Seoul: A Risky Affair

Risk-taker doesn’t really describe my personality well. Risk-calculator is more like it. Trying a new route home or a different entrée at a favorite restaurant can be too much to ask. What if I get lost? What if the food is terrible and I go home hungry?

When my husband proposed seeking a career change in South Korea, I carefully filed away those calculations along with books, clothing and my favorite Le Creuset cookware into boxes for storage. I had never been to Korea, never learned to speak or read Korean, neither had Korean friends nor relatives to call upon arrival. But it sounded pretty adventurous. I thought to myself, sure, why not? Thus, I arrived in Seoul two years ago, embarking upon my most risky and challenge-filled venture yet.

Lest you think my stories will be filled with white-water rafting, bungee jumping and various other extreme-sports types of drama, let me quickly dispel those myths. No, ladies and gentlemen, my initial life in Seoul was characterized by a different risk—one that never crossed my mind as I was ticking off the pros and cons: the risk of injury to my personal pride and sense of independence.

I often explained to curious shopkeepers why my Korean was so broken. To my surprise, many were quite friendly and often threw in a few extra oranges into my grocery bag, or offered a complimentary dish of warm cookies to accompany my coffee. Service, they would say, smiling.

In Seoul, simply stepping out the door each morning was a feat requiring emotional fortitude. Arriving illiterate in Korean wasn’t a really smart move, but I didn’t have much time to remedy the dilemma. I was riding a huge learning curve as I struggled to command the attention of hundreds of little ones who would have preferred to be playing outside with friends. Any sign of defiance was intimidating. I felt completely inadequate as an educator in a foreign school system.

Aside from the normal occupational challenges, life apart from work was no easier. How do I make this laundry machine work? This shirt needs new buttons—but how do I find buttons and a seamstress? Where can I find star anise to cook this Chinese recipe? Is there a gynecologist that can speak English? Some thoughts were more troubling: I’m not adjusting so well to life here. How do I find a therapist who can speak English?

None of these questions were an issue in my pre-Seoul life, yet they were incredibly pressing and difficult to resolve in a new context. I wanted to figure it all out myself, afraid to bother my Korean colleagues. Much to my chagrin, it was impossible to accomplish without assistance. For a hyper-independent woman as myself, this was a major source of grief. Having already studied several languages, completed a college degree, begun a career in my home country and started investing in a mutual fund portfolio, I had arrived feeling pretty self-assured. Comparing my current reality in Seoul to this modest checklist of accomplishments left me feeling like a child, or perhaps a person with a disability—pitied, ignored, even belittled by others. Hardly able to find the words to ask for information, it was embarrassing to feel misunderstood or to misunderstand others.

Days, weeks and months passed, each moment presenting new challenges, but also precious learning experiences. After a bit of experimentation, I marked the laundry machine buttons “1” “2” and “3” with indelible ink, ensuring I wouldn’t forget the settings in the future. I learned to read Korean letters and acquired a shiny new electronic dictionary. Thrilled to have overcome illiteracy, I would stare intensely out the bus windows during a commute, soundlessly mouthing out each syllable on the storefront signs outside. I began Korean language classes at night so I could learn to speak in full sentences, after which I often explained (with a great sense of relief) to curious shopkeepers why my Korean was so broken: “I’m Taiwanese, but I am from America.” To my surprise, many were quite friendly and often threw in a few extra oranges into my grocery bag, or offered a complimentary dish of warm cookies to accompany my coffee. Service, they would say, smiling. A pleasant conversation with a Korean barista near my age has led to an unexpected gift of friendship. Texting each other questions about English and Korean, she and I also exchange book recommendations as well as encourage each other in our endeavors to pursue writing professionally. 

More than anything, the process of simply walking out the door each morning to face a new day has taught me the value of letting go of the calculation and anticipation of failure. After all, it would be a loss to face each day focusing on the risk of failure to communicate, or the very common risk of feeling vulnerable and insecure as a foreigner. Through trial and error, and a little perseverance, I’ve seen the tremendous potential for personal growth, experiencing the kindness of others as well as gain empathy for those encountering similar life dilemmas. While every day still presents me with a myriad of challenges and unfamiliar aspects of Korean life, I’d say that moving to Seoul was certainly worth the risk.

Ruth M. Youn

About Ruth Youn

Ruth M. Youn is easily bored, which has led to the study of five foreign languages, an internship in Lebanon and a short stint in Irish fiddling. Supported by a fantastic husband, her life's desire is to encourage others to pursue Truth and the spiritual freedom therein.

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