Monday, January 10, 2000

Community is the Key to Happiness

For my first six months in Korea, I had a really great roommate named Dave, who had a terrible sense of direction, but liked to go for long rambling walks. He was a good friend during my first year. Then Dave went back to New York to start medical school, and starting with Dave's exit, over the next three months, all of the people who had sustained me through my initial Korea culture shock, disappeared. By halfway through my second year, I had experienced a second complete turnover in my social circles. It seemed like every time I got together with friends, it was either a house-warming or a goodbye party.

Coming to another country, and being immersed in a new culture, is an overwhelming experience: Korea is different, relentlessly different, from my home country, and it will not stop being Korea just because I need a break. This can be a good thing. A lot of expats made the choice to come here because they wanted to get outside their old back-home comfort zones. The first few months of the expat experience especially are a real stretching experience for many of us, adjusting in what seems like a comfort-free zone.

Every expat develops ways to cope with the non-stop otherness. Most of us start out by leaning hard on life back home. Many fresh-off-the-plane expats I know spend a lot of time writing or phoning home, and seeking out the foods and activities they did back home. I did this, too: for my first four months, a fast-food burger set and an English movie was the echo of home I needed to get through a rough week. The problem is that people finding comfort this way may never be more than visitors here. Sure, they lived here, technically, but Korea was never their home, and they always had one foot out the door, either backward, planted in the place they left, or forward, leaning toward the next step before even finishing this one.

There is nothing wrong with being a visitor in Korea: for some expats, Korea will never mean more to them than a paycheck to send home, a way to pay down the student loan, to see the world before settling down back home, or to save up before another leg of their trip around the world. For visitors, the constant coming and going of friends might be no big deal. However, there are some people who have their reasons to make Korea their home, who invest here, and for them, the revolving door can be frustrating.

Humans are intensely communal creatures, and for many of us, making connections with like-minded people adds a vital kind of meaning to our lives. The good news for expats in Korea is that there are more people now, with more diverse interests, staying here for longer periods, than ever before. Thanks to the internet and the community pages of local papers and magazines, there are many more opportunities to find kindred spirits, and connect in meaningful ways, than there were when I first came.

In this column, I hope to highlight some of the communities that expats use to connect with each other, adding meaning and value to their experience in Korea. If you know about, or are a member of a community where expats meet, connect, support each other, drop me a line at with the word "community" in the subject line, and tell me when and where you meet, and why you think I should feature your group.

By Rob Ouwehand /Networking

See Rob Ouwehand's blog at E-mail -- Ed.

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