On life in Korea and being a nomad teacher

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

Source: "The Walrus and the Carpenter", by Lewis Carroll (text retrieved from http://www.jabberwocky.com/carroll/walrus.html).

Define nomad: a member of a people who have no permanent home; a person who moves seasonally in search of resources; a wanderer.

Being an English teacher in South Korea is far from a 'stable' or 'normal' lifestyle. Much like the life of an ambassador or an embassy worker, one never quite knows what to expect at any given time. With little or no forewarning you may find yourself in the same part of town as a protest against the Korean government, a festival you knew nothing about, or be reminded everyday that you are not a local. As a result, a teachers life is inherently unstable - not necessarily a life lived dangerously, but not one you should not expect stability from.

Don't get me wrong - with some effort, we can create stability, put down roots, and avoid the nomad distinction. It helps if you are looking to call Korea home for some years to come, or have a Korean spouse with the accompanying family. Put the key money down and get into an apartment of your own choosing instead of the one given you by your school. Get involved in the community beyond English teachers - I'm continually amazed at the size and breadth of the communities available to longer-term foreigners.

If you're just arriving in Korea, a year may sound like a long time at one apartment or one job - but your time at a given school doesn't always last the whole year. Hagwons close or go out of business, new principals turn decent schools into nightmares, and so on. If crap hits the fan, going nomad allows you to get out without feeling forced into any given arrangement. While in your home country you have the benefit of friends, family, and a language you're far more familiar with - here in Korea you have only the first.

This is not meant to be a condemnation of Korea. While the government has its faults (like every other government in the world), it has more to do with the practices of local businesses, along with the lack of recourses available to waygukin like us. The point is to be aware, be mobile, and be cognitive; if that sounds like too much thought or effort, reconsider your life as an expat.

The reward of this thought - and forethought - can be a life of continuous growth. If followed, you're unlikely to find yourself 'stuck' or without any idea of what to do next.

So how to enjoy life in Korea, while accepting the reality that you're a nomad?
  • Be ready to move, at any time, with little or no notice. This sounds harsh, but this prevents you from feeling too 'attached' to the status quo. How many pairs of shoes do you need anyway? This does not mean living out of boxes - rather, consider what you really need in life. The jobs that provide furnished apartments make having to haul around a mattress and desk not required. If you're that attached to your furniture, hiring a moving van isn't incredibly difficult.
  • Gradually work towards giving away or selling unneeded things. The material things in life are wonderful, but really, how many sweaters or jackets do you need? The 'one-year rule' comes into effect here, and just not just with clothing. Don't forget about books, electronic stuff, furniture, dishes, and decorations. The local craigslist is an excellent place to sell stuff.
  • Always be improving - whether it's your network of people, your relationships, or your skills, never be in a place where you're not growing. Don't settle on just knowing your friends at your favorite bar - get out and expand your social horizons.
  • Keep some 'oh crap' money saved up - a smart idea no matter where you are in life.
  • Appreciate the little things - with fewer material things getting in the way, seeing them should be easier.
  • Consider the rewards of your effort - later on in life, you'll have a repertoire of experiences, friends, and cultures unlike almost anyone else around you.
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