Expat Life in South Korea: Living as an Outsider

Today a white woman got on the bus, and I was struck by her confidence. As is typical on a bus in South Korea, she was the only fully white person on board, but she just calmly smacked her gum and found a seat. My first thought was, “This is the allure of a woman in her thirties: comfort in her own skin.” Then I decided this woman’s ease was also probably related to the amount of experience she has had abroad. I remembered how uncertain I used to be as a foreigner in Korea, how even something simple like riding the bus intimidated me. And it struck me how much I’ve changed.

I’ve been living in Korea for nearly 6 years, but I’m still an outsider.

As some coworkers recently pointed out, I always will be. Even if I were to marry a native (as they have), even if I were to become fluent in the language (as some foreigners do), I still wouldn’t be fully embraced, because it all comes down to blood.

I do have some Korean blood, so I suppose I hold more hope of acceptance than most, but still. I will never be a full Korean. I will always be an outsider. Being an outsider isn’t easy. It’s one of those experiences that changes you.

I didn’t come to Korea in order to stick out like a sore thumb. It was just a side consequence of living here that I’ve generally endured and/or ignored. (And I haven’t always felt ostracized. I have also been genuinely and surprisingly embraced.) But today I feel thankful for the ways being an outsider has stretched me.

When you are part of the majority, you take a lot of things for granted: being accepted, being comfortable, having your needs acknowledged and met. Even the opportunity to be anonymous is a privilege I didn’t recognize until it was taken from me. In Korea, I’ve been forced to face who I am and what I value. I’ve learned to find my approval outside of society’s standard. I have learned to go without backup, to be creative in communication, to persevere through frustration after frustration and wall after wall. And sometimes, I’ve had to learn to let go of what I want or thought I needed.

Sometimes I have wondered if living abroad was a form of running away, a convenient way to sidestep the expectations and restrictions of living at home. Sometimes I have not given myself enough credit.

Stepping into the unknown of moving to Korea was scary 6 years ago. (I had the stomach ulcers to prove it!) Every time I stepped out of my apartment, stepped onto a bus or crowded subway car, stepped into a bank or grocery store, I had to muster up strength. That habit of mustering up strength builds muscles over time, and I’m thankful for the muscles I’ve built the past 6 years. I’ve been stretched, I’ve been scared, I’ve been so tired I thought I would collapse, and I’ve learned that pushing through is not just about getting to the other side, it’s about finding out who you are.

As an outsider, I have a unique freedom to sidestep social norms and bring fresh perspective. I can operate independently from the people around me precisely because I know I am not one of them. I can pick and choose which parts of the culture I embrace and which I adapt.

But ultimately, my goal isn’t to separate myself from society, but rather to connect. I don’t want to just become a woman confident in her own skin, but one who makes life brighter for everyone around her. And as an outsider, I have unique opportunities every day to do just that.



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Elizabeth is a teacher, preacher, musician, and writer. She has a Master's of Divinity and a Master's of Music, which represent her two great loves: Jesus and the arts. A half-Korean, half-white American, she spent seven years in South Korea teaching English. Elizabeth is a perpetual learner, a deep feeler, and a pursuer of beauty and truth.

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