10 Skills You (Might) Learn as an Expat

Wednesday was a pretty normal day.

Here's some baby turtles.
Here you are: baby turtles.

I woke up, had breakfast in the hammock I brought back from the Philippines, and elbowed my way onto the bus for a day of teaching at my Korean elementary school. The school lunch featured barbecue, which I folded into little lettuce wraps. After school I met a friend at the traditional market, where I oooohed over the baby turtles, then went home for a dinner of communal curry and homemade naan.

This story is not particularly interesting. That’s the point.

When you live in a place, however exotic it might seem from a distance, that place becomes your life. Jeju Island has been my home for the past year and a half. It has become my life. And the lessons it has taught me were never the ones I expected to learn.

1. How to Be Weird

“I miss seeing weird people,” I said to a friend a few months back, while we sat at a coffee shop trying to decide what we missed about America. “As in, people who are different from everybody else.” Just at that moment a woman passed on the street below, her rainbow-swirled maxi dress intensely visible amid the crowds of navy and denim. “Like that,” I added, surprised by the timing.

My friend looked closer. “Isn’t that Jordan?”

It was, in fact, our expat friend.

When you live as a foreigner in a place as homogeneous as Korea, you are immediately visible as an outsider. Your hair is a different color. Your eyes look unusual. You are tall or short or thin or large, you wear different clothes, and you eat strange food. The smallest action you perform will always be slightly off.

I find this realization immensely freeing. When nothing I do is ever “normal,” then I have all the freedom in the world to be exactly what I want to be. I can go for a run in the rain, have wine on the roof, use tidepools like hot tubs. Nothing I do can possibly make me stranger than I already am.

The planet needs more people who don’t care to be normal. Living in another country gives you no other choice.

Volleyball Tournament. Case in point.
Beach Volleyball Tournament. Case in point.

3. How to Condense Language

Ironically, languages are the one thing that my mind simply cannot absorb. Though this does make me somewhat of an irresponsible expat (I really am sorry), it has not affected my ability to communicate in day-to-day situations.

There are charades, and then there are dignified charades. I am fluent in the latter. I’ve seriously considered if this form of communication would have a space on a resume, it’s that useful.

Related to dignified charades is the need for extremely concise language. When you have something to express and only a handful of shared words, you have to make those one or two words count for an entire conversation.

As a writer, this is excellent practice. Though these interactions usually drop anything related to grammar — “chingu okay?” — they force you to think in small packets. Large thoughts can then condense. Language grows solid.

3. How to Make What You Miss

Expats love food. Meals are a way to bring the physical substance of a place into your being, which is my theory on why travel usually turns people into such serious foodies.

But by far, the best food to find when you’re living abroad is the food you take for granted in your home country. Americans abroad have an obsession with taco seasoning. South Africans would move the world for Rooibos or caramel, and breakfast tea and Cadburys seem to rank highest for Brits. Canadians have a thing for ketchup potato chips that I can’t quite understand.

You want me as a friend.
You want me as a friend.

Many of these things require a package from home, but the best of them can be made at home. Since living on Jeju, I’ve found how much fun it can be to spend an afternoon making a food that would hardly have required a thought in America. On Tuesday I made garlic butter naan from scratch; on Sunday, I made cheesy garlic herb rolls because I’d gotten tired of how garlic bread in Korea always turns out to be sweet. I’ve made enchilada sauce and tortillas, blueberry muffins and lemon bars, and one spectacular chocolate and red wine cake.

Before coming to Korea, I’d never baked anything without a mix. Now, I can make almost anything with just a few simple ingredients. And it feels good to not be limited by a baking aisle.

(It’s worth noting that I’m also training for a half marathon to balance out these tasty tidbits.)

4. How to Borrow from Other Expats

England has a day devoted to pancakes. Canada has Thanksgiving. America also has Thanksgiving. South Africa has an endless success of braai. Korea has a holiday where you give your friends (and teachers) chocolate-covered pepero sticks.

Five times the countries, means five times the holidays. What’s not to love?

5. How to Get Lost in Units

Growing up in California, I had a pretty good grasp of where a warm day fell on the Fahrenheit scale. But because my first winter on Jeju was my first winter ever, my knowledge of cold weather is now framed in Celsius.

I will drive somewhere in miles and run back in kilometers. Butter is measured in grams, flour in cups. My weight comes in pounds, my height in centimeters. Gas is measured in the amount of Won it takes to fill my scooter tank.

I mixed up my Korean age and spent most of last year thinking of myself as 25, then felt like I’d won back 2 years of life when I remembered that I was actually 23.

It’s almost fun to have no idea about the limits of the world around me. Be it in miles or kilometers, the island still exists under my feet. Everything else is just a bonus point.

6. How to Scoop Tiny, Tiny Brains out of Tiny, Tiny Octopuses

Enough said. Grocery shopping in Korea can sometimes get weird.

7. How to Live Beside Another Country’s Problems

I am not a typical animal lover in the sense that, while I will always want to talk about hyenas and can watch wetland birds for hours, I have about a twenty-minute limit on patience for any individual dog or cat. I love species; I don’t love animals.

But there is a yard across the street from my apartment, and in that yard there is a cage. In that cage there is a dog. Since that dog arrived as a puppy a few months back, I have never once seen it leave that rusty four-foot cage.

There is absolutely nothing I can do to help that dog.

It is immensely easy to notice injustice in a country that is not your first home. It is immensely easy to ignore injustice that you have grown up beside. Korea treats dogs poorly; America treats homeless men and women poorly. And the list goes on. No country on earth is without its special vice.

I am angry about that dog, and all the other dogs I see every day on their three-foot chains. I would like to see that situation change, but I know that it will persist through my time on Jeju. If I choose to live in Korea, I choose to live alongside that cruelty.

So I can get angry. I can find rescue centers, or animal rights groups, to try to change the situation if I so desire.

And then I can walk down to the bus stop, past the dog in the cage. Because even with its problems, Korea is still a beautiful country, and it is the place I have chosen to make my home.

8. How to Laugh It off

Yesterday, while waiting for my friend to buy potatoes at the traditional market, I felt that special tenseness in the air that comes when someone nearby wants to talk. I spun around, smile on automatic, only to meet the unmoving gaze of a man eating hodak out of a paper cup.

“Russia?”, he asked, his voice dense. Translation: “Are you a prostitute?”

That would be a negative.

It can be irritating to have people assume things about you simply because you look different. I am a foreigner, therefore I am likely a prostitute (false). I can’t eat spicy food (false). I love hamburgers (true).

I could let these moments get to me. I choose not to.

So, I gave the man my best teacher stare (which unfortunately is neutral at best), and walked off into the life that I didn’t let him disrupt: flowers and fresh strawberries, puppies with sad futures, and the cutest possible baby bunnies.

What else could I do.

9. How to Make a Home You’ll Soon Leave

There’s this strange dichotomy between wanting to live fully in a place, and knowing you’ll soon leave that place behind. As a case study, let’s talk about my garden.

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My weekday breakfast.

I love my balcony. It has a hammock, flowers, herbs, and a little table made out of a tile that I found in the forest. On that balcony I’ve recently invented the immensely satisfying sport of Rage Gardening, which is now my favorite way to PMS. There’s a tree outside the window that is full of cherry blossoms in spring, and chirping with little green birds the rest of the year.

In four months, that balcony will be bare stone.

I could have just left the balcony as it was when I moved in, knowing it will go back to that state when I leave. But then I would have missed out on two years of the beautiful hammock breakfasts that I still look forward to when I go to bed each night.

I could also have gone all-out, bought patio furniture, planted a potted tree. But that would not have been cost-effective for the amount of time I would spend here.

Instead, I took the middle ground. I buy flowers every week, but only the inexpensive ones. I made a hanging planter out of ivy and an upside-down wine bottle, and it looks beautiful in the right light, but it only cost me 2,000 won (US$2) and one hour to make.

I know what I have, and I love it. But I also know that I will be able to leave.

10. How to Say Goodbye

This last point is, by far, the hardest part about being an expat: people leave. Friends leave. Long-term characters leave. People you’ve dated leave. People you could have dated leave. People you love to hate, people you hate to love, people that annoy you or inspire you or challenge you or change you will always, always leave. And you cannot be upset, because eventually you, too, will leave.

This is the one certainty of life as an expat.

In a way, this is beautiful. Those people will travel on to new and exciting lives all across the globe, extending the lives that you have had a chance to share. I can now travel to any number of places on the planet and still find a friend. The world becomes that much more of a home.

The Sparkle Cats volleyball ensemble. Photo cred to Eric Hevesy.
The Sparkle Cats volleyball ensemble. Photo cred to Eric Hevesy.

But it still hurts.

In a week, my good friend at Glenn Lewis Photography will leave Jeju to pursue his photographic career. I am so vastly excited to see all the incredible places his life will go, and to see all of the beautiful images he will add to the world. But it is also a fact that I will miss his presence on this island.

Goodbyes hurt because they involve a person who is worth that hurt. This has been true of every friend on Jeju with whom I have parted ways. The life I have made with each of these friends has always been worth the missing.

Living as an expat means saying goodbye. There is no better reminder to make your time count.

4 thoughts on “10 Skills You (Might) Learn as an Expat

  1. This was truly an amazing glimpse into life as an Expat. You have an inherent ability to describe the emotion of things. I love to read about how you perceive the world around you, wherever that may be. I learn from it. 🙂

    1. Picture a thin, crappy pretzel stick that tastes a little like those rods you dip in fake cheese packets, then coat that stick in chocolate and toss on some nuts. They’re always a bit of a letdown, but still, the kids are adorable.

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