Up until the early 2000s, Korea’s expat population was mainly made up of US military personnel and a rag-tag group of ESL teachers. Now, people from around the world are all eagerly flocking to this Asian city for business, traveling, teaching, or just a change of pace. In fact, as of 2016, there were over 1.5 million foreigners living here, making up 3.4% of the population. It’s pretty clear; Korea has quickly become one of the popular kids.
While we all have our own reasons for making the dramatic move to Korea, it’s common amongst most expats to experience a sense of displacement, not belonging, and a general feeling of being lost. But, with just a little effort and energy, Korea can become your home (even if just for now).
Problem: I’ve just arrived in Korea and I’m feeling overwhelmed
Solution: Indulge in familiar favorites for a short while
Your first few days in Korea will be spent almost entirely in survival mode. It can be very overwhelming to process. In preparation, collect a few familiar favorites to find comfort in while settling into your new country. You may not have Wi-Fi when you arrive, so before jumping onto the plane, load your laptop with some of your best feel-good movies and binge-worthy series, or fill up your Kindle with a bunch of your most cherished books. Unfortunately, actual paperbacks may be too bulky to travel with – perhaps bring one or two – but try using electronic devices instead.
Problem: I don’t know where anything is
Solution: Get comfortable with your neighborhood
While, it’s easy to live off CU food forever, only emerging from your apartment to go to work or stock up on ramen, soon it will be necessary to venture into further pastures and check out your local grocery store, or perhaps pay a visit to the doctor. After a few meanders around the neighborhood, you will be one step closer to feeling at home. Handy tip: find the local spots where you are most welcome and comfortable. There is such simple joy in being recognized. Discover the restaurant that offers 24-hour pizza delivery, the bakery with real bread that tastes just like home, the pharmacist who always greets you with a smile, and doctor who can speak enough English to help you. And, while exploring helps in knowing how to get around, it also keeps excitement levels up and chases away the persistent foreigner blues.
Problem: I’m feeling lonely
Solution: Make good friends and spend time with them
While characters in books or movies may keep you company for your first few days, real human contact is a make or break factor when moving overseas. When arriving in a new place completely alone, social networks will be your answer. Not only can the initial socializing be done from the comfort of your own home, but you can chat, and meet, people that you never would have otherwise. Meetup and Tinder are very popular, and there are many Facebook groups (such as Expats in Korea) and organizations (GlobalSeoulMates is a biggie) that provide solace and familiarity during the lonelier times.
Solution: Fill your personal space with comfort items
Your first paycheck will bring you yet another step closer to home. Use it to turn your sparse, cold, and unforgiving apartment into a cozy and welcoming haven. Take the time (and spend the money) necessary to make your apartment comfortable. Scatter those cushions, spread a rug or two, invest in a really soft blanket. Go overboard with plants (a jungle home is totally okay), or ironically-funny mugs. Decorate the walls with happy memories, photographs of your loved ones, meaningful quotes; do whatever you need to do to enjoy being in your own space.
Problem: I’m feeling lost and aimless
Solution: Set a goal and get into a routine
While spontaneity and adventure look great on Instagram, it isn’t necessarily the healthiest or most efficient way to settle into a new country. Find your routine: be it work, gym, a day set aside for ‘me-time’, a weekly dinner with friends; anything that keeps you grounded during the turbulence of moving overseas. Even if you don’t stick to it all the time, it’s nice to have something to come back to when you begin to feel a little aimless.
Problem: I’m finding it difficult to leave the comfort of my apartment
Solution: Find your happy places
When we think of our home countries, most often our nostalgic memories are tied to places: especially places we frequented often. So, make an effort to find those places in Korea. Be it a quiet beach in Sokcho, a rooftop cafe in Noksapyeong, a tiny brunch spot in Hannam, a board game café in Hongdae, or even a grimy underground club in Itaewon: any place that will tempt you out of the house. These familiar places, that you can return to again and again, will become your safety nets around the city, eventually turning it into your home.
Problem: I’m struggling to communicate and feel like an outsider
Solution: Learn some Korean
This may seem like an obvious thing to do, but it’s surprisingly easy to live in Korea (especially big cities like Seoul) without speaking any Korean. However, being able to understand and communicate with those around you will bring a sense of belonging, transforming you from outsider to being a part of the community (plus it will you get an abundance of smiles and compliments, and who doesn’t want that).
“Home is what you make of it.” Or so the saying goes. Korea will never feel the same as the country you grew up in, but a home comes in many forms. Building a home in a foreign country is an active process; you have to lay it brick by brick. Find the pleasure in experiencing comfort in a slightly different way, find beauty in the imperfections, and eventually, you will find home.