Friday, December 18, 2009

In Korean Newsweek: Don't Lose the Spirit Of Adventure

I'm in Korean Newsweek. Here's the link to the Korean article.

Here's the English article I sent in, which they translated.

Don’t Lose the Spirit of Adventure
by Robert Ouwehand

Every semester, I meet a new set of adult students, and during the first class, I answer some questions about myself, so my students know me better. Somebody almost always asks, “How long have you been in Korea?” When I answer, something mystifying sometimes happens: for example, this semester, a pretty young female student seemed surprised I’ve been here for six years, and asked, “Really?” with an incredulous voice.

When I explain that I really love living here, some students seem surprised, and their attitude: “What’s there to love about Korea?” dismays me. When I spend time around expats living in Korea, the conversation is sometimes similar: “Six years? How’d you last so long? It’s my second year, and I’m already cynical!” This echoes Koreans I have spoken with, who dream of moving to another country: “You want to stay in Korea? I can’t wait to leave!” they say. Of course, Korea is not the only country with dissatisfied people, but it is still a little sad to have this conversation too often.

This conversation reminds me of another conversation I often have with friends and students: on Mondays, a common small talk topic is “What did you do this weekend?” Some people almost always tell the same story: “I stayed home and watched TV, and on Saturday night I met a friend and we drank together (at the same bar as always).” Other times, this conversation leads to stories and sometimes even to suggestions of areas to visit, sites to tour, restaurants to find, and foods to sample. When I share my weekend experiences, ever since my second year living in Seoul, I have regularly had Korean friends -- even friends who lived their whole lives in Seoul -- exclaim, “You probably know more about Seoul than I do!”

I suspect there is a connection between these conversations. I suspect that the people who don’t enjoy living in Seoul, who can’t imagine why I enjoy it, are the same ones who say they stayed home on the weekend. I suspect that they are also the same ones who seem amazed at the variety of fun places and activities I enjoy in and around Seoul. Sure, it might just be lip service when my friends tell me I know more about Seoul after six years, than they learned in their whole lives. However, it might be something else.

When I was fourteen, my family moved from central Canada to Western Canada: a completely new, totally unfamiliar region. During our first two years there, especially, my father made a point of regularly taking short trips to explore the province. In those days, my father would report visiting a place, and some locals would also exclaim, “I’ve never been there,” or maybe, “I think I went there when I was seven.”

We could call this newcomer’s phenomenon: when people are new to an area, many want to explore it, like my father did. This can help people feel more at home in their new place. On the other hand, people who grew up in an area often take their home for granted, so they don’t bother exploring outside their neighborhoods. During one summer job, I worked in a historical museum outside Vancouver, and met tourists from all over. One memorable visitor was a retired man who had always lived in New York City, but had never even toured the Statue of Liberty. “That’s something tourists do, not locals,” he explained. By thinking of some activities as “only for tourists,” he limited his own experience of his hometown, and probably enjoyed living in New York a lot less than he could have. When he visited Vancouver, he explored, but in his hometown, he never did.

The same thing happens here in Korea. One of the reasons a lot of foreigners in Korea become unhappy is because we stop exploring the way we did when we first came; we say “I went there in my first year” and stay home and watch TV. However Koreans are just as guilty of being unadventurous: because they take their hometown and home country for granted, they say “That’s for tourists” or “I went there when I was a kid,” and also stay home watching TV. The end result is the same: we wonder why our lives are dull. One of my most satisfying experiences is when a student or friend tells me about visiting a place, or trying a restaurant I recommended. They usually report having a great time. This reminds me that we don’t need to lose our adventurous spirit, and if we’ve stopped, it’s not hard to start exploring again. We are all capable of making our lives more enjoyable, if we just choose to try something new.

you can read more of Robert Ouwehand's writing in the Korea Herald, and at

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