As a kid, I grew up wanting to explore the world. I wanted to fashion saddles for giraffes in Kenya, camp in the Amazon and chat in Mandarin with the locals over a bottle of Qingdao. So, when the opportunity presented itself for me to teach English in Korea for a year, I jumped at the chance. A year later, I jumped at the chance to live in Ecuador, later China, and currently Japan. I’m living the dream.
Sometimes the dream sucks—
Six Reasons Why it sucks to Live in Other Countries.
1 – You have no Privacy
Now, throughout this article, I’m talking about living in the following specific countries—South Korea, Ecuador, Taiwan, China, and Japan, overwhelmingly Asian countries. I hope to add live in more countries in South America (Peru) and at least one country in Africa (maybe Kenya). So, for me, it sucks to live in other countries that are drastically different from my own, somewhere where I don’t speak the language, the culture is different, the standard food looks like something you’d only eat on a dare, and you probably don’t look like everyone else.
So, first of all, other counties aren’t like America in their hiring practices. They can and do ask for things like photos before they will hire you, ensuring that they only hire attractive people who fit their stereotype for the type of job they want. You can probably guess which race they want to work at a hip-hop clothing store, regardless of qualifications.
So, before you can get a job in most Asian countries, you have to send them a photo and a list of any health issues and tattoos, often you have send things like your height/weight ratio too. A friend of mine in Korea pissed off his employers pretty badly by showing up and having the audacity to be ethnically Asian. He had pulled one over on them by dying his hair blond and wearing glasses for the photo he sent in, and his John Smith style name made them think he was of European descent….which is what they wanted. When he showed up, being completely qualified to teach English, they only begrudgingly kept him around, having already paid for his airfare and the other teacher having left for Australia already.
Now, once you get the job, you have to sign an agreement to act as a representative of the company at all times. This can mean not getting hammered in public on a Friday night in case one of your English students’ parents sees you, or this can mean you have to pretend to be straight to everyone you work with.
In addition to this agreement, you have to sign paperwork telling your company where you’re going on vacation, and where you can be reached at all times, even if you’re a 42 year old married professional with kids of your own. Sometimes they will even require you to fill out a form asking permission to leave the city! See, the company you work for is “responsible” for you while you’re in that country. And since most apartments won’t rent to foreigners, your company often sets up your apartment, meaning that if they decide to fire you for making the company look bad….you have to immediately move out of your apartment.
Finally, you most likely look different than everyone else and talk different from everyone else. This means that every time you have a casual conversation on the bus, everyone is listening to you, talking about you, judging you, and remembering what you do so they can tell their friends later. It means people don’t feel shy about staring directly at you for an uncomfortable period of time. When you ask your co-worker how to say in Mandarin, “Stop staring at me,” she’ll respond, “Well, they’ve never seen a foreigner before, so if you’re uncomfortable, you should move away.” It means that people walk past you in silence and then once they’ve passed you, they shout “hello!” then laugh crazily and run away…this way they can tell their parents they met a foreigner! A real live foreigner! It means that all of your neighbors are counting how many days your laundry hangs outside and when your husband comes home from the bar, and how many choco pies you bought at seven in the morning, and “Do you think that odd foreign lady is pregnant?” but, “No, it’s just the choco pies.” It means that if you want to lay in the park and read a book, you can’t get through a page without someone coming up and asking to take a picture with you.
2 - You become a little baby infant.
Remember the last time you walked up to your toddler nephew who doesn’t remember you from last Christmas and you picked him up and he screamed and pushed away? And you smiled and tried to introduce yourself and get him to remember you? But he just wanted to be left alone with his toys? So you dumped him down and scowled about what a little shit he was? You’re that nephew when you go abroad! You walk down the street and an old woman runs up to you, grabs you by the shoulders and turns you so you’re facing her husband who is going to snap a photo of the two of you. You reflexively jerk away and she smiles at you and grips you tighter while gesturing for her husband to take the photo already. You turn away from the camera, shout “bu yao!” (I don’t want it!) in her face and stomp away furiously. Your husband, who saw it all, tells you that the old lady was super pissed at YOU for walking away and ruining her picture.
The worst part is that in addition to everyone treating you like a baby, unless you can fluently speak the language and read like a pro, you actually do turn into a baby. I studied Spanish for three years in high school and a semester in college, and when I had a layover in Panama, I almost went to jail because I couldn’t answer the question, “Que contiene esta bolsa?” One stomach x-ray later, I was cleared to put my clothes back on and continue on my way to Quito.
You need help for EVERYTHING. And don’t kid yourself about how long it takes either. The US Government (http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Wikibooks:Language_Learning_Difficulty_for_English_Speakers) says that to become competent, even if you only want to be halfway competent, you still need to spend between 600 to 2200 hours studying, like at school, in a class, in addition to homework and conversation practice, not just half-assing it with some language tapes on the plane.
This means you need help going to the bank, setting up a cell phone, filling out paperwork for your visa, everything. It means that even if you have a Ph. D. in Understanding Very Complex Ideas back home, in Ecuador, when you go out to eat, you have to point at a dish at a nearby table and mime eating in order to not starve. It means that every time you get mail, you have to keep every scrap and bring it to someone who can tell you that this piece is ok to throw away, but this piece is actually your residence tax and you’ll get deported if you don’t go to the convenience store to pay it.
Don’t worry though, you’ll soon start to pick up simple phrases. As soon as a single “Konnichiwa,” “Ni hao,” or “Annyonghaseo,” comes out of your mouth, people fall over themselves in shock that you can speak their language! They marvel that you said hello and praise you endlessly. They whisper excitedly over your ability to say ONE WORD and gasp when you pick up chopsticks and put food in your mouth. They stare at you in awe as though every single two year old in Asia doesn’t already use chopsticks and compliment you wildly when the food goes in your mouth instead of down your shirt.
See, not only do you actually behave like a child in some aspects, looking the wrong way when crossing the road, walking into the door because you don’t know the symbol for pull, but everyone sees you as so backward and simple-minded that they treat you like a child, taking your photo without permission, complimenting you on your 17 word vocabulary, and walking you to the bathroom instead of just pointing at the sign.
3 – It’s a Pain in the Ass
Living abroad is a pain in the ass. Besides finding and applying for the job, and costs of moving and getting rid of all your stuff, or storing your stuff, there are hidden pains just waiting to attack. For example, there is no craig’s lists or thrift sales. Back home when you want a couch, you know how to get one,
Well, congratulations, you just moved to Korea. Where do you go for your things? Either you go to the expensive furniture store and buy everything brand-new….when you won’t get your first paycheck for a month….and you don’t know how long you’ll stay since you’re welcoming dinner featured live baby octopuses.
You can wait till another foreigner moves away and they might give you some of their pots or pans, bookshelves, TV etc, but rest assured, no one is moving until you’ve been there nine months already, so when they move, you find yourself with four book shelves and no books, and an extra bed. Then, three months later, when you’ve decided to move back to America, you realize why they were so excited to give you their bulky furniture. It costs, as they say, a rice paddy AND the ox to get rid of bulky furniture.
You get sick almost immediately and might very well stay that way for eight months. At the top of my friend’s “Things I won’t miss about Ecuador” list was “pooping blood for three months.”
Moving on, it takes forever to get the simplest things done. Because you don’t speak the language fluently, a simple trip to get a re-entry visa so you can go home for Christmas and be let back in the country after New Years takes hours, even after you went online and printed off an English translation of the form. You find the grocery stores that carry peanut butter, tortillas, and pickles, and since I those things are spread out over three different stores, grocery shopping take a full weekend. You can’t go to ATMs after six in Japan (because they close—no I don’t know why an ATM would close at six) and you can’t go to ATMs after seven in Ecuador (because you’ll immediately get mugged, and maybe stabbed), so these little things all add up to make it a much bigger pain in the ass to live abroad than at home where you know where to get the things you need.
4 - No friends
It can be really hard to make friends if you’ve moved abroad by yourself.
Back to that old issue, you don’t speak the language. Sure, more people are studying English in China right now than speak English in the whole world, that doesn’t mean they can speak it either. How’s your high school Spanish? (Que contiene esta bolsa?) I have found it pretty rare to find a local (outside of the tourism business) in Taiwan/Mexico/Japan/China/Korea/Ecuador/Greece, who can have a conversation in English. And remember how it takes a year to become half-way competent? You still can’t be casual friends with someone with that level of Japanese. Once you’ve exhausted the topics in your first year textbook (The book is on the table…I’m 28 years old.) the conversation kind of stalls.
So maybe you find a local who can speak a little English and wants to be your friend. It goes really well, until you notice that she introduced you to her other friends as, “Look at the foreigner!” And then all anyone wants to talk about is “What surprised you the most when you came to Japan?” and how pretty your blond hair is, and how they pay so much for English lessons, but now they can quit those and YOU can teach them! Let’s take a picture together!
Also, other foreigners who have lived in the country forever, maybe they married a Taiwanese man or something, and speak both English and Mandarin fluently, and would be the best kind of friend to have…..they don’t want to be your friend. Most people who live abroad do so for a year or two. Would you go out of your way to make friends with someone who was going to move away in a year or two? Someone who would always be asking for translation help? No, you’d make Taiwanese friends who were going to stick around and could go to the DMV on their own.
The pool of foreigner friends to choose from is shockingly small. When I lived in Korea, there were a total of seven foreigners living within a 30 mile radius. So, even if the Scottish guy was a complete dick when the English lady teared up when England lost the penalty kick in the 2006 World Cup.
Apparently this matters
…even if the South African guy gets kicked out of most bars for bothering cute young women as soon as he has a few beers, even if the American couple make you a little queasy with their open relationship. Despite these things, you are all friends. In that group of people, you’ll probably meet one or two people that you have a real connection with, but they’ll move back to Australia after six months and you’re stuck going out to see Harry Potter dubbed into Korean with the Scottish guy.
Finally, international travel is expensive. So is taking time off of work. So, obviously your relationships back home are going to suffer when you only see them for two weeks throughout the year. You need to know that despite promises made in blood, no one will actually come and visit you. NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON. Maybe if I had moved to an English-speaking/mosquito free/Beach resort in Amsterdam or a hotel offering free giraffe rides on the sunny coast of Canada, maybe more people would have followed through on their promise to come and visit. In 5 years of living and traveling abroad, nary a friend has visited me, even with my offers of a free bed, free food, and pre-killed baby octopuses.
5 – You Feel Bad
Maybe you’re going to move somewhere to make a difference in the world! When I moved to Ecuador to volunteer with the United Nations, I was full of wide-eyed innocence about how I was going to change the world. I bought bags of apples and handed them out to the street kids, I gave my spare change to teens with babies begging on the corner. I taught English to refugee families being relocated to Canada. I volunteered with the Goddamn United Nations. However, life wasn’t always so sunny. Within a few weeks, I had learned that the more money I gave little kids clambering to shine my shoes, the less likely their parents were to send them to school. School COSTS money you see, and shining shoes all day brings MAKES money.
A gang of little boys under 15 years old attacked me, stole my bag of apples, yanked an apple out of a toddler’s hand, and pinched my ass on top of it. There is no greater humiliation than getting harassed by a little 15 year old shit-head who doesn’t even have the decency to run away, instead sauntering away with his group of 7 friends laughing at you while chomping on your apples you had bought for the refugees.
So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that my idealism slowly faded and one Friday I found myself stepping over a homeless old woman in my new high heeled sandals on my way to the bar with my friend and moaning about how the ATMs gave me 20s AGAIN! See, in poverty-stricken Ecuador, no stores have change for such a big bill. We’d have to walk all the way across town to the rich people grocery store with security guards and go to three different registers to buy three different packs of Chiclets. As soon as I realized who I had become, I re-devoted myself to my work with the United Nations but I did have relapses.
The other part of the feeling bad factor is learning that lots of people don’t like Americans. People outside of the Middle East, educated, handsome people that you thought you had a chance with really don’t like Americans. Sometimes that have good reason, as the US Government and its people have a history of sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong. Sometimes they don’t have a good reason, as the US Government and its people have a history of helping out other countries when they get into jams. However, once you start traveling, you find out that only 13% of Mexicans say nice things about America, only 34% of Japanese people feel good about Americans, and even in Australia, only 37% of people have a positive attitude towards Americans. What did we ever do to you Australia?
I tell myself that it doesn’t matter, if they are going to judge me just based on what country I’m from instead of getting to know me, then they are the ones that are missing out.
"I didn't even want to go to the stupid birthday party."
6 - Can’t get the things you’re used to
No, I don’t just mean you can’t get Taco bell or recognizable pizza hut. I also mean that you can’t find macaroni and cheese, or other foods you take for granted. Apparently Root Beer and Ranch are only eaten in the USA, which I suspect is the real reason for illegal immigration. You’ll find out once you travel a little bit that Mexican food is only made in Mexico. You can’t get guacamole or tacos in Puerto Rico or Ecuador, unless you’re at a Mexican restaurant.
Did you know that everyone every where all the time eats rice? Central and south America and all of Asia eat rice for every meal. Something I never appreciated about the USA was our great variety in food choices. When I ask, “What do you want tonight?” you can answer, “Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Indian, etc.” If we live in China and I ask you “What do you want tonight?” The answer better be Chinese, or you’re gonna be unhappy. Also, cross off every image of Chinese food you have in your head from Chinese buffets and Panda Forest. China doesn’t have fortune cookies, cream cheese wontons or chicken without bone fragments and beaks mixed in it.
But besides food, what else can’t you get? How about a reasonable conversation with a person about blocked internet in China? When you bring up how frustrating it is not to be able to post photos of the time you went camping on the Great Wall on Facebook, and the fact that you don’t know anyone’s e-mail address ever since you freely gave your soul to Facebook, they offer you a great solution! Join Renren!
They’ll encourage you with a totally straight face! It’s the largest social network in the world! It’s 100% in Chinese! It’s a great way to keep in touch with your Chinese friends and the Chinese Government! As for your old friends in America, just invite every single one of them to make an account on renren (instructions in Chinese!), then send a friend invite ( 我们可以交朋友吗?), then you won’t have any problems, and you won’t be bothered by all that porn on the internet, which is the only thing the government blocks anyways. THE ONLY THING.
But besides China and their crazy internet censorship, lots of other great sites are blocked outside of the USA and Canada, sites like Pandora, Hulu, and Netflix.
Also, depending on which country you’re visiting, the following things are difficult/impossible to find.
Deodorant (Prepare to have the following conversation with store clerks in Korea.)
You: Where can I find deodorant?
Clerk: What’s that?
You: It’s something you put on your armpits every morning.
Clerk: What? Why do you need that?
You: Everyone uses it, to keep you from sweating too much and smelling bad.
Clerk: Do you mean that when people smell bad, they, they, just cover it up? American people are so gross that you use a product EVERYDAY knowing that you will smell so badly that you will need to cover it up? That’s disgusting. Take a shower.
You: Well, Canadians use it too…..
Birth Control Pill
Shoes for anyone with larger than average feet