The Kimchi-ite: The Culture Shock Of South Korea

When I moved to South Korea, it was my first time in the country and I had no idea what to expect. Going from the airport to my new apartment, differences from my prior life slowly came into focus. Signs were now written in lines and circles I didn’t understand, brand new glass skyscrapers were poised next to traditional tile-roofed houses and all the cars were made by Hyundai. As I walked around my new neighborhood at 4 a.m. on a Wednesday recovering from jet lag, I was expecting to be alone on the streets. Instead, when I walked around there were plenty of people out in the city, eating and drinking at cafes, going to work, doing their shopping or just stumbling out of bars. This constant, 24-hour activity is something I haven’t seen anywhere else. As the sun came up, more and more people came to the streets. Crowds seemed to form everywhere and I would quickly learn that they are a big part of Korean life.

South Korea is a little larger than the state of Indiana but with eight times the people. About half of South Korea’s 50 million people live in the greater Seoul area, making it one of the biggest, most populated cities in the world. Subway cars overflow as people push their way in, which is when I learned that the Korean words for “excuse me” and “I’m sorry” are almost never spoken. Even when trying to get out of the city to do some hiking, crowds of thousands will be there too.

When moving to a foreign place, there are so many moments that you feel completely lost and worry that it will become overwhelming. Am I going to accidentally offend anyone due to our culture differences? Will I be able to make new friends? What if I get sick of eating kimchi everyday and just want some food from back home?

Soon, however, everything starts to feel normal and you realize that life isn’t really all that different. You still do laundry, McDonald’s is always around the corner and cash comes out of ATMs. There are still minor differences in daily life – you have to spend an hour online trying to find a translation of your washing machine, McDonald’s offers free delivery and you can transfer money directly to a friend’s bank account from an ATM – but it becomes difficult to imagine a life without these idiosyncrasies.

This constant flux of familiarity and strangeness is part of what makes life as an expatriate so exciting. Constantly experiencing new aspects of cultures, learning about different trains of thought, meeting interesting people, eating food that looks make believe and just constantly being surprised by the world.

[Photo credit: Jonathan Kramer]

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: (Not so) sexy time

Hugh Hefner wouldn’t make a very good Foreign Service Officer (FSO). FSO’s serving overseas need to disclose information about their lovers to the embassy’s Regional Security Officer (RSO), who in turn conduct investigations on foreign-born romantic partners to ensure that they aren’t likely to blackmail or manipulate them. There are no secrets and playboys tend to crash and burn before their careers can take off.

Managing relationships in the Foreign Service can be a travail, even for the monogamous. I was (and still am) happily married during my tenure in the service, but I have second-hand experience with this topic, vis-à-vis single and divorced former colleagues.

The expatriate experience tends to test marriages in a way that everyday life in the U.S. might not, and weak relationships don’t last long. My wife and I arrived at our first post as newlyweds and found that we needed to rely on each other more so than at home. When you arrive in a new country with no friends or relatives to fall back on, you spend an inordinate amount of time with your spouse and don’t have the same support network you would at home. In our case, and for many other couples, the experience brought us close together, cementing our bond. But that is not always the case.

I’ve heard people say that divorce rates in the Foreign Service are high, but I’m not sure they’re any higher than they are in the general population. But in the fishbowl world of the Foreign Service, where the line between one’s personal and work life is often blurred, divorce can take a toll on careers.

A former colleague told me that after he separated from his wife and arrived at a new post single, everyone seemed to already know his story. He said he was “the object of huge curiosity and scrutiny.”But it’s probably even harder for single women trying to pursue relationships in the service. Of the single men I know who joined the service, many found spouses while serving overseas, but most of the single women I know who joined in the last 5-10 years are still single, not all of them by choice. FSO’s typically move every 2-3 years, and many women find it difficult to find men in developing countries who are interested in a career woman whom they’d have to follow around the world. And even if they do find someone of interest, a moment of truth arrives at the end of the tour. When you live in Uganda and are off to Honduras next, what to do?

A single female I know told me that everyone knew who she was sleeping with at most of the overseas posts she’s served at. “You think the walk of shame is bad?” she wrote to me, in response to a question about the difficulty of dating in the Foreign Service. “Try having to call your Sudanese driver in the morning to pick you up in an armored Suburban. Talk about humiliating.” She said the “logistics” of Foreign Service life made it impossible for her to settle down.

At some posts, FSO’s live on a gated compound adjacent to the mission, and if one wants to bring home a lover to spend the time, they have to present an I.D. to an armed guard and pass through metal detectors and submit to being frisked on the way in. Not much of an aphrodisiac to say the least.

Some FSO’s, most commonly men, who might be considered slightly less-than-marketable products on the dating scene at home, do manage to trade up for attractive spouses they find in developing countries. Everyone has a story about a dorky guy with a lovely wife but, in reality, people marry for all kinds of reasons, including for money or status, even in the U.S., so odd relationships certainly aren’t the sole provenance of the expatriate or FSO.

Many a potentially good career in the Foreign Service has been ruined by philandering. Some lose their security clearances for serial cheating, which is thought to make one vulnerable to blackmail; others simply destroy their corridor reputations. The lack of privacy can be daunting, but, in reality, it probably encourages FSO’s to be faithful to their spouses, which is obviously a good thing.

The State Department has made strides of late in helping gay and straight FSO’s who live with unmarried partners, but trying to live overseas with what are called MOH’s (members of household) is also a huge challenge. FSO spouses, considered EFM’s (eligible family members) in the government’s acronym happy parlance, typically enjoy full diplomatic status overseas and can travel to posts at government expense. But MOH’s do not.

All this said, experiencing a new culture with a spouse or a new lover can be an awful lot more exciting than a stay-at-home marriage or trying one’s luck on eHarmony. But if you’re thinking of joining to the Foreign Service because you want to live like Heff, think again.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Image via Horrible Giant Jungle Flea on Flickr.

Cockpit Chronicles: It’s official. I’m moving to Germany

Apparently I’ve run out of things to complain about, aside from the occasional gripe about the glossiness of the paint on the office walls which was supposed to be flat. There is little in my life that I can truly complain about, especially in light of the current events unfolding after the earthquake in Japan this week.

Let’s live a little, shall we?

Both my wife and I have discussed changing things up a bit lately-doing something more radical than switching to LED light bulbs in the living room, for example.

I even agonized publicly about a few new flying options on my personal blog last month.

Fortunately for airline pilots, there’s an easy way to thoroughly turn your life upside down-at my company, all it takes is a simple keystroke on the computer: 3P/LGA/767/FO/I.

For those of you who aren’t fluent in SABRE codes, that means that I have officially transferred to NY. I’ll be flying the same airplane, thus saving myself six weeks of simulator and ground school training. Nevertheless, it’ll add some commuting time to my day.

I’ve been fortunate in my career to fly from an airport in Boston that’s just an easy hour drive from my home in New Hampshire. I heeded the advice of my brother, a former commuter from Seattle to Chicago.

“Commuting turns a good deal into an or-deal.” He’d say.

But my wife and I aren’t stopping there. Since New York is rather nearby to our home in New England, we decided to do something really extreme (for our family at least), and move to Germany.

For a year.
Paying back a debt

When I asked Linda to marry me, she was more than half way through a degree at Swansea University in Wales. She gave up her degree aspiration temporarily to join me in Alaska. And then Queens. Then Long Island. Followed by three places in Dallas. And on to Denver, then New Jersey before finally landing in New Hampshire which we’ve enjoyed for the past twelve years.

But now it’s payback time. Linda has been attending a nearby university part time, but she wants to study full-time to get her German and English teaching degree sooner.

Studying in Germany, where her mom could watch the kids while I was away at work and she was attending classes, seemed like a surprisingly logical idea when she mentioned it. Not only that, the kids, ages 9 and 5, could really hone their German language skills (i.e. be able to say more than “guten tag.”)

As a pilot, it’s possible to live pretty much anywhere in the world. We have crew members based in New York who live in Anchorage, and a few who live in Europe and fly out of the northeastern United States.

“I can do anything for a year.” I told Linda. And deep down, I know I owe her. She never complained about our moves while I was chasing flying jobs for cargo and passenger operators around the country.

How about the rest of the family?

The kids are surprisingly excited about the temporary relocation. Every night at dinner we’ve been practicing our German vocabulary and they’re able to retain what they’ve learned far better than I can.

To be honest, my German language skills are limited to about ten words. But this experience can only help me get serious about learning more, I’m sure.

So the plan is to rent our furnished house for a year, pack up the pets and just a few ‘comfort’ items and move to the village where Linda herself grew up, near Cologne.

The 3,700 mile commute

My plan is to back up my trips, so that I’ll fly two, three or four three-day Europe flights in a row, with 26-hour breaks after each Atlantic crossing. Instead of a crashpad or hotel near the airport, I’ll be staying with a friend in Manhattan, where I can keep some clothes and do laundry.

If I align my schedule right, I may be able to fly nine or twelve days in a row, followed by nine or twelve days off. This will limit the time spent in the back of an airplane and train riding to and from Brussels or Frankfurt and New York.

It sounds tiring, but commuting responsibly, with 26 hours off before starting my trips should make it easier.

The logistics

Of course there are so many questions about being an ‘expatriate.’ Do I have to pay taxes in the U.S. and Germany? Will my health insurance cover the family overseas? Will the pets have to be quarantined? How do we even transport two cats to Europe? What kind of car should we buy? (Linda has vetoed my choice of a used Alfa Romeo, unfortunately).

As I searched online, one website, How To Germany continued to pop up that answered almost all of my questions.

We’re still looking into those questions, and Linda is currently in Germany signing up the kids for school. I still expect someone to throw a wrench into the whole process at any point.

“You can’t do that. It is verboten!” I imagine someone saying as we apply for a residency permit. But so far, we haven’t run into any roadblocks.

Alas, the perfect writing cubicle

So you should see more posts now that I’ll be spending more time in the back of an airplane, a place where I’m the most productive when writing, since there’s no internet available and few distractions.

And I suspect I’ll have some things to talk about, especially since the two European destinations I’ve been flying to from Boston, London and Paris, will expand to so many more out of New York such as Rome, Barcelona, Budapest, Milan, Madrid, Manchester, Brussels, Zurich and even Rio.

Since today’s Gadling theme is focused around Europe, I’m looking forward to reading about the other parts of the continent I’ll need to visit according to the rest of the Gadling team. In exchange, I’ll be sure to let them know where they can score some LED light bulbs.

All photos by the author.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Five tips for an expat Thanksgiving

Expat ThanksgivingHappy Thanksgiving, everyone! I know some of you are reading this far from the USA, so I thought I’d let you know how I used to make expat Thanksgiving work. I went to college in England, which means that for three years, I had Thanksgiving as an expatriate. To this day, some of those memories remain among my favorites of any Thanksgiving spent anywhere, from realizing students from other programs were Americans and making new friends to my teacher setting the turkey on fire. Here’s how we made expat Thanksgiving work.

1. Invite lots of people.

Yeah, you can get together with that expat couple you know and have an intimate dinner with a turkey theme, but you could do that any night of the year, really. Thanksgiving is about getting together with a whole bunch of people, many of whom you don’t normally dine with. Go big or go home. Find out which of your friends has the biggest place and demand to colonize it in the name of Barack Obama for the day.

2. Let everyone cook.

Cooking is something everyone associates with Thanksgiving, so make your expat Thanksgiving a potluck. Be sure and assign dishes, or let people volunteer and keep a list, so that you don’t end up with all cranberry sauce. Everyone will arrive with something delicious in hand and in the right mood for the festivities.3. Invite some non-Americans (but not too many).

When I was in college, this was an accident every year, as my teacher would try kindly to invite American students who weren’t in his class. Due to this last-minute “I think she’s American” rush, we’d always end up with someone Welsh or Norwegian. It actually made the day more fun, as the Americans would all explain (and fight over) the meaning of the Thanksgiving tradition. Plus, outnumbering a foreigner for once felt fantastic — so don’t invite too many.

4. Have some non-traditional dishes.

Don’t limit yourselves to Thanksgiving foods; cover the basics of course, but invite guests to bring any favorite American food. Why not? It’s time to liberate that last, clung-to box of Kraft Mac & Cheese and share it with your broheim.

5. Don’t forget the entertainment.

If you can catch football via satellite, great, but keep in mind this doesn’t serve everyone. Be sure to have a selection of American movies on hand. For our parties, we watched tape after tape of The Daily Show, dying with laughter over the long-missed American humor and talking with each other, other Americans, about the issues back home. It was wonderful.

[Photo by ilovebutter via Flickr.]

Finding the expat community and what travelers can learn from them

No matter how well-traveled you are, moving to a foreign country and living as an expat is a whole new ballgame. Your priorities and standards change, and hours that you may have spent as a traveler in a museum or wandering a beach are now spent in as an expat search of an alarm clock or trying to distinguish between eight types of yogurt. You become like a child again: unable to speak in complete sentences, easily confused and lost, and constantly asking questions.

Enter the experienced expats who can help navigate visa issues, teach you dirty words in foreign languages, and tell you where to buy pork in a Muslim country. Finding the local expat community is not about refusing to integrate or assimilate in your new country, but rather meeting a group of like-minded people who understand what you are going through and can provide a bridge to the local community and culture.

So what can the traveler learn from an expat? How about where to buy souvenirs that are actually made nearby and well priced, restaurants not mentioned in any guidebooks, bizarre-but-true stories behind local places and rituals, and inside perspectives on community news and events? And those are just the Istanbul bloggers.

Read on for tips on finding the blogs and a few of the must-reads for travelers.Where to find the expats:

  • Expat forums such as ExpatFocus, InterNations, and Expat Blog are good starting points for finding and connecting with expats, though some forums may be more active than others.
  • Local English-language publications: Many big cities have a Time Out magazine in English and local language, often with frequently-updated blogs or links to other sites. In Istanbul, the newspaper Today’s Zaman has an “expat zone” full of useful articles.
  • Guidebook writers are often current or former expats, so if you read a helpful guide or travel article, it’s worth a Google search to find if they have a blog or Twitter account.

Some stellar expat bloggers around the globe:

  • Carpetblogger: sarcastic, insightful blogger based in Istanbul but with lots of coverage on Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Indonesia. Stand-out post: expat guide to duty free shopping.
  • Miss Expatria: prolific writer and instantly-loveable American in Rome, a joy to read even if you have no plans to visit Italy, but you might find yourself buying tickets after reading about her life. Stand-out post: Italian idioms.
  • CNNGo: great round-up of finds in Asia from Bangkok to Tokyo with everything from restaurant reviews to a look at Tokyo’s elevator ladies. Stand-out post: Japan’s oddest vending machines, a favorite topic of Mike Barish, who has chronicled some of the vending machine beverages for your reading pleasure..
  • Bermuda Shorts: Enviable (and crushworthy, too) travel writer David LaHuta covers all the goings-on in Bermuda and all things Dark n Stormy-related. Stand-out post: name suggestions for new Indiana Jones movie set in Bermuda Triangle.
  • Fly Brother: Series of funny and poignant misadventures in Brazil and around the world from the African American perspective. Stand-out post: how an afternoon of seemingly simple errands can take up to seven hours.

The next time you plan a trip abroad, consider reaching out to a fellow American (or Canadian, Brit, etc.) for some advice or even a coffee meeting (assuming you aren’t a total psycho). I, for one, am happy to offer Istanbul tips and tricks, and I’d be even more amenable to helping a traveler who comes bearing Boar’s Head bacon.

Any expat blogs you follow or travel tips you’ve learned from them? Expat bloggers want to share your websites and your insights for travelers? Leave a note in the comments below.