Monday, October 27, 2008

with friends like these...

Being a member of the ex-pat community in Korea is a lot like driving a boat. Allow me to explain. Throughout my formative years as an enthusiastic cottager I have come to be quite familiar with the 'boater's code', which refers to the seemingly arbitrary wave exchanged between passerby's on the water. It's like you are saying 'I see that you are driving a boat. I, too, am driving a boat. Please accept this small hand gesture as a signal of our mutual respect as humans.' This is not to be confused, of course, with the 'I am sorry I chased away all of your fish' wave exchanged at dusk between motorboats and fishermen, which requires the same dexterity but a slightly more regretful facial expression. The wave establishes community, the same way that school bus drivers, motorcyclists, and apparently Jeep TJ drivers give each other a nod as if to acknowledge a commonality amidst a sea of strangers.

Foreigners in Korea are nearly identical to these parallel communities with one glaring difference; there is an underlying suspicion or fear between ex-pats about the sanity and histories of their fellow brethren. It's as if you were happily waving at a boat while muttering under your breath: "I hope that crazy bastard runs into a rock bed." I am sure that I will receive flak for expressing this opinion, but there are a lot of weird white people walking around the Seoul area who I instantly regret making eye-contact with on the subway. As a white man it must appear that I am the pot calling the kettle black on this one, but I take no hesitation in saying that I am skeptical of foreigners when I encounter them on the street or in a social situation. Why are they here in Korea? And why did the indiscretions of so many bad seeds before me make it so difficult for me to get my Visa? What is really going on with ex-pats? I decided to conduct some research.

This is the Foreigner 411. To define my terms, I am only discussing fellow English teachers who have uprooted their lives back home to travel across the world and live here for at least a year. Vacationers - you may carry on free from scrutiny. I spoke to Korean teachers, veteran ex-pats, and did some old-fashioned socializing to reach these quantitative and qualitative results, and I present the data with a declared bias. It's a blog post, not The Atlantic... so forgive the bluntness and let the messenger get home for dinner unscathed. All in all, there appears to be a quiet consensus that 3 distinct types of people come to Korea to find a new life: the hacks, the fratboys, and the worldly.

If you happen to be a hack, then you are the type of person that I would have deemed a loser back in high school. For whatever reason, you just couldn't cut it back home. Your uninspiring, bland personality leaves much to be desired, and your University degree only seems to get you in the door for interviews before a more charismatic person ultimately scores the coveted position. You like Magic: The Gathering. Friday night is spent debating food preferences with your pet gecko that you named after your favourite Star Trek: Enterprise character. You saw Jumanji, like, twice. Most importantly, you don't have a girlfriend or boyfriend. For the hack, Korea is a consolation prize and a last resort, where any male foreigner can land a misguided Korean girl and any female foreigner can wear a do-rag, grow her hair out and become a child of the earth. If you find this somewhat harsh, just go back to the start of the paragraph and find it funny instead. See how easy that was?

Clearly I have run into my fair share of hacks, and I wish you all the best. Fortunately for these people, they find exactly what they are looking for in Korea 95 percent of the time; acceptance, work, happiness, and a spouse. Carry on, Peter Pan. Fratboys, on the other hand, are looking to do the same thing in Korea that they did back home in University, which is meet girls, drink, and pay off debt. These aren't bad things to do, but when they are the sole inspiration for the trip then you wind up with a pretty selfish and belligerent existence that doesn't really help the students you are here to teach. These are the guys picking fights outside of bars in Hongdae and showing up to school hung-over to teach 9 year olds. They don't respect the cultural differences and they don't respect the job, and a lot of these people end up oxymoronically staying in Korea forever for no particular reason. They are overtly negative and hate everything about the country after time, but the money is too good to leave. I have met these people and they are walking contradictions. Avoid them.

The worldly are interested in learning about other cultures, and embrace and respect the opportunities that present themselves. They have fun and put the experience in a broader perspective, maybe because they are considering teaching back home or caught the travel bug and were curious about Korea. This is where my bias comes from; the difference between these three crude generalizations is the personal intent for the trip, and I am really only interested in hanging out with people who have their hearts in the right place and are willing to take risks and grow. Luckily, a lot of young people who have made the journey tend to fit into this latter description of the worldly individual.

I have joked with friends that my first few weeks in Korea made me feel a lot like Will Smith in I Am Legend. Alone, without even a zombie dog to pass my post-apocalyptic days. To be truthful, I am blessed to be surrounded by friends to share my adventures with. I planned this trip with a handful of friends from back home and have met dozens more fantastic people through the Orientation retreat that was organized by the province - these hilarious and amazing Canadians, Americans, Brits, and Koreans are my family on this side of the world, and I appreciate every second I spend with them because it makes this crazy place feel less alien. It makes me feel less alien. So to everyone back home, rest easy. I have friends, and I am not on the road to becoming a crazy cat lady.

Don't get me wrong; I am not trying to be self-righteous and say that I am judging all foreigner books by their covers. Everyone is here to have their own unique experience for their own reasons and I will respect that. I just hope that regardless of intent, everyone is treating their students fairly and not withholding from them the exposure to English that can vastly improve their lives in this country. Whether you are a hack, fratboy, or worldly, we all share the fact that we teach children and that gives us a higher responsibility to go to work with our heads screwed on tightly enough to be a good influence. We share that goal within our community.


ryan said...

Shran. I loved that Andorian.

ryan said...

On another less geeky side of me note, remind me to share with you my 'types of foreigners in Asia' list sometime!

Dio said...

Hello Sean,

This is Dio who have played MTG since 1995. If you are still in Korea, I am the right person who can play MTG with you in Seoul. Please feel free to contact me anytime.

Chris in South Korea said...

Count me in the 'worldly' group - as a traveler and lover of most things Korean, It's been a wonderful year and a half here, and I look forward to much more.

I'm Chris in South Korea - check me out at