Moving to Korea from a country that bills itself ‘the land of the free,’ I found it odd that what struck me right away was the freedom I experienced here.
The source of much of that freedom was obvious. Any talk of independence must begin with the large wad of freedom I was handed every month in the form of a Busan Bank envelope stuffed with 10,000 won notes. I also had my own place again, after an educational but humbling two-year stint as a starving artist in New York had sent me scrambling back to Mom’s couch in search of plan B. And I no longer had a car, though I hesitate to say I ‘gave it up,’ as I had come to see it as an ironic symbol of freedom that the American sprawl inclines you to own, poor public transportation cements as a necessity, and urban congestion reduces to little more than a trap with an okay stereo.
Some of my new-found freedom was of a completely new and unfamiliar kind, which was at once both more subtle and more profound. Living outside of the culture that had nourished me, I was suddenly free of its norms and expectations – many of which were fine, but some of which had begun to rankle a twenty-something-year-old non-conformist who never understood why it should be his destiny to join the rat race or his patriotic duty to consume.
And the culture of my adopted home didn’t place many significant demands on me either. They expected me to show up for work and not hurt anyone, but beyond that they seemed to assume foreigners would find Korea so inscrutable that they could not in good conscience ask us to assimilate. For the same reason, they applauded my most rudimentary efforts at engagement, marveling at my annyeong haseyos and kamsa hamnidas as if I’d cracked the Enigma Code. While I often found it irritating to be tagged the Dumb Foreigner, my annoyance was tempered by the discovery that it entitles me to carry the ‘Dumb Foreigner Card,’ which is widely accepted and apparently never expires, and which I have used to earn valuable benefits and mitigate the normal consequences of a wide range of blunders, from throwing my trash in the wrong bin to driving an unregistered motorbike without a helmet.
To live as an expat in Korea is to live in a kind of ‘third space’ between two worlds, neither of which exerts a compelling claim on our cultural selves. Because that space is governed largely by rules we decree for ourselves, it provides fertile ground for newer and perhaps truer versions of the selves we have longed to be or have not yet imagined. In this space we lose ourselves, find ourselves, create and recreate ourselves, in relative freedom from convention, judgment, tradition and restraint.
Moving abroad frees you to imagine anywhere as a potential home and to liberate yourself from the confines of your original boundaries. While many expats find their path leading back to their country of birth, for many others a life overseas plants the seed of a transnational identity, which blurs lines on the map as surely as it complicates our allegiance to any one patch of it.
John Lennon famously asked listeners to “imagine there’s no countries,” a challenge that may seem like pie-in-the-sky, until we consider that to Lennon, himself an expat, it really must not have seemed “hard to do.” He found that freedom by moving to New York; some, like me, find it by leaving. But we all arrive at the same place, neither here nor there, but somewhere in between.
John Bocskay blogs about the expat universe at bosmosis.wordpress.com.