Monday, November 12, 2012

The little things that make adjusting to expat life challenging

Just so you know, these are more pictures from Seoul and have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of this post.  As always, don't forget to click on the pictures to see them full screen and feedback is appreciated.

If you're reading this, you know I've lived abroad for most of the past 3 years.  And I'm sure you think that this is a challenging thing to do.  But have you really thought about why it's challenging?  It's not the big changes (the different language, the unfamiliar location, the lack of friends and family nearby to support you).  You expect the big ones.  It's the little, day to day adjustments that can really make things tough.  What happens when the simplest tasks in our lives are no longer simple?

Changdeokgung Palace gate at dusk

A shrine in Gyeongbokgung Palace

I thought about this Friday as I got dinner and a haircut after work.  Both are simple activities.  Grab a menu and tell the waiter what you want.  Tell the barber how to cut your hair, then sit back and let them work.  Easy.  Not so overseas.

As I sat down for my haircut, I tried to describe it to the barber.  They didn't understand.  So I had to act out my haircut.  It was like playing the game Gestures, except if you lose you look like you were in a horrible accident with a weed whacker for the next month or two.  To be fair, it's hard for them too.  Especially for someone who only cuts one type of hair.  For a barber who only cuts straight, stiff hair, cutting softer wavy hair is shall we say, an exercise in improvisation.  I'm lucky my hair gets cut short (Vicky can't get her hair cut even if she wanted to) but it's still tough.  And once they nod understanding, you have to sit there and pray they actually do understand and aren't nodding just to be polite.

The throne room at Changdeokgung Palace

Ordering dinner is no easier.  As often as not, you are trying to read a menu written in a different script that looks like this ...

돼지 고기
Sometimes there are pictures.  Sometimes there aren't.  Sometimes there is a very rough English translation underneath.  Usually not.  And once you get your order in, it's not necessarily smooth sailing from there.  What if you need a side or condiment with your food.  Have you ever tried to mime 'salt'?

Without going into more detail, you can imagine what it's like to try taking a bus (think Inspector Clouseau levels of verbal clarity), go clothes shopping (wait i'm a size 105?!?), see a movie (alright Inglourious Basterds here we go.  wait half the movie is in other languages.  no problem.  we'll just read the subtitles that ....... oh man) or go to the grocery store (now i'm almost positive this is some kind of meat we're looking at).  To say these activities become more interesting is putting it mildly.

I'm a long way from my previous home (over 5000 miles away to be specific)

The good news is, I view these daily challenges as adventures.  For me they spice up otherwise ordinary days and keep my daily routine from becoming routine.  I actually miss them when I'm in the US.  It's all .... too easy.  Where's the fun of having to act out your dessert order?  Where's the challenge of getting lost twice on your way from the airport to your hotel?  It's so much more satisfying to succeed when success isn't a given.

And if what i'm saying sounds like your idea of a good time, then I'm probably worried about you.  But maybe you're cut out to be an expat too.

PS.  If you're curious what the Korean words I wrote earlier were, they are beef, chicken and pork.
PPS.  Give yourself a bonus point and a pat on the back if you understood the Pink Panther reference.

Part of the garden of Changdeokgung Palace

What are you doing reading this???  Look at the pretty leaves and colors

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