My name is Caroline. I’m an American living in Seoul, South Korea with my husband and two teenage sons. My husband and I are both TCKs (Third Culture Kids); our childhoods were spent in Asia and Europe, as well as all over the US. We were thrilled to give our own kids an opportunity to experience the fun – as well as the challenges – of living in a different culture.
1. Why did you move abroad?
My husband works for a multinational Design/Engineering firm that is doing work in Seoul.
2. How do you make a living?
I am what is referred to in Expat circles as a ‘trailing spouse,’ which means that we moved here with my husband’s job. Back in the US, I was a high school teacher and part-time University instructor, although I stayed home for almost 10 years when my sons were smaller. Because of work visa limitations, many trailing spouses cannot work in Korea, regardless of their professional qualifications. The major exception is English teaching, which is in considerable demand here and is often done part-time or informally.
3. How often do you communicate with home and how?
We communicate frequently with our friends and families via Skype, phone calls, and e-mail. FaceBook is an absolute godsend for helping us keep in touch with what is going on in the day-to-day lives of our loved ones back home. This is an enormous change from the way things were back in the 70s and early 80s when my husband and I were growing up overseas. Back then, the only means of communication was telephone or letters. Phone calls were extremely expensive and limited to dire emergencies or special occasions, such as Christmas. Letters took ages to go back and forth, but they were really the main means of communication.
4. What's your favorite thing about being an expat in Seoul?
This is almost impossible to answer, because we like just about everything about living here. Seoul is a city of over 12 million (25 million in the metropolitan area) and is full of cultural, entertainment, historical, and outdoor activities to enjoy. It has a fabulous public transportation system that is cheap, safe, and efficient, which means that even my 14-year-old son can travel safely and independently throughout the city without a car. Another thing I love is the ease with which one can make new friends in the expat community. Because everyone you meet is in the same boat, everyone is eager to make new friends. This is quite a bit different from being in your home country, where people are already established in their communities. In addition, because so many international businesses are located in Seoul, there is a vibrant international expat community here: you meet people from all over the world.
5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Seoul?
No question about that. It’s the traffic. Driving here is not for the faint-hearted. Thank God for cheap taxis and excellent public transportation!
6. What do you miss most?
Besides my friends and family, I would say that what I miss the most is being able to undertake an activity without worrying about making myself understood, or clearly understanding what is going on about me. While you can often find English signs or information in places that are commonly visited by tourists (eg, subways, museums, palaces, shopping malls,) and many Koreans do speak at least some English, you can never take for granted that you will be able to communicate. Sometimes this is very funny, but it can definitely take a toll after a while, not being able to understand more than about 30% of what you see, hear, and read. Every cab ride is an adventure, and even a simple trip to buy groceries can be fraught with misunderstanding. Everything you do has an extra level of complexity because you always have to be prepared for a potential communication breakdown, often when it’s least convenient. Hopefully this will fade as my command of Korean improves!
7. What did you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
Fortunately for us, my husband’s company has very friendly local employees- both Koreans and Americans- and we were quickly welcomed and made to feel at home. We have also met people by being involved in activities at our son’s international school. My husband is an avid cyclist and cycles with members of a Korean cycling group, and I sing in an international women’s choir. I also have been involved in activities of the Seoul International Women’s Club (SIWA.) It may be because we grew up this way, but my husband and I have found it very easy to integrate into our new community.
8. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?
That would have to be the pushing! In Korea, if you need to get past someone, it’s completely appropriate to push past them. It isn’t done in an aggressive or hostile manner, but it’s definitely very different from what we are used to in our culture. The fact that Seoul is a very big and crowded city means that this is really a daily occurrence, not just an occasional thing. If you are out somewhere with people, you will be pushed! This seems even stranger when you juxtapose the pushing with the fact that Koreans are some of the most polite, friendly, and helpful people you could ever meet. Just doesn’t seem to fit!
9. What is a myth about your adopted country?
I don’t know if this is a myth, but I have found that most Westerners do not know much about Korea, and they assume that it is a kind of run-down, rural country that is still recovering from the Korean War. In fact, Seoul is one of the most modern, technologically advanced cities in the world, and a hugely popular tourist destination in Asia. In many aspects, it is more modern than the US, and it is extremely safe, clean, and friendly. My sons have reveled in the super-fast bandwidth and the very high-tech, exciting big-city environment. Our biggest problem is deciding what to do – there are almost too many choices.
10. What advice would you give other expats?
Get involved! There are ample opportunities for expats to get involved in the local community, and many Koreans who would like to meet and form friendships with foreigners. Like most things in life, your experience will be exactly what you make it.
11. When and why did you start your blog?
I started my blog, Asia Vu, last April when we learned that we would be making the move to Seoul, to keep family and friends updated with our move and also let them share a bit in the process. I chose the title Asia Vu because it reflected the way my husband and I felt about having grown up in Asia and then finding ourselves back in Asia years later as adults. It’s been a very different experience, as you can imagine!
12. How has the blog been beneficial?
The best part of blogging is the contacts - and yes,the friendships - I've made in the blogosphere. It's amazing to realize that, when you start blogging, you're opening yourself up to contact with people from all walks of life in every part of the world. It's also been a wonderful way to keep my friends in family up to date with what is going on with us here in Seoul. So often when talking to people back home, I will mention something we've done or start to explain something, and they will reply, "Oh, yes. I read that on your blog." It's not quite the same as 'being there,' but it does make me feel far more connected!
Caroline's blog, Asia Vu
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