Wednesday, 25 September 2002

Gord Sellar's Fending Off Discontentment

Fending off discontentment

Following is Part III of a popular online series examining expat-Korean relations. The essay was originally posted on and has been updated for The Korea Herald. - Ed.
Discussion of late online - and in the pages of this newspaper - has turned to the question of expatriate complaint, and its root causes.

I think Descartes' old formulation of "Cogito, ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am) would be improved by throwing in something a little more universal to the human experience than thinking: If we amend it to read, "Queritor, ergo sum," (I bitch excessively, therefore I am), we'd get something a little more reflective of humanity's attachment to complaining, its motivations for speaking out, and the moment when human volition and the identity bound into it are at their peak.

I bitch excessively, therefore I am.

If we take complaining to be a natural part of the human condition it certainly explains a lot. If various aspects of the world didn't suck, people wouldn't feel driven to sit in rooms and write about them, adding to the millions of hours people have spent throughout human history - I suspect, as a student of literature and the arts, that complaint lies at the heart of human creativity.

For example, when popular British science fiction author Richard Morgan was asked why so much of his fiction was so violent, the first thing he mentioned was not the themes of his stories (systemic exploitation and oppression of the masses by the elite through systems like government or corporations). No, that came second. The first thing he mentioned was, "Having been an ESL teacher for many years, and the compacted sense of rage that one builds up because, no matter how vile the things you're hearing are, your job is to make the classroom a warm, comfy, touchy-feely place to be, so that your students get more confident, try more, and ultimately get better at saying what they think - be it brilliant, or be it vile."


Burnout is a risk in any profession, but especially in teaching. I suspect that the rate of burnout is higher still for people who are teaching in a foreign country. I can't help but look at the guys who are teaching week in and week out - the hagwon teachers who go not only without the four months of holiday enjoyed by university lecturers like myself, but also sometimes teach eight or more hours a day - and wonder how they stay sane after a couple years of it.

In fact, I suspect a lot of people don't, or cannot, and this might be one reason why they either leave so soon, or begin teaching as if they'd been hired off the set of a George Romero movie.

Time off helps prevent burnout. Being in a foreign country usually doesn't help, at least not in the long term, as the petty annoyances compound. Morgan was living in Britain for a lot (but not all) of his ESL career, but many expat teachers have done it all abroad, and have been doing it for years. I don't know that they complain more than teachers in similar situations in their home countries - though that would be hard to test; probably fewer teachers back home blog as publicly or as honestly as many expats do here, since it's riskier in the West. Still, judging by the mockery and ranting one sees in foreigner-hangouts, expats probably do whinge more both online and offline.

Why they choose to remain abroad when they are unhappy is an interesting question, and there are probably a bunch of issues at work there - economics, in some cases; lethargy or inertia; masochism in a few cases; perceived or real lack of opportunities in their home country; and almost certainly much more.

Get a hobby

The other thing that I've noticed is that the people here who don't have some kind of hobby tend to go sour, bitter, and ranty a lot faster than the people who don't. Korea lacks a lot of the usual "fun things to do" in the countries many expats come from. I have a friend who's on holiday in the United States, and it was one of the things she mentioned first in an e-mail to me: "There are so many fun things to do everywhere!" Korea has fun things too - but they're, er, well, not much like the fun things we Westerners tend to have learned to think of as fun. Hiking a mountain, fun? Actually, once you get past the sweat and ache and the rest, it really is fun. No kidding. But Korea has a very undeveloped market for entertainment, especially outside of certain parts of Seoul and Busan. On a winter day, you can:

- watch a movie at the cinema/DVD-bang/at home

- play computer games at the PC-bang

- consume some Korean food/badly-prepared Western food/alcohol/coffee/tea at a restaurant/foreigner bar/Korean bar/cafe/tea house

- hike a mountain to visit a temple, yell from the top and shiver

There are, of course, more options than that, but not for most Westerners. Museums? Where are they? Rock concerts? Sure, if you know about the Korea Gig Guide online (google it!) and live in Seoul. Film festivals happen for just a week of the year. And the other festivals ... well, good luck finding out about them.

I've observed that having a hobby helps immensely. The first few years I was in Korea, I played in a rock band that gigged at festivals, clubs, and all kinds of other events, and even put out a few CDs (get yourself one at To be honest, over the years it kind of drove me batty, because I'm more into jazz than rock music, and I'm not one for spending weekends on the road. I'm just not cut out for a career in rock music, but then again, I play the saxophone, so it was never meant to be.

All of that said, though, playing in that band was immensely therapeutic for me in terms of adjusting to Korea. It opened doors to me that never otherwise would have opened. Suddenly I was talking to Korean people about stuff they cared about - indie music - and that was a counterbalance to the world of my classes, where students struggled to make perfect sentences about things they didn't care about at all. I was, of course, always something of an outsider, and to a degree so were all the foreign musicians I knew, but we were still part of a community. It was a community with its own vocabulary, rules, interests, oddities, people to care about and people to avoid, and much more - and none of it had anything to do with my actual job.

The expats I know who've adjusted here best are those who have some kind of, well, I don't want to use the word "hobby" again, so I'll say, "interface" with Korea. They interface by engaging with the place they live in some creative, responsive, energetic way. Some I've known in the past made documentary films or created art. Some produce zines exploring the local culture. Others do pop culture analysis, or perform independent research. A few take on academic studies, or work as translators, or live lives of scholarly inquiry in an apparently idyllic familial home.

Really, the options are limited already, and unless you can search online in Korean, or get some help, you're going to mostly end up doing what the majority of other working people do here: watching movies, drinking with your own kind, or stay at home, ranting online.

Everyone complains

And yes, other working people - that is, Koreans - are ranting online, too. The fact is, Koreans complain - online and offline - too. Sadly, the vast majority of expats here have never been made aware of it. They seem to imagine that Koreans are, in general, quite happy-go-lucky about what appears to us non-Koreans like a whole network of nonfunctional systems. Do you really believe that Koreans don't realize how askew economical development has become here, or that they don't get annoyed with a lot of the things that bug you? Sadly, many expats I've met do seem to think these things, and don't consider doing what the popular blogger The Korean ( invites them to do in the title of his blog: Ask A Korean.

A major difference, though, is that the majority of other working people have families here, and circles of friends. Expats, rootless as they often are, have social worlds that, however much they make do, do not bind them as powerfully. Among expats, it's common to hear the word "friend" used where acquaintance is more appropriate. I would wager money, hard-earned money, that people uprooted from their communities the way most of us are much more prone to negativity and complaining, simply from a sociobiological perspective: The stresses weigh more heavily without a deeper-rooted system of support than any "expat community," with its transience and dislocation, can provide.

But my experience with my fiancee is that, in fact, we happen to find a lot of the same things annoying. The lack of a political candidate to really get excited about in the last election; the disrepair of so many fundamental systems here; the way so many people behave inconsiderately in public - these things bug her endlessly too. They probably drive me mad in a way that strikes her a bit over the top, at times, of course, because I didn't grow up with it. But they probably bother her much more, deep down, since it's her country.

The uprootedness is a very difficult thing to compensate for in one's life. Much as we glorify it, many of us in Korea learn the importance of community by living without one, or by working hard to forge one for ourselves if we choose to live here long-term.

Engage Korea

These days, I'm engaging with Korea by exploring the way science-fiction is developing here as a genre, and you know what? The doors were thrown open for me at my first sign of interest. I've met and talked to aspiring writers, a major publisher, an organizer of Korea's biggest SF fanclub, and more than one SF fan in the few short months since I've begun looking into this with any degree of energy. (And no, we don't dress up like Jedis and swordfight. Yet.)

Many expats get really, embarrassingly (for me) good at the language. Whatever they do, they engage with this place on their own terms, but they remember to take into account its terms, too. They're realistic, and probably every one of them has engaged in an unwholesome bout of complaining more than once - it's human, after all, which is why I'd bet every human language has a verb that means "to complain" - but they've moved past that. They've dug in and found things to get fascinated by, excited about, or involved in, despite the constant stream of mixed signals. The encouragement they receive clashes with messages telling them that they shouldn't bother, that they can't do that, or complicating the process, or discouraging them to pursue their interests.

A few years ago, I would have said that all well-adjusted non-Koreans in Korea study and develop their Korean ability. I've lapsed, myself, grown too busy in weighing the options, focused on other things, and I don't feel my quality of life has slid too much for it. But, learning and improving my Korean ability would probably help my engagement with Korea.

Connect with Koreans

But there is one more common - though not universal - trait among those who adjust well here. It's that well-adjusted expats connect with Korean people outside of their workplace. And I don't just mean the smiling, nearly-fluent-in-English bartender at the local foreigner Bar. I mean they make friends with Koreans; they have arguments - of substance, about things of mutual concern, with Koreans. They may fall in love with one (or two, or three, over the years) and marry a Korean, or they might not. But they do connect to people outside of their workplace, even if it's just someone in their swim class at the YMCA, or the cute guy who chats with them every time they stop in at this particular pub or coffee shop, or the lady next door who likes to chat about this or that. The middle-aged lady who ran my favorite tea shop in Iksan used to sit with me and chat in the simplest Korean she could manage, just to pass the time.

For many non-Koreans here - male and female, though the latter is rarer - a Korean mate is the most profound connection possible to Korean society, and a kind of natural, compassionate reality check. When you have no idea why Koreans do this or that, of course, and complain to your Korean other half, sometimes it just causes annoyance. My fiancee and I, for example, have topics we've learned not to complain to one another about, because it never achieves anything worthwhile.

But if you're lucky enough to have someone who values dialog, if you're clever enough to value it yourself, if you both have a sense of humor, and if you make the obvious investment in one another that helps understand each others' worlds, (most) Koreans don't seem quite so weird to you, after all. Different, yes. Odd, maybe.


And sometimes I think the people who really adapt to living here do it with a trick of the mind: They just kind of learn to mentally balance the things that drive them batty with the things that they really enjoy.

And really, that's like living anywhere, isn't it?

Well, maybe not. There are pleasures and pains unique to Korea, I think - or, at least, unique enough to make it pretty unlike living in a lot of places. And really, like I said - complaining is part of the human condition. But if you find it a growing part of your daily conversational (or blogging) repertoire, perhaps it's time to put down your laptop, go out there, and engage with this huge, diverse, and interesting society all around you. Find something and get into it, and you might be surprised how enjoyable your life becomes.

Photos by Alii Higham and Matthew Lamers

By Gord Sellar

1 comment:

Becky said...

Well said! I don't know what I would have done without my Korean girlfriends. They've been instrumental in my enjoyable Korean experience. It's an adventure every time I leave my apartment. I don't have that kind of expectation back home in the States.