As most of you know, my family lives as expats in South Korea. We're here because of my husband's job, which is the pharmaceutical industry, and it's been........an experience.
A good experience? Yes, in some ways. A bad experience? Yes, in some ways. A confusing, emotionally trying, violent brain hump of an experience? Uhhhh....yah. Big time.
We've had adventures that we wouldn't have otherwise been able to provide our children with. They've seen places they never would've otherwise been able to see--Boracay, Australia, Hong Kong, Kenya, Thailand, Korea--and they've tried things they never would've otherwise tried. Our youngest son is on the autism spectrum, and only eats about 10 or 11 foods total, and at least five of those things are only available in America. We've seen this child try foods right and left, with tears in his eyes and shaking hands, defying all the odds while his little eyes water and his lower lip trembles. My oldest children have found a passion for service, traveling to remote, dangerous places to aid others. My husband, who is a man who would happily only ever travel to two, maybe three, locations for the rest of his life, has gone places that still boggle my mind, and while there, he's jumped head first into adventures that he never would've even considered prior to living abroad. My children have been given a world-class education by some world-class educators, and this is coming from a suburban American public-school-supporting country girl: I am so grateful for their time at the school they've attended here in South Korea. It hasn't always been easy. But it has always, always been gratifying. I could never have given my family this experience had I stayed in rural Washington state. Thank God we've had this experience!
Wow. It has been a brutal experience, as well.
|This is literally what I feel like after 2.5 yrs abroad.|
Expat life is not for the faint of heart. I did not realize this prior to getting on a plane and devoting over three years of my life to South Korea, and I was not told this by any of the expats and former expats I spoke to before my husband signed his employment contract. I wish someone had told me that expat life is hard. And by hard, I mean, knock-you-down-and-kick-you-until-you-barf-into-your-own-hair hard. It's brutal.
Why is it so brutal, Brooke? Why do you complain all the time? Why aren't you happy that you're seeing new things, meeting new people, and having cool Asian adventures all the time?
Yeah. I know what you're thinking. You're thinking I'm ungrateful. However, you're likely thinking that as you sit comfortably in your American living room, on your American Barca Lounger, watching American television, while eating your American comfort foods, with your American neighbors all around you.
I'm right, aren't I?
Sure, traveling and seeing new things is amazing, and learning a new culture is interesting, but I am talking more specifically about expat relationships today. It's not like moving to a new city within your home country. I've done that before. It sucks, there is a learning curve, and you have to start new relationships with people, and find new routines, etc. Eventually you find your place, find your tribe, and life becomes lovely again.
But... when you live as an expat, in an expat community abroad, everything is amplified, over dramatized, and put into hyperdrive. Every relationship you have happens on fast forward. Every experience is built up to seem bigger and more significant than it actually was. Every let down is earth shattering. And every emotion you share or exchange with someone else is turned up to eleven.
(I hope you got that reference. If you didn't, I... I don't even know what to say.)
You see, as expats you are given very little control over your life. Sure, you have control over the fact that you chose to live abroad, and you chose to travel, but beyond the big stuff...there isn't a lot of control. If you're living somewhere where you don't know how to speak the language, you are at the mercy of someone else in order to be able to do even the most simple tasks. Want to put money in the bank? Not so fast. Want to buy a new bra? Not so fast. Want to take your kid to the pediatrician? Not so fast? Need to poop in public and can't find a bathroom? Not so fast. Want to make your Grandma Martha's Cheddar Potato recipe? Not so fast.
You don't know expat struggles until you've pantomimed diarrhea to a pharmacist as they're trying to shoo you out to close shop at night. #fact
When you decide to live as expats, you lose a tremendous amount of control over your life. The freedoms of living in your home country are often unnoticed until you don't have them anymore. Being able to go into a store and request a purple onion in your native tongue. Being able to explain to a doctor that your joints hurt in terms like "They just feel sort of ooooowwww-ish and grindy when I walk," without the doctor getting frustrated and telling you in broken English to see a psychologist. Being able to tell a repair man that the dishwasher isn't draining properly without using a stupid translator app that tells him you want to drain him properly. Being able to travel somewhere on public transport without worrying about winding up in a city three times farther from home, and no idea how to get back. Being able to ask a stranger for help, without them shaking their head and laughing at you and your struggles at they walk off quickly.
Often times, as an expat, when we lose that control over our lives, we will overcompensate elsewhere. We become ourselves--but bigger, and more exaggerated. We have needs, but they become more urgent. We have personality traits, but they become more pronounced. We can't control the when's and how's of our daily lives, so we figure out what we can control, and then we control the ever-living crap out of it. Our marriages. Our children. Our social lives. Our newfound friendships.
We control these things to the point of breaking them...because when it comes to everything else (where we can bank, where we can find yukon gold potatoes, where we can see a movie without it being dubbed, when we can turn on a new cell phone, what we can wear, what we can say in public, where we can poop when we're out and about...... literally everything!) we have almost no control at all. And no matter how much the expat you visit with occasionally on Facebook or Instagram says their life is a beautiful experience, the loss of control in their lives sucks, and they're working overtime to control the things in their lives that they actually can control, often to the point of suffocation.
We don't mean to do it. It just happens.
The other day, my (nearly) 16 year old said something that struck a chord with me. She said, "Mom, relationships here are brutal. They happen fast, and they burn out quick. People get possessive and controlling, and they don't even mean to. And when it's over, it's over fast."
And as soon as she said that, it was like a lightbulb went off over my head. She is right. She's experienced this with at least three friends here in South Korea. One day it's amazing and feels like a forever friendship, the next day it's trepidatious and toxic. Kids learn to be cutthroat with each other as a means of survival, and they do it because they have to find their place, establish their roles in the social system, and then they have to protect their roles, or they'll be kicked to the curb in a flash.
The same goes for the women who are my age here. Literally the exact same scenario, except we're all fighting hot flashes and "doing lunches," rather than surging teenage hormones and going to biology.
When you're an expat, living amongst other expats, relationships really do happen fast, and it's because everyone knows they have--at the most--only a couple years with someone. And often times, it's even less than that. So when you meet someone you get along with well--whether you're my daughter's age, 16, my age, 40-something--you grab them, latch on, and hang on for dear life. If they make you laugh, make you feel special, and make them feel cared for....POOF. Instant bestie.
Even if that person isn't someone you would otherwise have befriended, if you both weren't crammed into the odd social experiment that expat life really is. I've written about this before RIGHT HERE. When you're an expat, you are forced into a situation to either sink or swim. You either forge friendships with people that you wouldn't normally hang with, or you can simply go without any friends. It doesn't matter if you have nothing in common with that person, are they nice to you? Yes? Well, then, welcome to your new best-friendship. Unlike when you're in your home country, you ignore all of the weird idiosyncrasies and odd personality traits that might make you grit your molars together, because when you're in the expat situation you can't afford to be picky. So you go from first meeting to #BFF status within days. It's just the expat way.
Which is all well and good until it's not well and good anymore.
You see, my best friends in America didn't start off as my best friends. They were slow boils. Sure, we laughed and had fun together, but we also bickered and sharpened our teeth on each other a time or two. We tested each other, and pushed boundaries. We stood up to each other, and showed up for each other in the middle of the night. It took years to get to the point where I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that that person had my back, come hell or high water, and I didn't ever have to worry about them ditching me and never looking back--and vice versa.
Usually these things take significant time. But not when you're an expat. When you're an expat, it happens in hyperdrive. Unfortunately, as my daughter pointed out, it can also dissipate or implode at that same speed. You can go from Ride or Die Bestie status to You're Dead to Me status in the blink of an eye. If you're not willing to play the social game, or unwilling to conform to what the people around you expect from you...you out. Done. It's over as quickly as it started. And it's because expats don't have time to screw around. There's no time for a slow boil. There's no time to test each other out, sharpen your teeth on each other, or to push and pull and see who sticks around. Because in a couple years, they're going to have start all over with a whole new crop of people, so there's no time to slowly ease into the friendship pool! It's cannonball time or nothing!
Therefore, if you don't make the early cuts, you're out.
|Legit fact right here.|
Like I said: brutal.
But....I get it. It's expat life.
I remember when I first moved to South Korea a woman I'd met jokingly said to me, "You're not cut out for expat life," and I took offense. Even up until recently, when I would remember that conversation, it made me mad. How dare she joke that I can't hack this expat life? I'm here, aren't I?? I haven't checked out on my husband and moved my children back to the USA to live apart and ride out his contract that way! (And believe me, we considered it.) I thought I was doing pretty good at this expat gig, especially after seeing so many others quit early, pack their belongings, and high tail it off of this rock....
But then I started to think about it--especially after the week I've had--and I realized this: yes, I did pretty good at this expat gig. I've survived; my kids have survived--even thrived in some select situations; my husband has done well at his job; we've gained some amazing world knowledge about how other cultures live, and our world perspective has been broadened considerably...and yes, I did pretty darn good at those aspects of my expat life.
But am I cut out for expat life?
Nah. Probably not. I wouldn't seek this experience out again. I had it, and I'm grateful for it, but no. I likely won't take it on a second time. It's just not my bag, baby.
The brutality of expat life is just too much for a giant marshmallow like me. The expat social game in the city where I live is like a constant game of chess. (Think the deadly chess game at the end of the first Harry Potter movie, only with expats who often care about their social statuses, other people's perceptions of them, and how important and popular they are to everyone around them instead of knights and pawns.) You have to strategically place yourself in positions where you'll see and be seen; say the right things to the right people with the right words at the right times in order to be considered relevant. And you have to be relevant in order to warrant respect and consideration from anyone around you.
I've found a few good friends who don't play chess, though. A few that I will keep in touch with once I've left South Korea, and a few that I hope I'll see in person again one day. Good people. Solid people.
But, even though they don't have to, even those friendships feel fragile! Expat life has jaded me. I live in constant paranoia. As if one false move, one bout of my annoying brutal honesty, one bad day where I say or do the wrong thing, one straight-talk conversation someone doesn't want to hear, one poorly timed joke, one cancelled get-together.....and the whole thing will be irreparably broken. Expat friendships are like holding tissue paper in a rain storm. So unbelievably fragile, one false move, one to many drops of rain, and it's over in an instant.
And if I'm being judged based on my ability to keep a piece of tissue paper together in a rain storm, then no. I am definitely not cut out for expat life.
I wish someone had told me these things when my husband and I were considering expat life. I wish someone would've said that relationships are ten times harder, and ten times more fragile as an expat than they'll ever be when living in your home country. That would've been some sound information I would've paid for.
Guess I'll file this all away in the font of useless knowledge I keep in the back of my brain.
I feel sorry for people who will stay in Korea long after I leave. I feel sorry for folks who have no choice but to live this way, and conduct themselves this way, because it's all they have. I pity the strong, beautiful, smart women here who are subjected to this social brutality, and who miss out on the chance at having real friendships based on honesty and mutual appreciation that has been time tested and proven solid. I'm sad for those who believe that this is how relationships are supposed to feel, when it can be so much more.
Everybody deserves to have solid friendships, with solid people. Expat life really is just too brutal for me.