Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Expat Instability: Part 1

Expat life in Korea is very unstable. It’s full of dicey jobs, poor planning, all-night benders and, in many cases, very little reality. Day-to-day bills are low; rent is paid for and there is a sense that you are being taken care of by someone other than yourself. To the majority, however, that is fine. The guys and gals teaching here often times enjoy this purgatory-like state and use it as a springboard for their next adventure. Planning the next Asian getaway or weekend pub crawl becomes a top priority, while little or no legitimate concern for the reality that exists beyond the peninsula is expressed. This perceived disconnect is what some crave. I remember it fondly; casually drifting from one bar to the next, eager to make that night better than the one before. It was a simple existence full of samgyeopsal & soju; beer & fried chicken and the fitting drunken debate (or loud talking in my case). That being said, even though I have gotten married, stabilized numerous facets of my life, curtailed most of the aforementioned behavior, there still is something unstable about expat life in Korea.

During the course of one’s times in Korea, no matter whom you are and where you live on the peninsula, you will be constantly bombarded with new people. You will arrive new and, in many ways, you will leave new as well. I remember my arrival which I detailed on this blog nearly three years ago. I was fresh, anxious and, most of all, presumably dependant on the friends that I was hoping to cement in those first few weeks. And after a couple hours, I was essentially accepted into the crew and my Korean transition became a whole lot easier. I was grateful for them, but at the time, was totally oblivious to the cycle that many of them had been in for years.

Every few months, teachers in Korea are forced to say goodbye to friendships forged while working here. Maybe you got here at the end of someone’s tenure or perhaps you arrived at the same time as your new international BFF. Either way, after a year, chances are someone is leaving. Naturally, expanding your friendship pool is always fun, but when you reach a certain point, the baby-sized pool of long-term friendships in Korea is full. I have had many conversations with my friends here and they know my feelings about staying in touch and keeping memories alive. It’s quite important to me, but where can the line be drawn? A few weeks ago, I made a statement as to who I thought I would remain close to. I was being very realistic and suggested that geography would have a huge effect on friendship maintenance. After I finished, some acted as if they were shocked to hear such a thing, but had they thought it through that much? A fellow American in the room --sensing the vibe-- suggested that there’s a very real possibility that, even if we did stay close (emails, phone calls, etc...), there would probably be decades where we wouldn’t see each other.

This summed it up for me. I have a solid batch of expat friends right now as it is. More will be coming. At this point, I’m already going to have trouble managing the ones I already have, so do I want more? I’m sure that new teachers will arrive in the near future, be placed into the group (like I was) and therefore I must interact with them. But at this point I’m prepared to say that those interactions will be stifled by my conception of expat friendships. There is a certain level of expectations involved in expat friendships. After a few months, people start to realize that a time will come when Korea is in the past and when you realize this, to quote a friend, you gotta “twist or stick”. Twisting (or capping your pool) can cause problems, but sticking only exacerbates the problem and creates for an even more dysfunctional reality.

There is, however, an upside to this assembly-line friendship and I have felt it as well: getting to share your side of the Korean story. Some new teachers will catch you when you are in positive-mode about Korea and then they’ll fall in line with you. Or perhaps they’ll arrive when you’re having a few problems and then they will absorb that attitude. Other people thrive on new teachers because it’s a chance to tell the same story over and over again and if you’re with the right crowd, you can even throw a few steroids in it and change the story from three dogs that were chasing you in Laos, to eight…

During the course of my three years here, I have made a lot of friends. Some of them have been drinking buds that I still love to get a beer with and others are the ones you call in a time of need. That being said, it is impossible to make this distinction without stepping on toes. There is nothing rude or insincere about it. It’s natural. All of us have made tons of friends who we were once close to, but as time progressed, we grew apart. That’s real life which, of course, resembles nothing of expat life. As I said earlier, all of us who come here are new and, as the cycle of friends continues to rip through the expat community, many of will leave here new as well. Luckily, I’ll be with my wife.


Mike said...

Meh, I'll probably see you more once we both live in Chicago and I don't work in a Korean company anymore. Until then I guess we'll have to settle with random beers over the weekend.

Nice read by the way.

I've been through that cycle more times so far than I'd care to admit but I'm always glad I met the people I did. The more people I meet, the easier it is for me to see who my really close friends are and why we've stayed in touch in the first place.

I guess its just best to meet whoever you can and let the friendship turn into whatever it turns out to be. You'll either be hanging out with them and having a few drinks in 20 years discussing the good ol' times or casually scrolling past their name on Facebook v.5 when looking for people to invite to your kid's wedding. Either way, the friendship will develop in the same way it did when you were back in the US.

Harriet said...

That was an amazing read! Summed up well. George, friends have always been extremely important to you and you have made some wonderful ones over there. I know if they will stay in touch with you..you will do the same!