There must be something in the air these days other than the godforsaken heat and humidity. Many of my friends, and non-friends, seem to be suffering from the same contemplative curse. It’s the curse of the “What If” question.
“What if I went back to my native land and gave up the expat life?” is the usual form this question takes, and it heralds a paradigm shift in thinking. One looks at all they’ve accomplished, or failed to accomplish, while living abroad and wonder if it would be better if they resumed their normal life. In this case, normality means returning to their whitebread* way of life prior to the expat adventures of happy fun times.
[*you know what I’m referring to]
Living as an expat for an extended length of time allows little self-doubts to breed and take strength within the back of your mind. Is what you’re doing really helping your future? Can you really make a career out of this? How many weddings, funerals, birthdays and Christmases have you missed? Did you come all this way because you were running away from something, or were you looking to make something out of yourself?
These little questions plague most people after they stay abroad longer than three years. It’s at this point they take a good hard look at what’s working, and what can be improved. The Siren call of “home” is often irresistible and can take many forms. Sometimes it’s the nagging insistence of your family, because they simply haven’t come to terms with your living abroad. Sometimes it’s when you’re looking at your friends’ Facebook photos and notice how markedly different, and stable, their lives look compared to yours. Sometimes it’s just the plain desire to be treated with the amount of professional respect you believe you should be accorded, and aren’t receiving in your adopted country.
Play time is over; you have to return home and get serious. Time is ticking, and in this economy every second wasted is one you’ll need to make up at a later date, if you want to get ahead. You know all this, because you follow the news from back home on a daily basis. But aren’t you entitled to a better life? After everything you’ve experienced abroad, shouldn’t you be the one that employers want to snap up right away? If not, does this mean you need to return to school? Do you really want to go back home, and suffer the indignity of having to house with your parents again? Can you afford to go back to school, or does this mean you will need to take a part time job? After being a teacher, with some responsibility, how embarrassing would it be to have to work for minimum wage, at a fast food joint? You’ve been away from university for so long, how are your professors going to remember you when you need a letter of reference?
On second thought, maybe it’s better just to stay abroad and settle down. You’ve already begun to carve your own niche anyway, right? Then again, you can only be hired on a yearly-contract, and that isn’t very secure if you want to start a family. The expat life is a young person’s game, and where will you be in twenty years? Can you put up with being an outsider for that long? Maybe going home is the correct option. Maybe starting all over again is the safer bet in the unstable EFL market. Maybe if you had gone back earlier, you’d be further ahead. Maybe…
And that’s the existential expat crisis. A never-ending line of second-guessing questions cutting to the very core of your being.
For whatever reason, many of my friends, and people I follow online, are currently going through this. Maybe deskwarming set it off, or perhaps another catalyst brought it to a collective head. They’ve either written blog posts, made YouTube vlogs, went on a Twitter rampage, or wrote lengthy Facebook status updates. The weird thing is that many of these folks don’t know one another, and their very similar problems cropped up at the same time.
In Korea, we refer to anyone that stays in the country longer than two years a “lifer”. The joke is that they’re going to spend the rest of their lives in Korea, even if that’s not the case. Internally, I tend to categorize lifers into two different camps: expats and foreigners. Expats are the folks that float around the country, going from job to job, city to city. Foreigners are those that try to settle down, and eke out a stable existence in one location. Expats aren’t likely to try and assimilate or pick up cultural observations. Foreigners don’t mind mixing it up with the local populace and tend to be slightly more introverted. While I have probably called myself an expat in this blog a bunch of different times, I mentally put myself into the foreigner camp.
I didn’t come to Gangneung to travel from place to place, or go somewhere new and exciting every weekend (I did that in my first two years in Daegu). I stayed here to ground myself, adapt, and become an indispensable part of wherever I happened to be. That tempered my expectations a little and allowed me to focus on the present without getting too caught up in the future. That’s not to say I haven’t asked myself some of the above questions. I considered them briefly, but I never let them gnaw at me.
I have a fairly clear idea of when I’ll be returning to Canada, and I don’t care if I’ll be 30 when I do. I don’t intend to leave earlier just to fill some obligation I have to others. When I left Canada in 2007, I owed tens of thousands of dollars to the provincial and federal governments. I won’t return until I am wholly financially sound and can pay off further university tuition without relying on student loans. If that means staying in Korea for another 1-10 years, so be it.
Why don’t I just stay in Korea if I’m so comfortable living here? It’s a matter of usefulness and need. I have no doubt there will always be a need for people like me in Korea’s EFL market. However, a little voice in the back of my mind has been telling me that Canada might have a greater need for someone with my talents than Korea. I have been biding my time and soaking up everything Korea can teach me, before I take the plunge and return to Canada. The “return” to Canada might also be a very gradual process. I could very well get my master’s degree and then spend time abroad again (if I don’t feel as if I’m ready to tackle my native country).
While others fear drifting aimlessly around the rivers of expat existence, I excise the distractions and hone in on my goals. The ultimate objective of my life is to do as much good to as many people as possible before croaking. My little bachelor of arts opened a whole new world to me, but now it’s time to level-up. A master’s degree would improve my effectiveness and give me the necessary tools to achieve what needs to be achieved. Anything else is secondary. Once I obtain it, I can move on to the next stage.
Worrying about holding down a 9-5 job, a mortgage, car payments, and a host of other things that qualify as your typical North American life, don’t enter into the equation. I’ll take them as they come to me, after they have become a necessity. The return to a “normal” life isn’t a series of checklists. If I came to Korea with rigid expectations, and tried to live by them, I would have gone insane in my first six months. Returning to Canada to live out the expectations other people have of me is just as counter-intuitive. Unless things are particularly dire in your overseas life, you should only head back under your own terms.
There’s also no guarantee you won’t be plagued by self-doubt once you arrive and start resuming your “normal” life. You might discover it’s not everything it was cracked up to be. Don’t jeopardise your feelings of self-worth and happiness in the pursuit of normalcy. When you’ve lived life as a foreigner, chances are your definition of normal is a great deal different from what it used to be half a decade ago. Like it or not, you can’t simply expect to pick up where you left off. People have changed and moved on; you’ve changed and moved on. Don’t hold your life to the standard of what it used to be, or how it should be. Instead, hold it to the standard of what it can be, and what it will be.