Life Abroad: The Untold Story


Many value overseas experience, but few want to hear your stories about it.

From 1966 to 1981, the U.S. government sent over 2,000 idealistic young men and women to South Korea as Peace Corps volunteers, whose primary mission was to provide technical assistance and, more importantly, to give Koreans around the country a chance to get acquainted with Americans other than GI’s and businessmen.

By all accounts, those parts of their mission were a success, but there was a third imperative: to bring back what they had learned about Korea and thus enrich their home country’s understanding of the world.

I asked Bob Graff, a public health volunteer from 1972 to 1974 who later settled in Korea and now lives in Gangneung, how the mission to share his experience with the folks back home had worked out.

“They weren’t really that interested,” Graff said, offering a sample of what he was up against: “I hear you went to Korea. Did you have a good time? Good. Now let’s talk about fishing.”

Though we Americans can be notoriously parochial, this lack of interest isn’t unique to my countrymen, nor is it exclusively directed toward scruffy volunteers and their You-think-you’ve-got-it-tough? stories of Korea circa 40 BC (ie. ‘before Costco’). Anyone who has returned to the homeland after an extended sojourn abroad inevitably runs up against The Great Wall of Indifference.

In my first year or so overseas, that used to bug me. Partly I was busting to tell funny stories from the road, like the one about the drunk guy in Vietnam who cadged my cigarette lighter and then, discovering it in his pocket two minutes later, tried to sell it to me, getting so violently upset when I refused that he toppled over and disappeared into a dense bush, loudly swearing to rain vengeance and ruin upon me if he ever managed to get out. I also wanted to share with my fellow Americans the useful lessons I’d learned in Korea: about the universal health care system that had somehow not led to societal decay or economic collapse; about the unarmed civilian populace who felt nonetheless adequately defended against a bellicose neighbor; or about the time those same civilians deposed a dictatorship of their own armed only with rocks, solidarity, and justice.

It’s tempting to pin the communication gap on some fault of the listener, who either doesn’t care or else courts trouble by asking hopelessly broad questions (“So, what’s Korea like?”) that seldom elicit anything but a totally valid excuse to go top up his drink. Perhaps they harbor a touch of envy, which can make even the most revolting or self-deprecating yarn come off as a boast. Most people also cringe to hear their country compared unflatteringly to another, even if the criticism is constructive and the comparison implicit or unintended.

“Anyone who has returned to the homeland after an extended sojourn abroad inevitably runs up against The Great Wall of Indifference.”

I suspect there’s truth to that, but I also had to ask myself how much reciprocal interest I had shown in their workplace gossip, bowling leagues and mortgage rates, and the verdict was “Not much.” I also came to understand that unless we’re doing interesting things, there’s nothing intrinsically fascinating about living somewhere other than where you’re from, a point that had been lost on me and still eludes the roughly 95% of Korea bloggers who regard every fender bender, dentist appointment, and dodgy bowel movement as a fount of captivating prose.

Even when we do have those remarkable, offbeat experiences, we encounter a problem that springs from the nature of conversation itself: Most of the time, we all tend to talk about things we have in common – a recent movie, the new boss, yesterday’s game – so the traveler’s exotic tale offers listeners little or nothing to relate to, and thus reduces their role to nodding, gasping and asking questions, which is a lot to expect from anyone who isn’t your grandmother.

A recent study by a group of Harvard social psychologists supports this notion of what they term the “social cost of extraordinary experiences.” As lead researcher Gus Cooney writes, “At worst, people may be envious and resentful of those who have had an extraordinary experience, and at best, they may find themselves with little to talk about.” The two-fold takeaway of the study is to keep our epiphanies to ourselves, and to seethe with envy of Professor Cooney, who presumably scored a generous research grant for pointing out something that every expat has long considered obvious.

While that may be the best (and the worst) we can do, the Peace Corps vets offer some cause for tempered optimism. Rob Sack, a former volunteer in Nepal, estimates that 90% of people are going to show polite interest and quickly change the subject. “But it’s that one in ten who says, ‘Wow! What happened next?’” he adds, “and you end up having a longer conversation, and the ideas get around.”

Even Bob Graff, who concedes that his hometown debriefing mission wasn’t very successful, is slow to write it off. “You never know,” he says, “Many people know that I’m still here, and that’s got to make them question something – make them think, ‘Why is he still there?’ Even if it’s a very small question mark, it’s something that’s accomplished.”

John Bocskay lives in Busan and is currently writing a book about expats in Korea.

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