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Sue Meldrum, Seoul

My name is Sue Meldrum. I have a husband named Guy and two children – Jacques who is 10 and was born in London and Sophie who is 6 and was born in Sydney.

I currently live in Seoul, South Korea. My husband moved here in August 2008 but my children and I didn’t relocate here until August 2009. I have been an expatriate for 20 years and this is my 9th international posting. For 10 years, I was the employee and for the last 10 years, I have been an expatriate wife, so I have seen expat life from ‘both sides!’ Guy and I met at work and had dual careers with the same company for many years, until I left to have my first child in 2000. My career in communications/marketing has been predominantly with two major multinationals and my husband is still working for the same company where we met. My first international assignment was back in 1988 when I went to New Zealand for 3 years. The move was a smart career decision and also an opportunity to escape and try something new.Every move I have made since has been for the same reasons really. Both Guy and I are career-oriented but equally, we also wanted our children to have the opportunity of living overseas and experiencing as much as possible. We both believe this will give them an edge over their peers when they enter the workplace.

What challenges did you face during the move?

1. Deciding to stay in Hong Kong for a year and have my husband commute from Seoul.
2. The language – English is not widely spoken here.
3. Pulling my children out of a fabulous school in Hong Kong (which offered the IB programme) to return to the rigid British School curriculum.
4. Finding a suitable house in a specific area (my husband’s job location) meant we didn’t have the wide choice of expatriate areas, as the traffic here makes living too far from work an impossible option.
5. Leaving Hong Kong and knowing I couldn’t get a visa to work here, so I was going to be a true expat wife! (What was I going to do with myself?)
6. Moving further away from my family with less flight options.
7. Coping with a very stressed husband – his new job is extremely challenging and frustrating.
8. Preparing to deal with a long and harsh winter.
9. Having a driver and not having the freedom to drive myself (although I am doing that now!)
10. Relocating my helper from Hong Kong who has also faced a period of readjustment.

Can you tell us something about your property?

We found the property through the relocation company that was assigned to us. The process of renting and buying for foreigners is extremely complex and involves lengthy negotiations and onerous requirements eg. the company has to pay the full 3 years rental up-front. It was difficult to find a ‘Western-style’ house that we liked. Korean kitchens for example, don’t have ovens. The decoration in the houses was very Korean-style – very dark and the houses were very expensive. We did compromise on the house we eventually chose (it has no storage space), a very small garden and is on 3 levels. However, it is light and fairly new so everything seems to ‘work’

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Are you employed or self-employed? What challenges did you face in either finding employment or running your own business?

No, in Korea, spouses cannot work very easily. I am doing plenty of voluntary work though.

Are there many other expats in your area?

We live in an area called Itaewon which is a popular expatriate area in Seoul.

What is your relationship like with the locals?

There is certainly more interaction with the Koreans than I had in Hong Kong with the Chinese. This is mainly because there are Korean nationals at the same school as my children. Also, because of the language barrier, you have to rely on locals eg. driver, relocation consultant, husband’s secretary to get things done!

What do you like about life where you are?

1. I have met some great people and now have the time to get involved in voluntary work eg. Marketing communication for ANZA (Australian & New Zealand Association).
2. I am experiencing living in a country which is very different to my home.
3. I am learning the Korean language and also ‘Hanji’ – Korean paper craft.
4. The opportunity to ski every weekend.
5. Having my husband at home more. In HK he was travelling constantly.
6. Having the opportunity to travel.

What do you dislike about your expat life?

1. Being away from my Mum and my brother and his family.
2. Not having my kids grow up with their cousins and other extended family members.
3. Not having career stability or security and having to be the one to look after the children full-time because of the commitment of my husband’s job for travel etc.
4. The routine – every day is one blend of lunches, courses, trips and exercise. Not always fulfilling!
5. Leaving behind good friends and seeing others leave too.
6. Not having a home to go back to over the long summer holiday. We end up as nomads staying wherever we can and with whomever can house us!

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

1. Research where you are going BEFORE you move. Contact the Associations and ask questions. Talk to other women living there, before you move!
2. Don’t take things at face value, particularly living in Asia. People will tell you what you want to hear, rather than what you need to know or consider before making an informed decision.
3. Don’t move just for the money! There has to be other reasons why you want to move. It’s not as ‘glamorous’ a life as it appears to be!
4. Remember you have to ‘put yourself out there’ particularly when you arrive. Attend every Association’s newcomers meeting, accept any invitations, and try new things.
5. Make a deal with yourself to learn one thing whilst you are in that country eg. learn the language, take up a course, work for a charity etc. You need a goal to measure success.
6. Enjoy it! Sure there will be frustrations but there are so many great things to savour.

What are your plans for the future?

Finish our assignment in Seoul and return hopefully to Hong Kong which is where we would ideally like to live until the kids finish their schooling. In the meantime, we will travel to as many new places as we can and remain focused on our goal – to save enough money so that Guy can retire early from corporate life and choose what he does next!

I have a family website which I would be happy to share with anyone who is interested (on request) as it has a lot of information and photos of Seoul and South Korea.