So it’s quickly approaching the 6 month mark of me living in Korea and what a roller-coaster of emotions it has been. Cheesy cliché aside, there is something I want to address that seems to fly under the radar of living abroad and that is loneliness. Now, when I say that being lonely is an issue I face in Korea I do not use this term lightly, nor do I use this as a replacement for home-sickness. These are two different things entirely. I consider myself an extremely organised individual and in the months leading up to my departure from the U.K I researched everything you could conceivably research. I wrote lists upon lists. And I packed, re-packed, and re-re-packed. I was ready, or so I thought. Having previously lived abroad before I was not afraid of being away from home. Indeed, living in Australia didn’t feel a whole lot different to me from living in Essex. I have always been independent and whilst I do still need my Mother like everyone else, she’s always at the end of the phone whatever distance lays between us.
So what makes Korea so different?
The problem, in my opinion, stems from the difference between ‘studying’ abroad and ‘working’ abroad. Now, studying abroad certainly wasn’t the picture perfect postcard I had imagined it to be. But, that being said, in Australia I had friends. Real friends. Initially, I had pegged all my hopes on making friends solely with Ozzies, delve fully into the culture and so on. This, however, didn’t prove as easy as I had anticipated. Thankfully, there to save me from potential isolation were a couple of like-minded Brits from my home university who understood my sarcasm and weren’t too cool to be excited by kangaroos. As time progressed I did make friends with some nice Australians, but the one thing I knew I could depend on was my best friend Sophie. She was there when I needed boy advice. She was there when I couldn’t navigate Allocate+. And she was there on Day 3 of my juice cleanse when I phoned her up almost in tears asking for her permission to eat a bowl of Special K. I didn’t ask her because she had banned me from solid foods, I had banneed myself. However, I needed a friend to tell me it was okay to give up; it was okay to reach for that coveted bowl of cereal.
Living and studying in Australia differed also because I was always surrounded by people of my age (or close enough). In Korea, however, the majority of my days are spent with 4-7-year-olds. The adults, that is, my coworkers are the few people who I can befriend. Now, the problem with this environment, much like any other small working environment, is that you cannot choose who is and isn’t going to be on your friends list. I mean, you can, but to do so is social suicide. So, by default, they are all your friends and in many cases, they become your only friends.
Now, herein lies the issue: what if you don’t like said co-worker(s)?
There are 2 choices:
- Be civil and as nice as you can in order to preserve an enjoyable working environment and create a (false) friendship.
- Don’t do any of the above and become entirely isolated.
Now, as the title of this blog may have indicated, I chose the latter option however it wasn’t quite as straightforward as cutting my nose to spite my face. In fact, I started with the former option but over time it progressed into option no.2.
Something which has become apparent to me over the past several months is that I, like many foreign entities in Korea, am just another expendable commodity. There’s an enormous influx and outflux of ESL teachers in South Korea. ESL teachers, as I have mentioned in a previous blog, make up quite a large volume of the foreigners here. For new ESL teachers arriving in Korea it is almost essential that they have an old-timer to show them the ropes because there is an adjustment period when moving abroad. In Korea, there is also a language barrier, so befriending somebody that speaks Korean or has lived here for a while enables you to overcome said barrier with the helpful words, advice and babysitting of said old-timer. Now, somehow or other, I became part of the old-timer category extremely swiftly. As such, I became the person sought out for advice from those newbies who were struggling to settle in and missed home as well as those who needed to know how to obtain a phone contract, pay a utility bill or navigate the subway. Now, I am not unwilling to help anybody with any of the above but at what cost do I do so?
My boss recently asked me to speak to a potential new teacher who had some queries about the job, the accommodation and the country. I obliged. In amongst the question and answer rally she said something that resonated with me quite profoundly:
“People can be mean and cruel. They don’t realise that we all need each other.”
And she really hit the proverbial nail on the head. The reason I feel isolated and lonely at times is because I am not longer useful to the people I used to call my friends. And as sad at this sounds to read aloud, it is in part my own doing. I am a very independent person and I’d like to think I have a caring nature. However, there is a limit to my kindness. When I feel like I am being taken advantage of or that I am not surrounded by genuine and authentic people, I have to draw a line under those relationships. I hate to use the term toxic, but as I am getting older I am certainly making active decisions to surround myself with people who positively influence my life. As many of my close friends are living in various countries around the world, I have found myself physically surrounded by only one positive influence: myself.
So how are you meant to cope with these feelings of isolation and loneliness?
Firstly, you keep yourself busy. I’ve joined the gym and I force myself to go 3-4 times a week. Secondly, I try to complete 30-day challenges which occupy my time as well as promoting self-improvement (well, that’s the idea). Finally, I endeavour to read 1 book every month to keep the cogs in my brain turning and it also proves to be a nice little escape from reality. Another suggestion I would have for others in a similar position to me, or anyone new to Korea would be: go to expat meet ups. I have joined as many expat Facebook groups as I could find and the ‘British Expat’ one I have recently stumbled across brings me great joy. I am aware of how pathetic this may sound, but finding people who like tea and discuss which chocolate bars in England are in the top tier (Snickers and Bounty obviously) brings a smile to my face. The reason I have not gone to any of my local expat meet ups is because I am avoiding certain negative influences (please see above).
I have written this blog as way of releasing the negative emotions which inhibit me every day. I also write so as to draw attention to the fact that loneliness can play a big part in working abroad and, to a lesser degree, studying abroad. Take time to consider this as part of your checklist before you make the leap to pastures new because it isn’t always greener. That being said, Korea is a beautiful country filled with beautiful people and I am treating any and all adversity as ‘character building’. I will preservere and endeavour to be gracious to those who antagonise me beyond belief. And whist I may want to scream and stamp my feet on the floor, I will instead take a deep breath and recall the advise of my parents through my childhood:
“It’s nice to be nice and if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”