When you’re a foreigner living in Korea, eventually someone is going to ask, “Why did you come here?”
I’m painfully jealous of people who have easy answers to that question.
They can say that they’re obsessed with K-pop and wanted to be closer to their idols; or they’ve always been interested in Asian culture; or they wanted a financially responsible way to see the world; life is one big adventure and Korea is one of many countries on their world tour.
But when people ask me the same question, I get uncomfortable. My story is about failure.
After all, you don’t just up and leave your country at the age of 33 because everything is going swimmingly.
Here is the glammed up version of my story: I’m a movie buff, and more than ten years ago, Korean films started to drift across my radar. The big ones, like Oldboy, The Host, I Saw the Devil, etc. Slowly, South Korea shifted from a place I had never thought much about to a place that seemed familiar and inviting.
Then I got hooked on a few Korean dramas, which offered a slightly more immersive experience than movies. The characters’ sense of romance and their sincerity was touching, a refreshing change from my usual cynicism and ironic distance. As a southerner who had been raised to be “ladylike” and deferential, I could groove with the Korean values of respect and good manners. As a teacher, I was intrigued by the country’s reputation for putting a strong emphasis on education.
Around the same time, I made a new friend who had lived in Korea for more than a year and had completely fallen in love. She loved the people, food, culture, music, lifestyle, and she had loved her job teaching English to young children. She would have returned without hesitation — if not for her husband and young child. Listening to her experiences made the prospect of living in Korea seem like a realistic and viable option, rather than just a fantasy. I was sold.
The version of the story that I just told you is 100% true and correct, but it’s leaving out a few details.
The truth is that I was not thriving in my old life. I had made some ill-advised life choices, and I was directionless and broke.
Ever since I was a child I had chased the dream of “being a writer” with no backup plan (and let’s be honest, writing as a profession is barely a Plan A).
I finished my MFA in poetry right as the economy crashed in 2008 and moved to Austin, Texas. In those days, people were so desperate for jobs that even a posting for a part-time, minimum wage, retail job would draw nearly 100 applicants. I interviewed for an entry-level grant writing position that only paid 20,000 dollars per year. The organization passed me over for someone “more qualified,” even though the interviewers had marveled over my masters degree.
They hired a more qualified person.
For an entry-level writing position.
That paid only $20,000 a year.
And I have TWO writing degrees.
I. was. fucked.
Four years later, I was still living in Austin but working three different part-time jobs, and many of my peers were in the same situation. I had applied for dozens and dozens of jobs over the years, in diverse job sectors, and only interviewed for four or maybe five positions. Exhausted and hollowed out, I trudged through each day as my physical and mental health deteriorated.
Finally I scored a full-time job, but it meant packing up and moving to Tennessee and soon I found that my paycheck at the new job was too small to even pay the bills. My debt grew larger every month.
My job was great and the work was fulfilling, but the lack of funding at my school meant there was no hope of ever getting a raise or a promotion. I had gained nearly 60 pounds and could not recognize myself. Most days I drank heavily. I barely left my apartment except to go to work. I loved my job and my coworkers but I knew that something had to change.
This is when my new coworker entered the picture and began to sell me on the idea of teaching English abroad.
In the expat community in Asia, there’s a phenomenon derisively dubbed “Loser Back Home.” It refers to the stereotype that people who teach English abroad are defective. They move to other countries (usually in Asia) hoping that cultural differences will mask their inadequacies. These people have nothing to offer beyond their innate English-speaking ability.
The Loser Back Home shoe fits — or at least that’s how I felt when I first arrived here. And the transition was hard. There were bumps, anxieties, adjustments, heartbreaks, and many confused, awkward moments. But my decision to come to Korea, it turns out, wasn’t a sloppy impulse that was doomed to fail.
In fact, I thrived.
After three years living in Korea, I’ve never been more satisfied with my life. Please let me brag a little bit. When I went on the job market recently, I was offered positions at three fairly prestigious institutions. The job that I eventually accepted is amazing in so many ways, and every day I feel honored to be part of this institution. I’m in a happy and supportive long-term relationship. I don’t live paycheck to paycheck anymore. I shed the 60 pounds. At the age of 37, I’m healthier and fitter than I was at 27.
For some people, moving to the other side of the world seems extreme, impossible to conceive. But for me, it was a life raft.