Take Two: A Story of Two Transitions to South Korea
By Soma Das
The KIS Families series shares stories from families in the school community. Here, Soma Das shares what she learned about settling in Korea as an expat – twice!
In December 2000 Dave and I flew to India for a blessing ceremony before our marriage. All of my relatives would bestow their blessings on Dave and me for a long and blissful marriage. Our flight gave us a 14-hour layover in Seoul. Little did I know that the journey truly was as powerful as the destination!
We landed at Gimpo Airport, stowed our baggage, exchanged some money and got on the subway heading into Seoul. We explored palaces, Namdaemun, and Insadong – any place that caught our eye. We ate plenty of street food and tried a couple of restaurants. We did a lot in a limited amount of time but what stays with me is that our first stop was at an egg sandwich cart in front of Deoksugong palace, not knowing at the time that in two and a half years, Dave’s office would be a couple of hundred meters from where we stood.
In August 2003, Dave and I moved to Seoul for his Samsung employment. There was so much to consider. We were in our late twenties and my career at Pfizer was taking off just as Dave’s international opportunity came. While I was concerned about my career path, I knew I wanted to share in the experience of living abroad and so I decided to join him.
Once here, we realized our experience mirrored others’ difficult decisions. Some couples sacrificed one partner’s career for the other’s, some couples maintained one partner’s job back home remotely or by a lot of travel, and some couples decided to live apart for a couple of years to nurture individual careers. Each decision, I learned as I spoke to so many, takes its toll. For some, careers paused but for others careers halted completely. Some took this opportunity to further their education or grow, learning more about different cultures, food, art, music and language. Some couples had to deal with the loneliness of having a spouse in a different country. Some spouses who came to South Korea couldn’t adjust. One of the saddest trends I witnessed was the number of divorces in our large group of young(ish) couples. Moving to a country where you don’t know the language, culture and customs, and aren’t used to the food or geography, can be overwhelming and stressful.
I was lucky. Although it took me months to find my footing, I met a woman who taught hanji (traditional Korean paper art) just a fifteen minute walk from my home. She was my age and we became good friends over time. Our friendship remains strong after almost eighteen years. When I started going to hanji classes, I met so many foreign women and started making friends and learning more about Korea in a way that was really organic and relevant and meaningful. I felt like I was flailing about less and treading water more. Life became more connected to the people living here.
The second bit of luck was discovering Seoul International Women’s Association (SIWA) and the Indian Women’s Group (IWG), associated with the Indian Embassy. Through SIWA I took sewing classes, traditional art classes and, of course, kept up with my hanji. I became a co-leader of SIWA’s Working Women’s Network and organized guest speakers to present on topics that were of interest to club members. As part of the IWG, I held the position of Cultural Secretary & helped organize events like Diwali, Holi, and fashion shows, among other things to promote Indian culture. We also had guest speakers come teach classes on flower arranging, professional gift wrapping, and various types of art and dance. I also had the pleasure of teaching dance and exercise classes to these members.
My biggest lesson that first year abroad: having local friends is critical. You are not really living unless you have people in your life who you really connect to – your tribe! I realized after the first year in Korea had passed, how I was no longer treading water, but swimming swiftly with a safety net of like-minded and like-spirited women who helped me adjust to life here. Friends gave me a sense of belonging after I had left familiarity behind. In addition, the structure of the clubs gave my friendships mutual goals to work toward, not just emotional support and fun.
A note about mutual goals: I never realized until I didn’t have a job or classmates, how important it is to share a goal with people. At work your group, department or team have mutual goals. At school you and your classmates have a mutual goal of learning. Even exercising at a gym has a positive psychological impact. When you strive to meet a mutual goal with a friend, your bond can deepen and you may feel happier.
So You Just Moved to a Totally New Place
Here is what I learned from my first expat years in Korea.
Must repeat this: Make friends! For anyone who is a new expat, put yourself out there. Don’t be shy. Make connections and find someone to click with. That person is waiting for you too!
Also: Learn the language! I know it is difficult. You may not have the time or resources to hire a teacher, but there are so many online resources available and every little bit you learn will truly enrich your experience.
I started Korean language class shortly after arriving in Seoul in 2003. Within weeks, my eyes were opened. I could read! I couldn’t understand what I was reading, but the mysterious shapes on the signs became letters and I could sound out words like a kindergartener. As I attended more classes, I became more confident in cabs and in restaurants. I felt bold when I was exploring. And all this was before Google Translate and Papago!
Explore: Your new city and country, yes! But also the region. Dave and I loved traveling East Asia. Most of nearby countries are short flights away – Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam and more. These trips were so eye-opening, perspective-changing, and soul-nourishing for us. The more we saw of the world, the more we wanted to see. We are excited to travel again, once it is safe.
After two and half years in Seoul, we returned to New Jersey in 2006. It may seem silly, but I had to adjust to being home again. Going from a fast-paced city life to a suburban one with no job to go back to was tough. However, after several years of re-building my resume, I was thrilled to return to Pfizer.
In the meantime, we had two daughters, Shaila and Dahlia, to keep me busy. Our connection to Korea stayed strong through Dave’s career at Samsung which took him to Seoul several times a year. The kids and I tagged along on a couple of those trips. Then in December 2019, Dave received another opportunity to work for Samsung in Korea. Was I on board? Of course I was! And I could only imagine what the experience would mean to our kids!
Our elementary and middle school girls would have a new perspective on life! I could see it all: my kids learning what it feels like to leave the known and start over, attending an international school and making friends with kids from diverse backgrounds, traveling to various countries… Korea would be great for the whole family!
But then, the pandemic. As we all know, life continues to change for everyone in the world during the pandemic. For us, we had to change our expectations for our time in Korea. However, having been an expat before, I knew the drill. I did everything in my power to make the transition for my children as smooth as possible.
Echoing my own first step in Korea, I prioritized my kids’ friendships. But how do you encourage your kids to make friends when they are on campus only a few days before shifting to weeks of virtual learning? Shaila is an independent eighth grader. All spring and summer, she rode her bike around our New Jersey town and visited all her friends for masked driveway chats. I didn’t even know how she knew to get to all their homes! Dahlia, in grade five, is also social and was already missing outdoor masked playdates with her New Jersey bubble friends.
To make the school transition smooth, we wanted to find KIS friends near us. KIS families live all over Seoul so this was a challenge! First I wondered who lived on our bus route, in our neighborhood, and sought grade level parent chats to make connections. Once I connected with elementary and middle school PTO members I could help my kids connect too. Thank you PTO! You helped our family find friendships that help us thrive here. Within a couple of months we found families that live nearby. Shaila has regained her independence and safely meets up with friends. Dahlia has nearby friends and is on a basketball with girls so sweet that she can’t stop talking about their kindness.
In his work, Dave also meets new people, including other Samsung employees whose children attend KIS. Through his connections, I have met women who are going through similar challenges and joys as expat parents in a pandemic – a unique bonding experience.
One more tip: Use your resources. Every single one. Start with connections you have through KIS or your workplace. Ask questions! Ask for the help you need: life will be so much richer! And for those who have a few years of experience of living in Korea as an expat, take time to connect with newcomers! Share what you’ve learned. Your stories and experiences are invaluable to newbies!
Take Two: Six Months In
At the beginning of the school year, KIS counselors presented information about adjusting to a new country and culture. There are predictable up and down patterns that many expats experience: 1) Honeymoon, 2) Initial Culture Shock, 3) Superficial Adjustment, 4) Depression and Isolation, 5) Reintegration and Compensation, 6) Autonomy and Independence.
I had first learned about these stages at a book talk in Seoul about three months before repatriating to the US. After the talk, I went up to the author and said, “Where have you been?” This was precisely the information that could have helped me in my early expat months. Regardless of timing, it was comforting to know that the ups and downs that I experienced were quite normal. While it is incredibly helpful to know about these stages, it is also really important to know how to navigate each stage, especially the difficult periods of adjustment.
I figured out some critical components of adjusting to a new country – making friends, learning the language (I started classes again!), exploring, and utilizing all resources at hand – but to really feel confident, you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. It may feel awkward to seek friends, ask for help, and make mistakes while speaking a new language. But someone out there is open to making a new friend, or has a ton of resources that they can’t wait to share, or could really use a good laugh when you make a mistake while speaking Korean! The last time I went to the dry cleaner, I told him that I had eleven o’clock. He laughed so hard and told me, “No, you have eleven shirts, not eleven o’clock!” We both had a good chuckle!
I know it’s tough to settle into a new place during a pandemic. But I invite you to reach out. And when opportunity arises to make a connection, go for it!
Soma Das is a KIS parent who is a National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach with a private practice. Nutrition education is her passion and she loves to work with school age children to encourage healthy eating. Soma loves spending time with her family – any weekend might include a board game, walk, or afternoon cooking together. She is classically trained in Bharatanatyam and hopes to share her culture in Korea once again.