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Monday, January 19, 2015

Escape from America: South Korea


How long have you lived overseas?

Four years working in South Korea, plus a fair amount of travel.

I am not sure if I would recommend South Korea due to changes in the requirements for teaching English there. I address that near the end of this message. I want to be clear that I consider myself very fortunate to have taught English in South Korea. There is a lot of complaining about South Korea, or South Koreans, from some foreign English teachers, and I tend to disagree with that sort of thing.

What made you decide to leave the US?

Initially, it was a desire to be able to make a decent living, and an interest in experiencing life in other parts of the world. More recently, I have been thinking about collective guilt in the context of Washington's foreign policy atrocities. The U.S. government's support for Ukrainian Nazis and their genocidal campaign against ethnic Russians makes me think that at some point causing suffering will be the last remaining function of the U.S. government. Also, I am appalled at how bloodthirsty the mainstream media and many U.S. citizens seem to be. Getting out of the United States will not stop the atrocities (but might deprive Washington of a small amount of taxes); it is more of a symbolic gesture. There might be some severe drawbacks; the more time I spend outside the U.S., the lower the odds are likely to get I will be able to retire. But being able to retire supposes that social security will not be dismantled. Even if I were to resign myself to being treated like a high school dropout in the U.S. (I am a college graduate), and if social security is not dismantled, I still might not have much of a retirement, not to mention a lousy life until then. It is frightening to think about a bleak future, but decades of my life have been wasted in school and then trying to find that good life in the U.S. I earned by getting a bachelor's degree. I want to live; to pursue self-realization while I have the chance, and staying in the U.S., at least for my entire life, does not seem to be a good way to do that. On a more upbeat note, I should be able to develop a second income stream in the next year or so, and I have some ideas for longer-term goals that might result in another income stream.

I hope someone can find something useful in that answer!

What do you miss about not being in the US?

Libraries with books in English.

What are the challenges of living where you are as a foreigner?

Social isolation, and dealing with alcohol consumption. I got sober, and life seemed very good for about a year, but then I broke down psychologically due to social isolation. Aside from my personal problems, life was very easy and convenient. Well, I have some complaints about the weather! I'll get to those shortly.

Part of my social isolation was language-related. I could conduct class in Korean (not conversational English classes, though), and buy things at a traditional market using Korean, but I could not carry on a conversation in Korean.

South Korean society does not really allow foreigners to become assimilated.

I got along with my coworkers. First a Canadian surfer (?), then an Australian surfer, then a woman from the U.S. who seemed to be going senile. After the nearly senile woman was dismissed, I did not really have anyone to talk to outside of students, (married) South Korean coworkers, and the sister of my boss. Looking at it in writing, that might not seem so bad, but after almost a year of that I had a panic attack that lasted for two months. That is a life-altering thing.

The amount of Korean needed to function there is minimal. One teacher from the U.S. had been there for about two years did not know the difference between "hello" and "no" in Korean. A Canadian teacher who had been there for a few years said she could carry on a conversation in Korean, but then said she only knew about five Korean words! I had been there a few months and had to help the Canadian figure out what kind of snack (tuna, chicken, or beef) she was buying in a convenience store. Even though I was better at Korean than some, elementary school students could probably learn English words 5-10 times faster than I could learn Korean words! Embarrassing.

What are some of the pleasant surprises you've encountered in your new home?

How easy and simple life can be.

Police there did not seem to care that I was a foreigner, even if I happened to be out for a walk. . . at night. . . and doing something "suspicious" like walking. . . on a sidewalk. The police did not seem to be on steroids, or view members of the public as the enemy.

Even though in some ways East Asia in general seems very capitalistic, there is a lot of mild anti-capitalism sentiment -- they call it "local economy".

It was refreshing, and a little intimidating, to be in a place where what might pass for average or even below average intellectual capabilities might generally be regarded as brilliant in the U.S. That is also true for West Africa, where it is no big deal to speak three, four, or even five (mostly unrelated) foreign languages -- and that is for regular people, not academics who specialize in linguistics. The sort of nationalistic chauvinism sometimes found in the U.S. -- "We're #1!" is not warranted. Other places also have problems, but as Linh Dinh and others have noted (as far as I understand -- I'm not trying to put words in anyone's mouth), there seems to be a sort of intellectual disintegration occurring in the U.S. and I doubt that is anything to be proud of.

What are some of the unanticipated problems?

I already mentioned the social isolation and alcohol. Aside from those things, I found the winters to be uncomfortable. I am used to colder winters in the U.S., but in South Korea apartments and language academies are not as climate-controlled as I expected. At night during the winters the temperature in my apartment went down to at least the low 50s Fahrenheit (about 10 degrees Celsius), and in the evenings my classroom seemed even colder.

My apartment in South Korea had a small bedroom, bathroom, kitchen (with a sink and faucet that provided potable tap water, microwave, micro-fridge {the kind often found in college dorm rooms}, rice cooker, and lots of cupboard space) and a living room. The living room was relatively spacious. I had a large yoga mat that took up most of the floor space in that room. There was a wardrobe for storing clothes, a table with a telephone on it, and a low table about a foot high, presumably for meals. After a few months I acquired a chair for my apartment. I was glad to have it.

The apartment was drafty to the point of being breezy even after I put tape around the windows.

During hot, humid weather, mold usually grew on the walls. I could kill it with a mixture of bleach and water. There were cockroaches, mosquitos, gnats, and fruit flies during spring, summer, and fall.

It was a three story building made of concrete. Many apartments, especially in major urban centers, are much taller. I felt fortunate to be in a small building.

What is the minimum monthly budget for South Korea?

I lived in an area that was supposedly more expensive than average, and I did not pay rent, which was taken out of my paycheck, so I do not know the exact amount for that, and my electric bill fluctuated drastically depending on the season, but maybe $600 -- $700 a month (that includes rent for a small, drafty apartment) would do where I lived.

I lived in a small city. It was a good place for walking and a car was not needed. There was no sprawl to speak of. I think it was designed for people, not cars. Right outside of town in various directions were fields and greenhouses. I sometimes walked by one cabbage field that stank on summer nights. In town, food was grown in empty lots: green onions, garlic, peppers, corn, melons, and squash. There were citrus orchards in town that had been spared; one of them, a small one, was next to my apartment building.

What jobs are Americans able to get in South Korea?

Mostly teaching English. The requirements were easier when I started, and I was "grandfathered in" when the requirements changed. When I started it was a bachelor's degree, speak English as your first language, have a U.S. (or Canadian, British, Irish, Australian, New Zealand, or South African) passport, and have no criminal convictions. I read that people from former British colonies might be able to teach English there if they have a bachelor's degree in English. Now, I think that in addition to the previous requirements, a full U.S. government background check (including fingerprints) and an HIV test in South Korea are required. Those requirements seem invasive to me, and I suppose South Korea will tend to attract a more desperate type of job seeker willing to put up with those indignities; they might even expect South Korea to be some sort of sexual playground and have a sense of entitlement. I think that sort of attitude would tend to be bad for both foreigners and South Koreans.

I met a man from the U.S. working in the tourism industry, and another foreigner who claimed to be employed at some sort of yacht club, perhaps giving sailing lessons. I do not know what specific requirements they had to get those jobs.

What is some advice you have for Americans who also want to get out?

If you have gaps in your knowledge about the place, or places, you are considering, then do some research.

Find out about the work requirements, or other requirements if you are retired, the spouse of someone working outside the U.S., a student, or whatever. Embassies and consulates should have this sort of information.

Take good care of your health. What diseases are common where you plan to live? This consideration might be especially true for tropical areas. Malaria and dengue fever are just two examples of diseases often associated with the tropics. Do you know what different anti-malaria drugs do to the body, especially with long-term use? Think in terms of possible damage to the brain stem, liver, and esophagus in particular. Do you know how many people reportedly die each year from malaria? I am not trying to frighten anyone, but depending on where you might try to live, these questions should probably be addressed. Dengue is the other disease I mentioned. I do not have experience with dengue, unlike malaria, but I am in the Linus Pauling camp regarding vitamin C and its ability to reduce the rate at which viruses replicate. That might be relevant.

If you do get out, consider taking advantage of the learning opportunities afforded to you by your situation and try to improve yourself. I made a habit of spending 20 hours a week developing a specific skill. Not only do I feel it was time well-spent as far as personal development, it might result in that second income stream I mentioned earlier. With some focus and effort, getting out can be a way to at least partially compensate for wasted years and decades spent in the United States.

--Dave (38-years-old)



CC said...

Check out Hong Kong, Dave. There are still plenty of English language books there in the libraries, especially the university libraries. However, the English language bookstores are disappointing (inflated prices).

Linh Dinh said...

Regarding Dave's observation about climate-control, I can remember small fans in Italian banks to cool the tellers and sweltering subway trains in London, whereas in the US, the Amtrak overnight trains are often so cold, dismayed riders complain to each other. Also, our train windows cannot be opened, unlike in many if not most other countries. That said, many Americans are surviving with only minimal indoors climate control, for every winter, you hear about somebody freezing to death.

In my household, the heat is only turned on intermittently and never overnight. I go to sleep wearing sweat pants, T-shirt, sweat shirt, a hoodie and knit cap, with two quilts and two blankets draped over me.

Chuck Olroski said...

Dave: Be certain I found "something useful," in particular, your answer to Linh's 2nd question. Likewise, it bothers me how, in less than 50-years, extremely wealthy and hence powerful people have transformed the U.S. into the most dangerous threat to peace and existence on earth.

Regarding your current valid concern about making enough money to one day retire, I believe even "comfortable" retired Americans are headed for a financial shock, and soon. On T.V., I watch an ignorant investment-commercial which, in the end, chides American viewers by asserting, "Why... you don't want to be flipping hamburgers in your late-70s... do you?"

After having stupidly watched this mocking T.V. commercial at least 10-times to date, I end-up pissed off and hoping the arrogant voice must come to Scranton and compete for a job flipping burgers at West Scranton's "Keystone Lunch." As a regular at this old diner, I'll give the creep a good fucking reference!

This afternoon in America, I'm sure you might get a good little laugh out of my pitiful State of The Union. The 1% believes they must destroy what's left of beaten down Americans in order to save them. Linh Dinh's very familiar with the same goddamn calculus being applied to Saigon. Thank you, I hope book author, Dennis Rodman, becomes president of North Korea, there will be lots of fucking and 3-on-3 basketball. Best wishes to you! wishes!


About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), six of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007), Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009) and A Mere Rica (2017), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.