Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Ex-Pat Life

You may or may not have a high tolerance for Vice (I happen to think they're the definition of hit-or-miss) but this short piece on American ex-pats and why they've chosen to continue living abroad is pretty good.

Looking back on almost a decade in South Korea, I think the big things (covered in the Vice article) remain true -- health care is critical, as is work / life balance.  No, my health coverage isn't free -- I pay roughly the equivalent of sixty dollars a month to have full (and mandatory) insurance as a legal alien.  Other than check-ups I've never actually been to a hospital here or had a medical emergency.  I had a bad cold once and picked up some very cheap and very infamous "blue pills" for a few dollars at a pharmacy (which are ubiquitous) and they did nothing.  Any ex-pat here in lovely Korea will tell you they are placebos.  Any Korean will tell you you will die within a few days without them.

I would mention, however, that I have heard many horror stories about dealing with shady doctors who tend to over-prescribe meds.  Then again, it's not much different than America in that regard.  But the worst stories routinely come from female ex-pats looking to maintain or update their contraception routine (either pills or IUD's) and dealing with doctors who simply won't write scrips for single women for that sort of thing.  That's an absolute nightmare of course, and one I wouldn't want to try and ignore.  To be blunt, you will catch a lot more shit here as a woman (native Korean or ex-pat) than you ever will as a dude, and it's a shame to think how carelessly certain Korean men don't care if they tarnish somebody's generally positive views of the nation as a whole due to their sexism and entitled dickishness in general.

As for work / life balance, working as an English instructor at a college automatically gives me over three months of vacation time a year, something that would never happen in the more common public school and private academy gigs.  Korea is actually quite horrible when it comes to employer expectations of how much free or vacation time a worker should have, but as a foreigner at a university I've definitely got my comfortable little bubble which allows me to visit my family every summer for a few weeks and to take a long vacation every winter.  Good and good.

But as a relative old-timer now, while solid, cheap health care and abundant vacation time is all good, I always come back to smaller things that I love about living here.  First off, the food -- not only is it delicious, but you can eat in a decent, sit-down restaurant and stuff your face with mostly home-made grub for less than five dollars.  I've pretty much given up on cooking because it's cheaper and easier just to enjoy one of the dozens of places near my apartment.  Oh, and delivery is free if you're too lazy to walk.  And no tipping, ever.  If something says it costs 5,000 won on the window in front, it's going to cost a total of 5,000 won ($4.50 USD).

Speaking of walking, I haven't had to fill a tank of gas, make a car payment, mail an insurance payment, fix a tail-light, get a new set of tires, or worry about some methed-out idiot keying my side doors just for chuckles in years.  This is heavenly.  Which is to say, if I ever move back to America the hardest thing for me will probably be having to buy a fucking car if I don't live in one of the few cities with decent public transport.  (Fun fact -- I actually do like to drive, but I hope to never own a car again.)

In Korea, you've got your basic bus and subway options.  You've got a bullet train between major cities that is clean and comfortable.  And you have an overabundance of cabs.  Mark my words -- you will never step into a dirty cab in South Korea, let alone one that's over five years old and has obvious brake problems and safety issues.  (DC represent!)  Want to guess why Uber failed to catch on here?  Each cab company already has a free on-call service.  And you'll probably never need to use it anyway.

So that's my take.  Are there problems?  Sometimes, yes, but every year here I've also made progress with the language, and that's taken care of most of them.  I also have a very solid (Korean) boss who lived in America for six years doing his Ph.D. and this has made a huge difference as well.  He understands how Western and Korean management styles differ, and it seems to me he's one of those rare exceptions who actually prefers the former (hands off, willing to engage in dialogue / with feedback from us workers, and maybe most importantly, not a heavy drinker who constantly demands we go out and get shit-faced with him).

Honestly, the older I get the more it seems "don't have an asshole for a boss" is really one of the keys to living a happy life.  And that's not always easy in Korea due to cultural differences, I'll admit.

So what do I miss about America?  My family, of course.  Finding perfectly quiet spaces to walk or hike to by myself and be alone for a few hours (tough, but not impossible to do in a relatively small, relatively crowded country like South Korea).  The American "spatial sense" where keeping a few feet of distance between you and a stranger is expected, as opposed to Korea where bumping and pushing and shoving your way onto, say, an elevator or an escalator is expected.  Gourmet cheese.  Well-made Bloody Marys (they do not exist in Asia).  Doing cannon-balls near my nephew in my sister's swimming pool.  Watching football and baseball games as they happen rather than catching up on them in my office the next morning.

That's about it.

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