Monday, January 25, 2016

Returning to Korea? Why Not?

Let's get stuck in with the first real post back.  Now I have to admit to entertaining the thought of returning to Korea on a number of occasions, my reasons for not doing so I won't bore you with again as I have already touched on them in my post, "The Reasons I left Korea".  All I can say was that the temptation was great.  On each occasion after I left (I did so before, to live back in England for a year), it soon became apparent to me that I had a pretty great time in Korea.

I can't say that without my wife that I would have returned, but my wife certainly was quite steadfast against returning, much more so than me.  This seemed odd to me as she has clearly missed home very much and moans quite regularly about the many nuisances of living in a Western country.  She is also much more attached to family than me, as are they attached to her.  At times, adjusting to life in Australia, along with the lack of money (due to the international student fees we have had to pay), has been a real burden on her.

We have both worked exceptionally hard and only recently have we began to see the fruits of our labours.  But trust me, it's been tough.  Every time we have tried to get some money together, the cost of living bites, every time we sort anything out - like internet, visas, finding a house, going away, etc - we have to work through mountains of bureaucracy, bad service, and unnecessary rules, regulations and charges.

So what's going on?  In my wife's eyes, and in mine, Korea is a much nicer place to live. Everything is organised better, life is more convenient, less stressful, we go out more often, and I have more holiday.  For my wife, all her friends and family are there too.  So why is she so against returning?

The answer lies in how the people she knows treat her; family, work colleagues, friends, and acquaintances.  Societal pressure and expectations in Korea are astoundingly strong and I have been quick to criticise how Koreans treat one another before on this blog based on quite inflexible views on life and the duties that are expected of each other. Us foreigners who have experienced Korea often bemoan how we are treated by Koreans, but like I have said time and time again on this blog, we really don't know the half of it. Koreans themselves get treated far worse by other Koreans than we ever are.  We can play the foreigner card and get away with an awful amount.

Korean working culture is often cited as a big reason why people want to leave the country, but my wife would often comment that she didn't mind working so hard if the people she was working with could treat her like more of an individual and with a bit of empathy and understanding.

When you think about it, the despair many Koreans feel surrounding work and education is rooted in how others treat them and what's expected of them.  It is the pressure parents put on their kids to learn - which comes from the pressure society puts on them - that makes education the way it is and so unbearable for students, for example.  The inflexibility of the working environment and the long hours is also something more controlled by society and the perceptions of work and duty than by the government or business (although both take advantage of it, I'm sure).

It's a shame, because I reckon that if my wife were to make a list of pro's and con's about Korea and Australia, she would have a long list of pro's for Korea and only one or two con's.  It's just that these one or two are so powerful, it is out of the question for her to entertain returning.  She is currently visiting friends and family in chilly Korea right now, and although it has obviously been nice to go back home, after less than a week away, she can understand why she left, and yearns for a return to Melbourne (despite having more than a few complaints about living there).

Sergey Kustov -

It's a sad state of affairs in what would otherwise be a fine country to live in.  Not only do many Koreans not want to return to Korea, but an alarming amount want to leave. There is a real sensation that many Koreans are truly fed up with the direction the country is taking, they just don't know how to change things and hence simply leave it (one way or another).

A couple of weeks ago, I got a haircut and coincidentally it was a Korean lady who did it and she was very open and talkative - as well as being able to do a Western haircut. (Funnily enough, I reckon most of my haircuts have been done by Koreans since coming to Melbourne.  This is because it was one of the easiest avenues to obtaining a visa some years ago).  She commented on travelling last year; she had travelled for about 5 months to South East Asia, Japan, and back home to Korea in two, two week stints.  After her first visit to Korea for about 8 years she remarked, "I planned on staying for a month, but after 2 weeks I couldn't take it anymore.  My mum nagged and nagged, you know, and the rest of my family told me, 'why can't you do this, why can't you do that'".  I couldn't take it so I went to Japan for two weeks before going back to Korea for one more week and then returning to Melbourne."

I have met a number of Koreans in Melbourne through my wife, and it is much the same story for them.  They have all been a rather different breed to the Koreans I met in Korea.  None appear to be living the dream in Australia and really enjoying the place, but none want to go home. They are far more individual also, although coming from a culture that values a rather close-knit group and dependency on others, none seem particularly happy.  My own take on their situation is that they would love to return to Korea, but all want to keep the ability to be themselves and make their own decisions without being pressured into a way of living that is not for them.  This is all impossible in Korea.

Perhaps it is just the nostalgia talking, but what a shame this all is because when I look back at my time there, it is a country that has so much to like about it.
And on a site in English:


  1. But Korea is great if you can totally ignore all the BS. I think it is the key everywhere. Filter it out. But then life is immensely convenient. Stuff gets done on time here and is generally cheap and good quality

    1. Completely agree, I think it is harder for Koreans, though. Especially once they've already had a taste of leaving. Coming home to that pressure from others has been hard for my wife.

      I would certainly entertain thoughts on living there again in the future.

  2. Excellent post Christopher, nice to see that you are back blogging again.

    I have to be honest and say that I feel much the same as you do in many, in many respects.

    I think that being an expat changes you and you can't think that you will fit snugly back into the person who left to begin with. It was na├»ve of me to think I would be the same or, more realistically, to think that going out to Asia wouldn’t change me.

    I could spend a long time extrapolating on the things that I find frustrating about London: the relative cost of things (transport, food, entertainment); things are more complicated and thus require much more thought to them and this, I find, is mentally draining; dealing with slow, declining public services (the amount of strikes I have witnessed since I got here is ridiculous); the fact that London is incredibly overcrowded, and you can never, ever avoid this; like you, the endless amount of administration, bureaucracy, red tape and punitive fines and penalties for things; lastly the huge impact immigration has had on my hometown, it is almost unrecognisable from where I grew up; having to prepare every meal knowing I don’t have the convenience of cheap Korean food at my doorstep.

    I totally underscored what leaving my life, income, friends and everything I had worked towards behind me, perhaps because I had never articulated it like this before. But coming back home kind of meant coming back to an empty slate.

    One thing I like to do is to look at emails and social media activity when I was last in Korea. It helps ground me in the reality that I will still have to face challenges when I get back to Korea and it isn’t all rainbows and unicorns.

    1. Yep,no place is perfect, but they usually have the opposite pluses and minuses, korea compared to England/Australia anyway.

      So glad I went to korea,although, like you, it basically closed off my old life, I actually wouldn't have it any other way. Life is much richer now from my time there.

  3. I came across your blog while googling about Jindos and the terrible korean dog farms....

    Your view is quite interesting and I don't disagree. As a Korean-Australian who pretty much grew up in the non-asian suburbs of Sydney, I can very much relate to the Korean culture you describe as it was (and still is - albeit not to the degree you describe) alive and kicking even in the Korean communities in Sydney.

    Korean cultural values and norms are carried over by immigrants like my parents and by associating with other koreans, they unknowingly create that type of environment in another country.

    As one who has grown up submersed in both western and eastern cultures, I take the best of both worlds and throw away the rest which I don't agree with. It certainly is a struggle even for me trying to reconcile the two cultures, expectations and my identity, but now married to a non-Korean makes it a lot easier for me to get away with more than I would had I married an ethnic Korean.

    1. Thanks for another good comment. Hopefully you'll realise if you read any of my other blogs, I am not trying to moan or judge Korea or Koreans as worse than Western cultures. Some have accused me of this, although they rarely read my positive posts. In fact, as is the nature of things, negative posts are always more likely to happen and were always more visited, this goes for the journalistic profession as well (as we are all witnessing at the moment with Trump).

      While I was in Korea, I wrote this blog not only as a hobby, but also as a form of catharsis to vent frustrations, so I guess sometimes it maybe viewed as a whine, but it was an honest whine, and I think many people have acknowledged this. Believe me, I have just as many issues with the UK, and Australia, where I'm currently living.

      Korea is an interesting place though because is does have an extreme side to it and polar opposite values and practices to Western countries, and it is fascinating to notice it. Must be interesting to have grown-up with both influences, I am almost envious, as I am sure my life is better rounded and richer for having the experience of living there in being immersed in the culture. I am sure there must be some downsides though, but overall, I imagine being born of two parents from radically different cultures is a pretty cool and life enhancing thing.

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