Michael: The Asian Persuasion
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Seoul, etc.
My name is Michael Johnstone and I’m from Halifax, Canada. I moved to Seoul in July of 2010 to join the legions of English teachers in the country. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
I enjoy writing in a masochistic sense. It’s painful, grueling, and often you look back at things you wrote and cringe. Still, there’s a simplistic beauty to stringing sentences together and that must be what keeps be going. As well as my blog, I currently write for 10 Magazine in Seoul doing reviews of restaurants, and I’ve picked up a few small awards for short fiction and poetry.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
I started writing the blog the day I received my work visa in the mail, back in Canada, and knew that moving to Korea was suddenly a reality. I felt like I wanted to share the experiences I’d have (and that bizarre combination of feelings you get when you leave home) with others.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
I really like a post from two years ago called “A Rare Moment of Clarity”, because it pretty much captures the random and spontaneous thoughts that children tend to share. It’s a good representation of the upside of teaching.
I also like a post called “The Cocktail Bar at the End of the Universe”, partly because I think it was well written, but also because it shares a moment that I hold as one of the most magical nights I’ve had since I came to Korea. The proprietor of the bar, Mr. Lee is still probably the most fascinating person I’ve met here.
Tell us about the ways your new life in Seoul differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
Life here is much simpler than back at home. The economic climate in Canada is still trembling, and as one with a Bachelor’s degree in English, job prospects are sparse. In Korea my housing is taken care of and I’m paid quite well. I have little to stress out about. Culture here is fascinating – I don’t think I experienced culture shock in the traditional sense because I immersed myself in this new-yet-ancient culture and I firmly believe that learning about a culture, especially beforehand, can prevent painful homesickness.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Seoul? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
I don’t think anyone can be fully prepared to move the other side of the world, but I felt that I did a decent job trying to get ready. I learned Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, and had a few phrases under my belt. You don’t need to speak Korean in Seoul, but it always helps. I was also lucky to know several people who had taught in Korea before. I wouldn’t change anything, because learning things on the fly is half the fun.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
I could tell you that the strangest thing that has happened is running into someone I knew in high school on the streets of Seoul—more than 8 years after I’d last seen him. Turns out he had married a Korean girl and moved here as well. In a city this size, you don’t expect to run into people, especially not that far from your past.
As for funny experiences? Konglish always makes me laugh, but my students are the funniest people I know here and they say something hilarious pretty much every day. Sometimes I wish I’d started a blog solely about things Korean students say.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Seoul?
- Learn Hangeul, the Korean alphabet. It’s likely the easiest alphabet in the world, and you’d be shocked at how helpful it can be. Konglish, which is basically English words written and pronounced like Korean words, is EVERYWHERE and simply being literate makes life much easier. Words like taegshi (taxi), bosu (bus) and copi (coffee) come to mind.
- Make Korean friends. On the surface they think differently, act differently, and view the world differently. And yet in more important ways all humans are fundamentally the same. You’d be surprised how many people don’t mingle with the locals, and it’s a shame.
- Don’t stop learning. Learn about the music, the culture, the architecture, the language, the people. It keeps you fresh, helps stave off culture shock, and you’re never fully done.
How is the expat community in Seoul? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
The expat community in Seoul is extensive. There’s a district, Itaewon, which is dominated by foreigners, and you can always go there to meet people. Koreans tell me they don’t even consider it part of Korea, that it’s more like a giant global embassy. There are also hiking clubs, Taewkondo and Hapkido gyms, adventure trip groups, language exchanges and an endless list of ways to meet other expats.
How would you summarize your expat life in Seoul in a single, catchy sentence?
Being an expat in Seoul is like being a piece of Meccano in a Lego bin; sometimes you feel a bit different, but everyone can build something here.