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The Expat Bubble: Things I Now View as Normal that Probably Aren’t

images (16) We all live in bubbles. One way or another, the people in our day-to-day lives, even if they aren’t similar to us, shape what we come to view as normal. Try as we might, it is difficult for any of us to see the world clearly beyond our bubble. Sure, we might know that only 33 percent of people in the US graduate from college, but chances are, depending on whether you graduated or not, your friends will disproportionately be made up of the category you, yourself, fall into. And this is just one of the many ways our distorted view of reality- our bubble – takes shape.

Well, now that I find myself coming to the end of an extended period of time living overseas, mostly in the expat community of Seoul, South Korea, and as my thoughts turn towards my eventual arrival back in America, I keep wondering just how warped my perception of normal has actually become. What things have I gotten used to, or come to view as being normal and ordinary that are not, relative to “normal life” back home? Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Standing Out

All Westerns living in Asia have to deal with extra and often times unwanted attention while being here. For myself, as a big black guy, I get my fair share of people staring at me on buses and subways and even random people asking to take photos with me while I’m just walking down the street. In fact, I had so many people ask to take pictures with me one night when I wore a football jersey out (I guess they thought I was an actual player) that I never wore it out again. I wonder how I’ll react when no one pays me any attention at all as I go about my day. Will I feel like a washed-up child actor, or will I appreciate the anonymity? As much as the attention can be annoying, something tells me I’ll come to miss having at least one Korean man a week tell me I’m handsome.

Casually Talking About Travel

images (17)Excessive international travel is not anywhere close to the norm around the world. While I still view travel as about the best and most exciting thing a person can do with their life, it is also so commonplace in an expat community that I wouldn’t think twice of someone saying, “Sure the pad Thai in Bangkok is good, but if you really want good street food, you should head to this village just outside of Mu Nah in Vietnam.” This isn’t someone bragging in my bubble. This is someone offering travel advice that someone else is likely to follow. In America, talking about travel excessively or even too casually is about the quickest way to become labeled a pretentious prick. Learning to heavily regulate my travel talk is something I know I’ll have to do and a lesson I learned the last time I lived abroad and returned home.

Cultural Diversity

Along these same lines, living abroad, by definition, means daily cultural interactions which I think help me grow and learn a lot. While living here, I’ve come to consider hanging out and talking to people from five to six different countries any given night (depending on how you want to count the UK) as standard. Because these interactions are so frequent, they’re easily taken for granted. I already know that I’ll come to look back on my frequent complaining about the lack of foreigners from non-English speaking countries here as being that of a spoiled child. And actually, the number of foreigners from such countries has gone up noticeably while I’ve been here.

Materialism

The lack of materialism in the overall expat community is noteworthy. Don’t get me wrong, materialism has implanted itself as deeply in Korean culture as it has in American culture. However, while most of us expats here are more financially secure than we were at any time in our lives, a lot of that security comes from not feeling the same pressure to consume that we do back home. We are not expected to own a car, let alone one we can’t actually afford, and no one is judging us on whether or not we’re wearing designer clothes or going to the hottest night spots where our money wouldn’t go far. It’s easy to not be wrapped up in all these societal pressures in the expat bubble because it’s not our society and perhaps because we’re not being advertised to.

Pop Culture

Something that goes hand-in-hand with not feeling the pressures of materialism and consumerism is not being in the know with pop culture. This one is both good and bad. I have spent a lot of time here not knowing what’s going on in the entertainment world. Don’t get me wrong, the internet and Facebook keep me far from oblivious, but I’m also not swamped with it. I often don’t know what the latest movies are, or what the new, hot reality show to watch is, and that can sometimes be frustrating, but overall it’s kind of relaxing, and I find the things I do end up hearing about tend to be better quality entertainment since it makes its way to me by word of mouth verses huge ad buys.

Going Without

Something I have gotten used to while living here is not having access to America’s 24-hour, ‘buy whatever you want whenever you want’ convenience. Before coming to Korea, the words “in season” had no real meaning to me. Strawberries in December? Yes, please. But here, a lot of food in the stores comes and goes with the seasons and even staple foods regularly run out in the small grocery stores that service my neighborhood. I’ll enjoy getting back into the bubble where I don’t have to guess what foods might be available and reclaim my place at the top of the world’s food chain.

4aHowever, there is something Bill Bryson, one of my favorite travel writers, called “the euphoria of going without.” While I’ve never enjoyed “going without” here when it comes to things I need to cook dinner—when I want spinach, I want spinach—I can’t say there isn’t something great about stopping in a random store and seeing some food item I love but haven’t seen in months. (I was here for 9 months before I found my first can of Dr. Pepper.) When you always have everything, you couldn’t care less about these things. Always having access to everything means never having your day made by a friend giving you a candy bar they found in some out-of-the-way store because they remembered you saying you liked it at your most recent session of “You know what I miss?” at the bar.

Fear of Old Women

Like I said earlier, I’m a pretty big guy, but since living in Korea, I’ve developed a real fear of little old ladies. This is not a phobia because a phobia is an irrational fear; my fear is completely justified. Ask anyone who has visited Korea and ridden the excellent public transportation system during rush hour. They’ll tell they were unapologetically pushed, bumped and run into by many people while walking around. While most Koreans here seem to do this, no one does it like the old women, and the smaller the woman the more forceful the shoving and, sometimes, hitting you’ll encounter. Culturally, doing this isn’t rude and isn’t meant to be offensive, but it can be traumatizing all the same, and I advise anyone visiting Korea to never stand between an old woman and an open seat on the subway. She will go through you like a linebacker trying to get to a quarterback. I am not exaggerating when I say I jump out of the way when I see an old woman heading towards me.

Party Time

Someone once told me that Seoul is the party capital of Asia. After traveling a lot around Asia over the past few years, I can confirm the validity of this statement. With the sole exception of the once a lunar month Full-moon party in Thailand, no regularly held party in Asia comes close to the average weekend in Seoul. Koreans drink a lot. Soju, Korea’s unofficial national drink, is the most consumed liquor in the world and pretty much only Koreans drink it. When you put a drinking culture like this together with a bunch of foreigners who like to party like they’re on vacation every weekend, you get a good time that effortlessly goes till sunrise. The times I’ve visited home, I haven’t come close to readjusting to America’s puritanical restrictions on my partying and its expensive drinks and even more expensive cab rides.

Sidebar: Luckily, I don’t have to deal with exiting this bubble for a good while yet. I don’t leave Korea until February. Even then, I’ll be heading into the significantly more distorted backpacker’s bubble for a few months before heading home. More details on all this to follow in coming articles.

Brian M. Williams
Brian is the author of the recently published travel memoir "Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea." (Click this profile for more information.) He's also a law school grad with Southern charm and Virginia roots. He recently returned to America after nearly seven years traveling and working abroad. He loves dive bars, international travel and foreign accents. He's particularly good at small talk and was the first person to notice there's no "I" in "team."
https://www.facebook.com/StrangerInAStrangerLand/

25 thoughts on “The Expat Bubble: Things I Now View as Normal that Probably Aren’t

  1. Mr. Williams, as much as I was confused about (and on a few items, emphatically disagreed with) your “red flags” article, I agree with this article 93.5%, particularly the “casually talking about travel” issue. You’re right: talking about the countries you’ve visited with even well-educated, financially-secure Americans who just don’t have the travel itch (or who hide behind the “I haven’t seen half the 50 states, why would I visit you in Korea” (or, “if you would just move from Seoul to Paris..”) statements) absolutely makes you sound like a pompous dick.

  2. Nicely written Brian. After living in Korea for almost 3 years, I’m back stateside (white, early-thirties, female), and a lot of your comments resonate with me.

  3. Great article I definitely relate to. Since Korea, I also just came from a six-month-backpacker bubble through Southeast Asia and it definitely gets more intense (if bubbles can get more intense). I feel like Tee proved your point–and agreed with you–really nicely as well.

  4. I recently returned to the US after a stint in Seoul. This post is absolutely accurate. In fact, you expressed things I didn’t even realize I had felt upon my return. Thank you for your post and for enlightening me about my own experience. Best of luck with the ajummas!

  5. Ah! I’m not alone! Since living in Korea, I’ve returned to Canada, and have started a family in the Arctic. You can imagine how pompous it would be to discuss some of my expat experiences (the tops being: volunteering at an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai – seeing Mt Fuji in the spring – watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat) with people have never left Nunavut and still have a hard time remembering what the capital of Canada actually is! However, all the same, living up here in the remoteness of the north and the isolation of the culture I still find myself scared of old ladies.

    1. I guess you could say that, when it comes to extolling your expat experiences, the people of Nunavut are having… Nunuvit?

  6. Great article! I found all of it true to some degree. I’d love to read a female perspective on this too, just to see if I wasn’t alone in my female experiences in Korea.

  7. I really enjoyed reading you article, it has brought back some great memories of when I lived in South Korea which I did for 4years and nearly back in Ireland 5years now. What I loved in particular was how flying to Japan or any other Asian country for the weekend was never thought of as any big extravagance just part of living in Korea.
    Sometimes I wish I was back there but then life moves on, and living that lifestyle can’t last forever or you could end up being lonely in later life as people move on….

  8. I think when you get back, you’re going to notice (again, after a long time) community-mindedness. Almost completely absent from Korea in general, and Seoul in particular, you’re going to get back home and have to check yourself with certain public behaviors (think speaking too loudly, littering, lining up) that here in “The Human Centipede” (Seoul), you don’t necessarily need to mind. You may find people shooting you dirty looks over small habits that here may fly under the radar (despite you being a major target for discriminatory singling-out here). I also imagine that, as always happens to me when I make a long trip home, the silence with both awe and somewhat disturb you. Not sure how long you;ve been in Seoul, but years and years of hearing nothing but people shouting and screaming at each other at first rattles the nerves, but then becomes somewhat mundane. When you become aware that people around you are actually whispering out of necessity, it’ll blow your mind. Good luck man! Good post.

  9. I’ve never understood the mantra of the “travelling elite” who think that slumming in India somehow makes you a better person. What is with this western notion that “travelling” makes you wiser and worldlier and generally a better snob capable of better conversations? I’ve been to poor countries and all it did was make me sad–there is a reason that you can spend six months travelling and only spend $2k–it’s called poverty. Great that you feel like exploiting the cheap prices made you more worldly–I don’t see it that way. But be sure and take plenty of photographs of the poor locals in various stages of undress so your FB friends can see how worldly and “astounding” your experiences have been. Afterall, it’s nice to “go slumming” with the locals in other countries and pretend you had a “real experience” when you have all the benefits of living in the US and an American passport—and this whole time you were really just living in a “tourism bubble” where your status as an outsider affords you special privileges. News flash–people can “find themselves” crying in a Laundromat or on a solo stroll around a Park–you elitist bunch who think a person needs to travel all over the world need to stay at home and practice thinking more. I’m sorry, but living in the “tourism bubble” of any given country doesn’t increase your cultural experience, your knowledge, or your character–all that shows to me is that either you or your parents are rich snobs.

    1. I’m sorry that traveling has clearly failed you so horribly. But the question you need to be asking yourself is how come you were unable to gain a better understanding of yourself and the world around you, and why seeing extreme poverty didn’t give you more perspective on life and what’s really important and what you can and can’t live without while seemingly everyone else who has done it did. Traveling is not the only way to grow, develop and gain insight as a person, but it sure is one of the easiest and most rewarding ways to do it. And yes, i won’t for a second pretend it isn’t also very enjoyable on every level. Anyway, have fun learning about the world while “crying in the laundromat.”

    2. Mr. Williams, you have responded with more grace and tact that I would be able to muster, and your article is spot-on.
      Barry, sorry you’re so jealous of your facebook friends who travel. They are not doing it to irk you and to show off their worldly lives, they are trying to share with family and friends what they experienced. I bet their parents give them grief if they aren’t posting enough photos. There is nothing elite about working in Korea – anyone with a BA can get a job teaching. Most of the backpackers and long-term travelers I’ve met have saved for years to spend a year travelling, though you do meet a fair number on the major tourist circuits who are “doing Thailand” on summer break with their parents’ money. Good for them having parents who are willing to fund them.
      Long-term life abroad is different from tourism. (And there really isn’t much tourism by Westerners in Korea.) Most people back home are surprised that your daily life is usually just like theirs – work, grocery store, bank – but in a foreign language and with better public transit.

    3. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad

      I once encountered another with poor Barry’s vitriolic view of expat travel. This quote helped my perspective, for both our sakes.

  10. I’ve been back in the states for over 3 years since I lived as an expat in Seoul…and out of all of the articles I’ve read…this one hits home by far the most. Nicely done!

  11. Great article. I lived in both Japan and Taiwan for 4 years each, and I can relate to every point you made! What an incredible experience it was.

  12. I’ve been back in Canada a year after living in Taiwan for 5 years. This article is an exact reflection of my time in Asia and the experiences I’ve had upon returning home. You’ve encapsulated it perfectly. Nice article and a great read! Best of luck re-adjusting to life outside the “bubble”.

  13. For me, when I returned to the US from Korea, I was also really confused when I could completely understand random conversations around me

    1. I’m going back home next year after three years in SK and I’m trying to reconcile with the fact that I will never have peace in a coffee shop again. Even though I can understand some Korean, I can also tune it out but as soon as a English-speaker rolls up I realise I’m eavesdropping without intending to.

  14. Beautiful article. I’ve read a lot of expat in Korea articles, but never one like this (the usuals are about what things are missed). I’ve been stateside for 6 months after 3 years in SK. It makes me miss Korea! All of the these things that you wrote about brought all foreigners together, and I miss that feeling of community.

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