Living In Korea- My Life As An Expat

July 10, 2022

My life as an ex-pat started in 1986 when I moved to Seoul, Korea.  Hired by Samsung to work as a lawyer for the Samsung Group companies (the only foreign lawyer at the time) , I found myself in one of the world’s largest cities working for a dynamic, growing group of companies (we call them “Chaebols” in Korean) that would soon become known around the world for electronics and semiconductors amongst other things. Moving to Korea from the US was indeed a shock as I did not speak Korean at that time. I made the move as the job I was offered sounded quite fascinating as was the chance to live abroad in Asia.  It was time for adventure.

From a career standpoint moving to Seoul to work for Samsung proved to be one of the most important decisions I ever made. I was exposed to a wide variety of international legal issues and problems, more than I ever could have experienced in the US.  From a personal standpoint, my life also changed for the better as I made a host of international friends (Korean and ex-pats) and of course met my wonderful wife-who worked for Samsung at the time. As it turned out, taking the risk of working for a company I had little knowledge about in a country I had never been to before was the best career choice I could have ever made. I think taking risks is the best thing you can do when it comes to your career.  In fact, moving overseas to another country can not only enhance your career but help you re-invent yourself.

Looking back on my life as an ex-pat in Korea, here are a few things I learned and experience

1. Housing

When moving from the US to Korea, one may not be prepared for the housing that is available.  Samsung provided my housing as per the employment agreement, but it was certainly not what I expected. The apartment or condo (in Korea most people live in apartment complexes and not stand-alone houses) was small.  The heating system was old and the kitchen was almost nonexistent.  In fact, when I first moved into my apartment there was no heat.  They forgot to turn the heat on before I moved in.  I made do, bought a heater for the apartment, cooked simple dishes for myself, and learned to live comfortably in a small space.  Once I learned to live comfortably, I realized I could probably live anywhere- at least in Asia. But many Americans would have trouble living in that kind of space.  When you move to a new country you really need to have an open mind when looking at housing.

2. Friends

Making friends in a foreign country is important.  Fortunately for me, there was an ex-pat living in my complex who I made friends with and who gave me invaluable advice for living in Seoul.  As Samsung’s main English teacher at the time, his friendship would lead to my becoming friends with his friends leading to an expansion of connections in Seoul that would enhance my life in Korea.  I not only learned about Korean culture from him and his friends but picked up a little Korean and started my lifelong love affair with Korea and its people.  It’s important to make friends as soon as you can when you move to a foreign country to help provide a support group.  I learned a great deal about Korean culture, food, and life in general from a few close ex-pat friends as well as Samsung colleagues.      

3. Professional Life

Back in the 1980s, professional business life in Korea was quite dynamic.  The various Chambers (such as the American Chamber of Commerce) were quite active leading to a chance to attend numerous meetings with ex-pat businessmen and businesswomen from all over the world.  The multinational companies, financial institutions, and organizations were all present so it was rather easy to meet the Country Manager or CFO, etc. of a multinational just walking down the street. Lunch and breakfast meetings with other ex-pats, especially businessmen became quite common.  I was not only able to get to know my Samsung colleagues (most of whom were Korean lawyers, paralegals, and general managers) but US and European ex-pats as well.  If you are working abroad as an ex-pat, immersing yourself in the business community is very important for obvious networking reasons. Don’t just stay in your office or cubicle. Make friends, socialize and travel around the country. I joined the Royal Asiatic Society  (RAS) which sponsored trips around Korea and offered lectures on Korean history and culture.

4. Language

Though I never did become fluent in Korean (I am still studying Korean to this day) I learned enough to get around Seoul.  Ordering food at a restaurant can be a daunting task but once you learn a few words not quite so difficult.  Trying to learn Korean really opened my eyes to the importance of language.  I think it is important for any ex-pat, regardless of where you live, to learn a little of the local language.  I admit I am envious of the Korean and Japanese businessmen I have met who are fluent in 3 or 4 languages. As soon as you land in your new country you should try and learn a little of the language. It really helps.

5.  Family Life

Though the current trend in Korea is for workers to seek a work-life balance (which is different from the US) when I worked in Korea, working 6 days a week was common.  Sunday was the day one could spend with their family.  Women primarily were housewives and took care of the family, household expenses, and children’s education.  As Korea deemed education very important (and indeed education lifted Korea out of poverty) Korean mothers made certain their children studied very hard.  The term “tiger mom” comes to mind.  One thing I learned after my children were born was the fact my wife knowingly and willingly put up with my “career at Samsung” and the long hours it involved.  She never complained.  She expected me to put in long hours as she took care of the house and the children. Things may be changing now but I think it bears repeating that when you move overseas, you will find that though people really want basically the same thing, culture will certainly color the concepts of family and work.  And if you marry, the odds are there will be some cultural differences you and your spouse will have to get used to. Be flexible and open-minded.

6. Career and Retirement

As an ex-pat in Korea, I have found that after retiring there are few really pressing needs.  There is no longer an office to go to or a deadline to meet. In fact, I am at a coffee shop overlooking one of my favorite beaches sipping an ice tea.  Time, therefore, takes on a different meaning than for many people caught up in the daily rat race.  But in fact, it should serve to remind you that long-term interests, issues, risks, and plans are more important than short-term gratification, issues, and interests.  Things tend to unfold gradually not instantly.  It may take a while to see 5 years or 10 years down the road but that is more important in the long run than thinking about what today or tomorrow will bring.  So, if you move to another country, whether Korea or elsewhere you should still develop a long-term plan. Ask yourself the tough questions-  Why have you moved abroad?  What is your 3 or 5-year plan?  What are your long-term goals? Some people move without a plan or thinking it through which can lead to disaster down the road. So, when moving abroad whether for retirement or for a job, or even to just re-invent yourself, develop a long-term plan.

In conclusion, I’ve found living in Korea as an ex-pat to be very rewarding from a career and personal standpoint.  I highly recommend moving to another country for a variety of reasons- you will definitely find such a move will take you out of your comfort zone and will expand your horizons.  Remember, wherever you go, there will be cultural differences.  So keep an open mind and go with the flow.  In essence, don’t sweat the small stuff.

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