Tuesday, September 06, 2016

a reaction to a Nebraskan ex-expat

On Twitter, one of the people I follow linked to this article by Bart Schaneman, a Nebraskan who spent five years in South Korea. What I'd like to do now is provide a point-by-point reaction to his thoughts. There was much that I agreed with, but there were also some areas of disagreement, especially when Schaneman got political.

I spent five years living in the clamor of Seoul, South Korea, and the smaller provincial capital of Jeonju. When I finally returned home to rural Nebraska, the silence was palpable. The negative space had an almost oppressive quality. I would look out on so much land and see nothing and be reminded that this was the same landscape that once caused homesteaders to lose their minds.

I had come home — literally, this was the Nebraska town I grew up in — to take a job at a small newspaper in Scottsbluff. The first night back, I lay awake in my childhood bedroom of my parents' farmhouse straining to hear anything, inside or out. Only the silence answered back.

Going home after so many years abroad stunned me. Everyone spoke English. Public places meant being exposed to all manner of overheard sordid details of people's lives. Simply driving down the street of my hometown I was awash in putrid nostalgia, reminded of my past at every turn. That house was where I broke up with my first girlfriend, that park where I lost my first fight. The places that I had fond memories of were just that, places with memories, filled with the vestiges of people who weren't around anymore, or weren't like they once were. I had no control over the constant flood of remembering.

Those who have traveled extensively or lived abroad often talk about the mind-expanding benefits of what they call your second education. Travel magazines thrive on expounding on the virtues of gaining experiences and seeing the world firsthand. It's all true. But rarely do people talk about what happens when your expat life ends.

I can relate to all of this. I remember feeling similarly after coming home from a year of studying in Europe. Once I was back on campus for my senior year of college (I had spent my junior year abroad), my experience in Switzerland seemed increasingly unreal: I was back in the States, picking up where I had left off, and the only people who could deeply relate to my experiences were those who had done something similar.

Many returning expats are seized with "reverse culture shock." The U.S. State Department dedicates a section of its website to this phenomenon. Some of it is written expressly for military personnel, but the bulk is directed at anyone stationed overseas faced with returning to the States. It references Craig Storti's book The Art of Coming Home, which lists variables affecting reentry, including "Degree of difference between the overseas and the home culture: The greater the difference, the harder the reentry." Moving from Seoul, a city with a greater metropolitan area population of 25 million, to rural Nebraska, where my town had fewer people than a large Korean apartment complex, fit that to a T.

Korea, for me, presents a somewhat different case because I come from a half-Korean background. Thanks to my Korean mother, my home life was Korean in many respects, from food to TV programs to ways of thinking about the world and other people. Mom never held back her opinion, so of course I couldn't help but internalize some of her values, even as I was actively trying to resist them, as many bicultural kids growing up in the States have done. Mom and I frequently locked horns, but we were far more similar than different, and my home life proved to be excellent preparation for living and working long-term in Korea.

This isn't to say that I came to the peninsula with an encyclopedic understanding of the culture; in many ways, I'm still learning something new, even now, after eleven years here. But I had a solid grounding that prevented me from experiencing the sort of deep culture shock that sinks into the bones of non-Koreans who blunder onto the peninsula with little to no cultural knowledge at all.

Coming back from Korea after two years was indeed a reverse culture shock for me, but that wore off quickly, and now that I've zigzagged back and forth between the States and Korea so often, the two cultures no longer seem all that contrastive.

When you're living abroad, you develop a heightened sense of the intricacies in simple daily interactions. The cultural differences in your foreign country sharpen your perceptive ability. When you come back that antenna is still there. You pick up frequencies and signals that the people around you either can't hear or choose to ignore. The people and the place haven't changed, but you have.

When I'm in the States, I definitely have a tendency to view matters through a much more Korean-tinged lens, but I'm far from having gone native. I'm still a Virginian at heart, and at this point, that's never going to change. I'm too old; it's too late. At the same time, I'm American enough that, while in Korea, I view my second home very much through a critical American lens... and this is why, as you're going to see, I have some disagreements with Mr. Schaneman's sometimes rose-colored evaluation of Korea.

Going out to eat will never be like it was. Koreans are given little buttons on their tables that when pressed send a waiter running. It's commonplace to call out for a server to come to your table and bring you more soju. In America, we sit at the mercy of the restaurant staff, unable to ask for what you want until they grace you with their presence. Koreans share food, typically eating around a common dish or dishes in the center of the table. It feels communal, social. The American way is to order a dish and eat what we ordered, rarely sharing, rarely tasting the other food on the table. It's far less fun. Then we tip, which is a terrible system but one we live with. The Korean way is better.

This is where I begin to part company with the author. Why on earth is tipping terrible? I prefer to have the freedom to tip according to the quality of the service I receive. If the service is shitty, there's no way I'll be tipping much. Otherwise, I normally tip 20% instead of the standard 15% in honor of my brother David, who used to slave away in the food business. Having some idea of how hard and thankless such jobs are (I could never do them), I'm happy to do my part by tipping a bit more. Is that really so terrible?

In Korea, I also tip taxi drivers. They don't expect it, but they almost always appreciate it. Again, I don't see the problem, here. These guys bust their asses all day long, fighting through city traffic. They deserve a little extra for their efforts.

I do, however, agree somewhat with Mr. Schaneman's "at the mercy of the restaurant staff" comment: true enough, it's rude to yell out to wait staff in America. At the same time, if you have a need, you're not as helpless as all that: you can catch a server's eye or even wave a server down without being rude about it.

As for communal/social versus the American way—which Mr. Schaneman seems to imply is selfish when he says "rarely sharing"—I confess I used to think that way, too, back when my ideas about the differences between Korean and American culture were still forming. But selfishness is a harsh judgment; I'd rather chalk the differences up to respective senses of propriety, with all that that implies about social boundaries and the like. Mr. Schaneman would do well to treasure the differences and respect them for how they evolved within their own historical contexts instead of praising one custom at the expense of another.

You can attempt to relate your experiences to your friends and family, but you can only start so many sentences with "In Asia…" before their eyes start to glaze over. Handing out a stack of pictures in your family living room helps, as long you're okay with some of the most formative experiences of your life reduced to the same level of interest as your second cousin's trip to Branson.

No disagreement here. This is pretty much universal in the world of expats versus non-expats.

To learn how the rest of the world lives is to cure yourself of spoiling. Americans live better than the vast majority of the world. We should be thankful for clean water, for consistent electricity, for the abundance of choice in our daily lives. Too often, we willfully ignore that. We always want more. More money. More property. More status. For the many privileged among us, our daily lives are so comfortable that we obsess over trivialities to keep our minds occupied. Compare that to the river people of Cambodia or the horse tribes of Mongolia. The attendant absurdities of our privilege are obvious.

I admit I got antsy reading this pious, self-righteous paragraph. First off, Mr. Schaneman's main focus, in this article, is on his experiences in Korea; this feels like a digression, and an unjustified one at that because he never writes of his travel experiences in the above-mentioned countries. Has he been to Cambodia and Mongolia? Has he seen these problems up close for himself? Maybe he has. If so, he should have written on these things. This feels shoehorned in, and merely sounds like the sort of leftist talking points I'd expect to hear from a callow college student.

A well-traveled person sees his home country's flaws more clearly. She sees the pettiness and divisiveness in the people. She sees the beauty and the benefits, too, but the picture is more complicated. After living abroad, it's hard not to be baffled how a nation as wealthy as ours doesn't seem to mind if a serious health condition can bankrupt almost anyone, or how our prison industrial complex is a perpetual motion machine gobbling up poor people and people of color just to keep itself running.

More of the same. Sigh...

And what's more, it seems that, after five years in Korea, Mr. Schaneman has nothing to say about Korea's darker side. I'm not saying that he should hammer on the negatives like that poor, gloomy, cynical bastard over at the Expat Hell blog, but a little fairness might be nice. What Schaneman is calling a horizon-expanding experience strikes me as more of a one-sided, one-dimensional thing: ideally, he ought to be evaluating Korea through an America-tinged lens as much as he's evaluating America through an expat-tinged one. That's fairness.

When you live overseas in a country like Korea, which is populated with 96 percent ethnic Koreans, everywhere you go you are reminded you are a foreigner. People stare. Kids shout "hello!" from across the street. Strangers go out of their way to be nice to you. You're consistently treated like a guest.

It can be nice, but that "othering" also means this: "You're a foreigner, you'll never understand our country" or "if you don't like the way we're doing things here you can always leave." The life of a foreigner can be one of privilege, but it can also be one of no agency, no voice. It can make you yearn for your home.

Simultaneous sympathy and disagreement here. Disagreement first: as far as I'm concerned, there's nothing wrong with the "if you don't like it, leave" attitude. I'd fully expect Koreans to treat me this way if I were to bitch and moan constantly about the hell of living here. I don't, though: I love living in Korea, even though I may be frequently critical of the country. What wife isn't frequently critical of her husband, even though she loves him? What relationship is perfectly blissful and conflict-free? As an American, my attitude is also, "if you don't like it, leave." I can't relate to people who move to my country, then spend all their energy complaining about its ills. If there are ills (and of course there are), then get off your complaining ass and do something about them. Or just leave. We don't need your type.

Agreement next: Schaneman is factually, objectively correct when he talks about the "othering" in Korea. Korea has a hard time with alterity, partly because it believes its own metanarrative of danil-minjok, i.e. the notion that Koreans all belong to one pure race. Biologically speaking, the notion is nonsense, but what matters is the practical reality: Koreans subscribe to the notion; they have a definite sense of in-group and out-group. If America is a country founded on an idea, Korea is the opposite. It doesn't matter how much Korean you learn, how many years you live in country, or how much Korean culture you've internalized: culture has a genetic component, from the Korean point of view: if you don't look Korean, you can never be Korean.

That said, I think the above is not necessarily cause for sadness. Would you want to be part of a culture that's so tribal in its thinking, especially if you have no Korean blood at all? There's something to be said about living apart, especially if, like me, you're an introvert who prizes his separateness. I admit I sometimes feel the pull of "my people," being half-Korean, but to what extent are they really my people? Most Koreans see me as white. Their perceptual filter has such a tight mesh that it screens out my hair color, my eye color, my rounded facial features, the vestigial epicanthic folds at the inner corners of my eyes. In Korea, you either look Korean or you don't.* Even Korean-born Koreans catch hell from fellow Koreans if they fall outside of the perceived racial norm. I have a cousin whose lips are fuller than average; he used to be taunted as black by fellow students (and yes, that perceptual filter certainly abets a racist worldview). Other Koreans whose skin is darker than "normal" get similar treatment. So again: why would an outsider even want to belong?

But when you return home, you miss being a stranger in a strange land. You find it lonesome to be out in public and receive no extra attention or hospitality. That no one's going to give you a thumbs up just for walking down the street isn't something to complain about — to be white in Korea is to receive undeserved positive attention from a public that overvalues whiteness — but it comes as a surprise to realize that what made you uncomfortable about living in a foreign country is also something you thought was kind of nice.

I appreciate what Schaneman is saying here. He expresses the mixture of feelings well. "Stranger in a strange land" is the thought that I was trying to express above. And Schaneman is right to note that white folks in Korea do get treated undeservedly better than, say, darker-skinned expats.

Overseas I met more than a few people who tried to move back and couldn't. They realized their reverse culture shock was going to take months if not years to overcome, so they returned to their lifestyle abroad. Countries that pay English teachers well — Korea, Turkey, Taiwan — are well-trodden by these types. They stayed away long enough that moving back to their home country was just as difficult as moving anywhere else. Rootless, they decided to go where they chose.

Korea definitely sucks you in. And one problem with living long-term in Korea is that your skill sets become more and more Korea-specific, almost to the point that you find you're no longer able to function well anywhere else. Part of the problem is the solipsistic nature of Korean culture itself, which is constantly self-referential and prone to, as that long-ago blog called it, incestuous amplification. I've seen expats swear they'd had enough of Korea, only to come back a year or more later. Korea is a black hole; escaping its event horizon is no easy task, but it can be done. If a person is willing.

If you're considering living in another country, here's what people will say before you leave: You'll have experiences that you'll carry with you. You'll learn to see differences in cultures. You'll benefit in ways that you won't expect.

And they're right. It will change you.

But what they won't tell you is that if you come back, you'll want different things out of life than before you left. Home won't look the same anymore. You'll learn that the experiences you gather make you who are. You carry them with you. And that's where they do the most good — with you.

No argument here.

*To be fair, there are Koreans—most of whom have lived abroad—who are capable of transcending their perceptual filter, and who see me as having a measure of Asian blood. These Koreans are rare, but they do exist, and I'd be remiss not to mention them.


King Baeksu said...

I was talking about tipping with a Korean friend who was visiting here in Bali recently. His take: "Koreans think that if you come back to the restaurant again, that's the tip!"

Kevin Kim said...

Sounds about right. They do place high value on the notion of the "dan-gol son-nim," don't they...

TheBigHenry said...


This is a very interesting post, and I hope to contribute several comments that I believe may be "value added" to your own insights. I won't try to do it all at once, however, because I do not think it is polite to submit comments that are inordinately longer than the original post itself.

Best, Henry

hahnak said...

hi kevin, the following is not really related to the post. just kind of a spin off...

i was wondering is your french much better than your korean?

and if you could find steady work, would you be willing to live somewhere in europe?

just curious!

brier said...

I enjoyed reading the Schaneman article. I also enjoyed reading your commentary about the article. I have never gotten the “If you don’t like it here, leave” comment, for mostly I enjoy myself in Korea and like yourself, a bit of an introvert. But sometimes the ‘othering’ aspect of living in Korea wears on me. I imagine if I spoke better Korean that would diminish. I can only blame myself for that, even after twenty years here. I don’t even know that the event horizon looks like. But I feel there is also a systemic issue at play. Restrictions on employment, access to finance and credit, and a lack of basic political agency stymies the development of foreigners living and working in Korea. Unless you’re a marriage immigrant, long term foreigners without Korean roots do face systemic restrictions. Loosening some of these restrictions would allow the foreign community to invest more in their Korean experience and lessen the otherness that comes to define a lot of who you are and what you can do. Korea law, especially visa issuance law has pigeonholed me. Maybe, I am just too law abiding for my own good.

Kevin Kim said...


My French is loads better than my Korean. I'm a fluent French-speaker, whereas I'm just a middling Korean-speaker. Not sure what I'd do in Europe, though: teaching English there won't be as easy because the market's already so flooded with teachers and schools. Maybe if I changed career trajectories and did something in the arts...?


Really good points about the legal dimensions. Thanks. Twenty years, huh? You're definitely a lifer.

Kevin Kim said...


You are, of course, welcome to post your thoughts here in however many comments it takes. Or if you prefer, you can write an entry on your own blog—whatever length you desire—and provide a link to that post here in my comments section. Whatever works best for you.

TheBigHenry said...


Thank you for your gracious response. I think I will compose a post on my own blog in response to this post of yours (and then provide a link to it here).

Incidentally, I would like to establish an email channel with you so that we can communicate privately instead of on the world stage via comments on your blog. If you are willing, please shoot me an email via the link on my Blogger Profile.