This week I have another Expat Wisdom post to share with you, and I have to say, it’s one of the most insightful ones that I’ve shared. If you don’t already know, the Expat Wisdom project is something I set up to share the stories of you guys: other expats around the world who have something valuable to say. Each month I invite a fellow expat to share their story and advice on this platform. This month I was lucky enough to have Cate from Incheon and Beyond write for me and share her story. Her writing is truly amazing, and she shares some very useful wellness tips as well. I hope you enjoy reading what she has to say as much as I did!
“Well being: the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.”
The late July humidity was expected but instantly concerning. Sweat stung our eyes as the automated glass doors of the Incheon International Airport closed behind my then boyfriend and I, the pace of these doors glacial, their glass faces fogging at the intersection of an air-conditioned terminal and the unforgiving Korean heat. Our clothes were a new level of damp. Any rational or coherent thought our jet-lagged brains attempted had already evaporated. Left in their exhausted wake were the hollows (at that point, crevasses) of other thoughts that once took up space: what’s going to help get us through this? What is perseverance? What is going on, team?
That initial jolt of moving abroad was three years ago. Eventually, the cooler weather of fall arrived. With it, the stability of waning culture shock and routine settled in: Ben, who when we landed was unemployed, got a job at a local hagwan teaching English to Kindergarteners. I settled into the international school community, adjusting to the size and navigating my role. We made friends and fell in love with Korean food. We started traveling, both around the country and to different parts of Asia over breaks and holidays. By the time spring came, what began as the Let’s Try This for One Year, Whaddaya Say? Experiment had solidified into a lifestyle both of us were invested in. Hooked on. Crazy about.
Three years and enough kimchi to ferment over 1,000 days of living abroad later, we’re still into it. We love this life. Each year brings with it strange realizations and the decisions that lead to more strange realizations, like finding out how many canceled flights you can have in a row before you become the person who’s resigned to laying on the airport carpet, face down, in a pile of tear-soaked dirty luggage (not all of it your own). Like accepting that when you live anywhere for an extended period of time, an astounding boredom will eventually creep in to your days. And that boredom, inherently, carries with it no deeper meaning or signs to do something crazy. It just is. Vonnegut said it best: “So it goes.” So, too, does living abroad.
That being said, the challenges that come with being an expat center largely around what might be described as the predictability of unpredictability. That in order to take full advantage of living outside of your home country, there’s pressure (and plenty of opportunity) to seek experiences that get you lost so that you can “find yourself.” While I disagree with the necessity of this notion, that you have to get lost to get found, it’s super possible to slip into the wonder and excitement of lost-ness, so much so that you lose focus of what that quest is doing to the person you were attempting to find. That in order to continually pursue whatever wild self-scavenger hunt you’ve put yourself on, you have to have enough presence at some point to acknowledge when the “finding yourself” transitions to “being yourself.” Finally, it’s finding space to let yourself be comfortable, happy, and healthy (re: practice well being) without always chasing something else. To be well enough to appreciate just being.
What it all boils down to is essentially this: one of the biggest lessons we’ve learned is that it’s easier than hell to wander to a new place and get caught up in the rush of it. The excitement, the homesickness, the wonderful new people, the abundance of possibility, the role of a tourist, the role of pretending to know what different words and phrases mean, the obsession with every new smell and street and shop and strange bug and the awakening of a hunger for more. Then, one day, the place where your mind and body connect, i.e. where you actually exist in this big wide world, begins to lose its tangibility. I’ve cycled between feelings of being completely at peace, to radically missing home, to being so disconnected from my present reality (that mind-body-exist thing) that it takes weeks to get out of a funk. What it’s lead me to realize is that it takes a considerable amount of intentional focus to stay rooted as an expat. Primarily, it forces you to assess where you’d like to grow those roots. In short, I’ve learned you gotta focus on taking care of where you are by actually being where you are. Living otherwise is denying a reality that the rest of you happens to be facing.
Which leads me to the whole point of this article. How does one be well? Pursue “well-being” while being? I am an expert in none of the things, but I am also an avid user of my
iPhone’s note taking app. Here’s some of the notes I’ve jotted down over the days, weeks, and lost years of being an expat about maintaining one’s well being while living abroad.
- Communicate. Really, communicate.
My friends will laugh and perform a dramatic, aggressive eye roll if they’re reading this right now. Keeping in touch is, how we gently phrase it in the group text, “an area of growth” for me. Small talk and texting are not my jam. I have a hard time answering messages or checking Facebook. There’s also the added dimension of introversion, which I often use as means to a recharging, but lonelier, end. What I mean by “communicate,” then, is to set aside time to actually do so, and be all in when you do. If there’s a weekend with friends when you’re back home, be in the room with them. Put the phone someplace you instantly forget and make them help you look for it hours later, once you’re all a bottle of cheap wine deep and feel like combining forces for a joint, ridiculous mission. When you’re in Seoul for the night, attempt to take advantage of the communal kimchi jjigae bowl by having a legitimate conversation between spicy mouthfuls. Don’t just pass the time by simply eating and drinking around people, which is alarmingly easy to do; pursue their company. Be a companion. Find kinship through conversation. Through food. Which brings me to the next point.
- Eat foods that make you feel good.
One of the first things that made us feel deeply connected and well with our life in Korea was the food. We remain infatuated with it. We’ve also discovered in the past few years here that we have some food intolerances which mess with our ability to enjoy All of the Things; so, therein lies a decision. Do we eat the things that bother us? Does eating have to be an exclusionary, fine line sorta deal? That depends. It takes intentionally listening to your body and it’s experiences to see where to go. If you sometimes just need the fried chicken on the corner, as we do because it is a block away and my God does it taste good with a vat of Ranch Dressing, then we do it. However, if our stomachs have been bothering us for the third day in a row and there’s a chance to get burgers or dumplings or insert delicious, heavy meal here, we say “No.” And that “No” feels just as good sometimes.
- Give your mind a damn rest.
As someone who experiences the most anxiety in complete silence, I have difficulty with the concept of giving my mind a rest. I walk home from school: podcast. Studying for my master’s: binaural beats. First thing in the morning: Headspace, thirty minutes of some Binaural Ambient 16-hour Looped Youtube, and another podcast once the coffee gets going. Then we get to school and the noise continues, a constant stream of conversations and lessons and chimes and routines, all of which are the stuff of our days but all of which contribute to a still-free environment. It’s occurred to me that as much as I love the constant input, the only way I can process it is with some peace and quiet every now and again. It’s helpful to find a place you can have that quiet time, be it through a moment of staring out of your window or thirty seconds of a sleepy Child’s Pose before drooling on your yoga mat. Who cares. Just take a break every now and again and see how you feel. How you think. How differently you might breathe.
- Find something that gets you moving.
Working out, in the typical sense, is both an outlet and therapy for me. Over the years in Korea, I’ve gone from completely sedentary months to working out twice a day- I’ve also alternated between going on runs for my sanity and entirely resenting my body for not moving enough or looking a certain way. Both of those got real old real quick. And both of those sad tales are the result of not actually listening to what my body is built for or capable of. Of not paying attention to what will help further connect my head with my feet, if you will. If the ultimate focus is to feel present in both one’s body and the physical place that one is in, making one’s heart beat fast every once in a while can’t hurt. I’m no scientist, but it actually might be the biggest thing that’ll keep the hurt at bay. Whether that’s stretching, biking to work, going on long walks, going on short walks, picking up dancing with seniors (seen in the parks of Shanghai) or stopping at the outdoor exercise machines for a quick hip rotation (Korea. It’s a trip.) the best policy is just move. Find a way. And through the sweat you might find you’re more at home in your bones than a handful of zip codes can provide.
- Find good tunes, and then do everything to them.
Spotify, tell you what, is the greatest. When Myspace died and took your favorite band’s Top 8 with it (I lament any millennial reading this who never experienced the stress of wondering whether or not you’ll be placed in someone’s Top Friends on that platform), finding other bands to spend your emo days listening to got real difficult. This app, though, solves all woes. It’s a rainy Thursday and you need something to read your book to at a strange Korean café? There’s a playlist for that. Heading to Tokyo, Hanoi, or Ubud in a few weeks? Make your own mixtape for the plane ride. The other day I had to do paperwork, mistyped an album into the search bar, and ended up listening to Peruvian Chicha music for the next three hours. And it was fantastic. The limitations of this extend mainly to geography: for some countries, you have to get an account prior to arriving in that country. That being said, having a soundtrack for every experience has been transformational. I’ll listen to something from June 2017 and instantly be in Vermont, or Osaka, or wherever that month or song happened to take us. It’s a powerful, beautiful, grounding thing.
Ultimately, that’s all I’ve got. You are more than welcome to take me up on these suggestions or politely decline. Ideally, you’d read this and view it as a rambling, but not entirely terrible, handful of ideas. Also know that what works for one person does not and should not work for everyone. Also also know that I put off writing this article to watch Bachelor in Paradise with my then boyfriend, now husband, because we hadn’t sat down in the same room together all week otherwise. That’s what well being meant for us today: putting off typing into a computer for a few hours to be with the man I said “hell yes” to almost a year ago. Sometimes, well being while being means doing a three-minute meditation because it’s Friday and you woke up late, but you know meditation helps so you’re going to do something. It’s accepting the reality that you woke up late in the first place, and that your hair will indeed remain wonky, but you are still going to have a great day in all of it’s mundane glory. Sometimes it’s making time for reality TV on a sweaty couch with your husband, trying to save money in the August heat by leaving the air conditioning off. Take things in as they are, and let yourself roll with it as you will. Above all else, know that time is all we have to work with, and the good things take it. Let them.
I don’t know about you, but I am definitely going to be trying some of those wellness tips that Cate shared! I hope that you were all able to take something away from her story and that it has an impact upon you. Let me know if you would like to be featured next month.
See you next week!