Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Expat Cycle

Samsung GSG FC poses for a team photo

As the days become longer and mild air finally returns to Korea, it is clear that spring has finally returned. Spring was typically my favorite season back when I lived in the US. Spring represents a time of rebirth, a time when you clean out your garage and pat yourself on the back for surviving yet another winter. You find excitement as the weather improves and grow in anticipation for what the time until summer will bring. As the snow melts new cracks in the roads reveal themselves, and as plants blossom you see which ones have failed to survive the harsh cold.

For Samsung expats in Korea, spring also represents a time when many people reveal that their interest for living here is lost, and they decide to restart their lives back home.

Two of the questions I typically receive when I meet Koreans are: "How long have you been in Korea?" and "How long will you stay?" The first question is simple enough but the second one is not one that I am accustomed to hearing. It feels strange to me to be announcing a defined timeline on my life here. When I lived in the Washington DC area, a place home to a large population of transients, one was never asked the question. In Washington it seemed implied that one will leave when he loses his purpose for being there. But in Korea things are different.

Dinner in Seoul with foreigners from UVA Darden who now work for Samsung

Because the question "How long will you stay?" is asked to me so many times in Korea, I actually think about the answer more than I otherwise would. Unlike most Westerners here (English teachers and US military), I'm not here on a defined assignment and at Samsung I could probably stay in Korea for a very long time if I decided I wanted to. However, we all have defined end dates in our contracts, so the question about what we will do at the end of our contracts is always something that my foreign colleagues and I need to consider.

For the foreign Samsung-ers who have been here longer than me, many contracts are ending around now. A few of these people have decided to renew to stay in Korea and a couple lucky others convince Samsung to transfer them to other countries. The remainder pack up their circus tents to return home. This means attending a lot of farewell parties and receiving a lot of "goodbye" emails. To keep track of all the expat comings and goings I had to create an email folder on my work computer called "Revolving Door".

I suppose this cycle is somewhat inevitable. No one I know comes to Korea looking to immigrate here forever. The foreigners recruited into my strategy group all have MBAs and mostly come from wealthy countries with plenty of other career opportunities. We come to Korea for the experience mostly, but after 2 or 3 or 4 years here the experience excitement wears off and we come to crave something new and fresh. As a foreign Samsung employee leaving Korea after 4 years put it to me, "I have heard enough 'Imnida'" (a common sentence ending in the Korean language). Over time, typically only the ones who have married a Korean spouse consider staying long-term — and even this is not a guarantee to stay.

At a hiking rest stop with my former colleague Kathryn ... before she left South Korea

South Korea is a developed nation and the quality of life for a Samsung MBA expat is good. There is always enough money saved up for a fun night out with friends, and my colleagues and I are always looking to pad our travel itineraries with exotic Asian destinations (I managed to go to Vietnam and Japan this winter). Far from being alone, we come here with a group of like-minded MBA colleagues who are usually available on the weekends for a good time.

However, the life of a Samsung expat in Korea is far from being all fun and games. The office environment is often difficult and Koreans are known for working long, relatively unproductive hours in unforgiving conditions (read this article for a description of the reasons why). The relentless pressure to deliver quickly on seemingly absurd timelines is often high, usually with little in the way of praise or recognition for your efforts. This week a Korean at the gym asked me, somewhat incredulously, why I left the US (I was wearing a "Wisconsin" t-shirt and he had graduated from Madison). "Life is too busy in Korea," he said. Korean society is super competitive and Koreans get caught up in life's rat races far more than foreigners do. A Korean colleague at Samsung commented to me a few months ago, "I think that Koreans often don't know how to enjoy life."

Did get a little bit of Korean skiing in this winter

You also miss things living in Korea as a foreigner. Some people grow tired of kimchi and rice and miss their comfort foods. I ate my first Chipotle burrito in over a year recently in the US on a business trip and it tasted ... AMAZING. Some people grow tired of the little things: banking difficulties, inability to communicate in the Korean language, the crowded buses and streets. Korea's poor air quality puts me in a down mood sometimes — especially this past winter when the occasional dirty smog from China blew ashore. I also miss friends who I now only see on Facebook and communicate with via Skype, and I have lost track of the number of wedding invitations I have declined in the last 18 months.

In addition, as a foreigner you never quite belong here. Korea is far more open to the world than in the past, but it is still a place dominated by an "us and them" mentality. The Korean concept of "oo-ri", or togetherness, sometimes is difficult on expats. Korea is a collectivist society, and as a foreigner you will never become a part of the collective. The fact that foreigners tend to rotate through Korea relatively quickly, leaving Koreans to stay and muddle on, only reinforces this way of thought.

As for me ... I plan to stay for now. It feels premature for me to leave Korea after a year and a half, and I feel as if I still have more to see and do here. But as I linger here and slowly watch my foreign colleagues drift away, one or two at a time, I may too one day feel the urge to jump off and restart life anew somewhere else ... completing the Korea expat cycle.

Foreigners may miss their foods from home ... but most enjoy the occasional Korean BBQ

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