue to explore my city at the weekends, plan my next holiday adventure and try to avoid any more bruises on the subway...