Who are you?
My name is Lindsey Coulter and I’m a 30-year-old from Denver, Colorado. However, for the past two years I lived in Incheon, South Korea. As a freelance writer whose life revolves around travel, photography and the great outdoors I am almost always on the move and have also been a resident of rural Iowa, Chicago and even spent a season in Guatemala City. Seeing the world is definitely my passion, and I’ve visited countries as far flung as Mongolia, Taiwan, Ireland, Italy and the Dominican Republic. When I’m not planning my next adventure I am usually digging away in the garden, wandering through antique shops, sampling new restaurants or enjoying a movie marathon with my significant other.Where, when and why did you move abroad?
After five years in the same social work job doing the same, monotonous tasks I decided a change was long overdue. I enjoyed life in Denver and had a great community of friends, but felt like I could and should be doing more. As an avid traveler I also longed to make my next adventure an extended one.
In late 2010, after meeting a friend who had taught English in South Korea, I took the plunge and began my own application process. In January of 2011 I accepted an elementary teaching position with the Incheon Office of Education in the Republic of Korea, and left just one month later.
Moving abroad was precisely the shake up I was looking for. As I’d hoped, life in Korea was a complete and total departure from my life in the States. The constant newness was reinvigorating and I immediately felt expat life was the perfect fit.
What challenges did you face during the move?
Honestly, moving abroad is a lot of work. The process itself can be quite stressful, especially for those who have a full household to pack up. Aside from cancelling cell phones and changing addresses, I also had the unusual experience of meeting my significant other just a month before I left the country. In the midst of goodbye parties, mounds of moving-related paperwork, researching my new home and preparing for my career transition, I was squeezing in as many hours as possible with the man who is now my partner. Though it was difficult – and we had some justified apprehensions about making a new relationship work across 6,000 miles – Andrew was fantastically helpful and supportive throughout.
On top of that, my family had their own concerns. When my parents learned how close I would be living to North Korea, I had to essentially go into defense mode. I also had to work hard to make many friends and family understand my desire to live and work abroad. Coming from a fairly traditional household, the idea of leaving home was then still a bit foreign. Essentially, I had to give myself a crash course in Korean culture and politics simply to allay their fears and apprehensions – and maybe a few of my own.
How did you find somewhere to live?
Like many English teachers living in Korea, my apartment was selected by my employer. As navigating the housing process in Korea can be expensive and quite challenging, having no say in my housing assignment was more a relief than a frustration.
My particular apartment was a step above efficiency with a large living space, full bathroom, plenty of storage, high ceilings (suitable for a loft) and a decent view. Luckily, it also came fully furnished and with a comfortable queen-sized bed – a rare treat according to many of my colleagues.
The best amenities, however, lay outside. Only a few steps from my building were multiple restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques, markets, plenty of bus stops and even two little parks. I was immediately able to stock my pantry, figure out the transit systems and find a few little spots that reminded me of home.
Are there many other expats in your area?
Surprisingly, my neighborhood was fairly bursting with fellow expats. Thanks to a great local concentration of elementary, middle and high schools, many foreign teachers had been stationed in the same 15-story apartment building. It was not uncommon to meet fellow South African, Irish, English, Canadian, Chinese, Filipino or American teachers milling about the local cafes or grocery shopping in the Home Plus.
This high concentration of foreigners was not only true of my neighborhood, but also for Incheon as a whole. At only 30 kilometers from Seoul, the location was a great advantage for those working in international business. Plus, as a major port, the southern part of the city was fairly teeming with expats involved in the shipping trades.
All in all, this was a blessing. Having a wide pool of English-speaking friends to choose from made it much easier to find community and get involved.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
As a whole, Incheoners were polite, curious and friendly. Most days I had comfortable, easy encounters with locals, and never tired of the wide-eyed stares and giggles I received from the babies and children. Genuine friendships with locals were much more difficult to establish, though, due in great part to the cultural and language divide. However, no matter where you are in the world, a smile and a kind gesture will go a long way.
Naturally, I did encounter a few less welcoming Koreans. Some came in the form of impatient superiors, or older residents who had heard one too many horror stories about “those dangerous, disrespectful foreigners.” However, the kind woman at the corner store, the enthusiastic vendors at the vegetable market and the bus driver who always waited are the ones I remember most.
Additionally, I was also able to develop close friendships with Koreans through work and a free language exchange program. Through the weekly language exchange in particular I was able to learn enough Korean to be polite and respectful, ask basic questions and maintain a good degree of cultural sensitivity. This helped greatly in terms of meeting new people and making a good impression. I left Korea with a small circle of close friends and a wider circle of good acquaintances.
What do you like about life where you are?
As a nation, South Korea has worked very hard to establish itself as a technological leader, while at the same time retaining its ancient customs and traditions. While a resident of Korea, I enjoyed both ends of the spectrum. I loved visiting thousand-year-old temples, taking part in traditional tea ceremonies and learning the subtle nuances of Korean language and hospitality. However, I also loved hopping on a high speed train whenever I felt like getting away, connecting to the internet everywhere from mountain tops to underground parking garages and using my transit card for morning coffee at the local Family Mart.
Korean food (and food culture as a whole) was also a big plus. Koreans take food very seriously. They’re constantly putting interesting new spins on traditional favorites, and generally it’s cheaper to dine out than to cook at home. Sharing a meal with friends, Korean and foreign alike, was always an adventure. Sampling live octopus, dog soup and fruit so flavorful it almost brought a tear to my eye are experiences I cherish.
Finally, I enjoyed simply living in a country so drastically different from my own. Korea is packed with soaring mountains, miles of coastline, mud flat beaches, quirky festivals, amazing music and unique traditions. During my 26 months as a “local” I visited Buddhist temples, witnessed ancient rituals, enjoyed traditional dance and music performances, learned a few tasty recipes, developed an intense love for K-Pop and even attended a few Korean weddings.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
Expat life can have some extreme ups and some serious downs. Though I loved living abroad and appreciated South Korean culture and society, it was never truly easy to be a stranger in a strange land. Sometimes little things like not being able to give adequate directions to a taxi driver, being asked to leave a shop simply because the owner didn’t want to deal with a foreigner or not being able to find decent cheese really began to grate on me.
Not only that, but Korean society is very hierarchical and based greatly on age, gender and appearance. As a young, average-looking female foreigner, I was continually at a disadvantage. I didn’t appreciate that life in Korea made me hyper-conscious of my appearance. I didn’t like being barraged by plastic surgery adverts. Mostly, though, I resented being treated like a toddler in the workplace simply because I was the youngest teacher on staff.
By the end of my two years living and working in Korea I still had very positive thoughts and feelings toward the country. However, I was most looking forward to being able to do simple things like visiting the bank or scheduling a dentist appointment without the assistance of a generous Korean friend or coworker. Essentially, I missed my autonomy, my sense of confidence and being treated like a competent adult.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
Those looking to move abroad should first understand that living abroad can be one of life’s most rewarding experiences. Learning to navigate unfamiliar territory can sometimes make you crazy, but can also acquaint you with strengths and skills you didn’t even know you possessed. It’s a wonderful excuse to get introspective, push yourself, try new things, dive into new experiences and get outside your comfort zone. It’s also a great way to determine what you can – and can’t – live without.
That said, it shouldn’t necessarily be used as an escape from personal issues or drama. Expat life comes with its own unique set of challenges and issues, and shouldn’t be entered into lightly. It takes research, careful consideration and a firm understanding of how you deal with and mitigate stress. Remember, in many cases you’ll be starting fresh. You’ll need to build community, learn the lay of the land, acquaint yourself with local customs and maybe even learn a new language.
The first few weeks will likely be exhausting – both mentally and physically. However, your reward will come in the form of delicious new foods, interesting new friends, unforgettable new experiences and much more. Even if every single day feels like a marathon, it is a rare person who looks back on their expat experience with regret.
What are your plans for the future?
Having had a very positive experience in Korea, I am certain living and working abroad again is in my future. However, for the time being I have settled back into Denver life to concentrate on my writing career and relationship. When it came down to it, I wasn’t passionate about being an English teacher. Though it provided myriad new opportunities and experiences, the day job simply wasn’t fulfilling.
However, teaching Korean elementary students did inspire me to get back into writing, and provided great opportunities with Korean media outlets. It’s also given me the knowledge to write about Korean culture and travel opportunities and gave me the confidence to take my very first extended solo trip.
In the future, I will return to Korea. This small country helped me become more the person I desired to be, and for that I owe it and its citizens a great debt. I hope to bring my friends and family to Korea and share with them what I learned, ate, saw, listened to and fell in love with during my time as an expat.