The Line That Divides Us

By Whit Altizer

On Tuesday, the Koreas held a meeting at a infamous resort in North Korea for families separated by the Korean war. For some, this meant seeing faces and hugging people they haven’t seen in 65 years. Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, sons and daughters laying eyes on each other for the first time in an absurd amount of time.


Credit: Yonhap

I don’t even know how to fully process this kind of separation. The piece by Choe Sang Hun (who, might I add, is an alumni at the school I teach at and just an overall amazing journalist that perfectly captures Korea and its culture for New York Times readers) is sad, emotional, sweet and even captures the hard-shells the older Korean generation sometimes wears; no doubt formed by the tough lives they’ve led.

In a culture that puts family first (they even write their family name first) this must be absolutely gut-wrenching for the parties involved. I could feel their pain by reading Choe’s excellent piece and watching the videos with it.. Even still, I sit millions of miles from that experience. The pain I feel certainly doesn’t touch what these people have carried for years.

Oddly, the more time I spend in South Korea the more I forget about the DMZ. Fighter jets whoosh over my office and apartment all the time and the news is filled with stories about North Korea and the fear that surrounds it. But, admittedly I’ve become desensitized to living in a country still technically at war. When I first arrived here I nearly ran for cover the first time a jet flew low overhead. Now if I am in class I pause, let it fly over and continue where I left off.

Then this piece comes out. The tears, the heartbreak, the forced separations brings the reality back. It reminds me how innocent people are victims of power and corruption. Many of these people were living quiet lives one day and then thrown into a mess not of their making the next. It also reminds me that even with these very real sad stories as cautionary tales, more will be written. That this will not be the last time something like this happens, I believe, is a real tragedy.

7 tips for staying positive in Korea

By Whit Altizer

Expats in Korea seem to fall into one of two camps. The positive and the negative. Trust me, having been here for almost 6 years now I’ve found myself in both. But I refuse to stay negative for long. So if you are teaching, in the military stationed in Korea or a professional working here, check out these tips on how you can get the most out of your Korean experience.

1. Get involved. You don’t have to learn the language. You don’t have to eat the food. But you should try to get involved in a community. There are Korean groups, expat groups, expat and Korean groups that will welcome you. Our friends go to Korean churches, join Korean hiking groups or have formed their own expat groups. One of our friends even started his own art magazine! There are communities out there right for you. Type in your interest or hobby and “Korea” or the town you live in on Facebook. You’ll probably find someone looking for you. If you don’t, start your own. Get off the base. Get away from your comfort zone. Leave your apartment. There are plenty of things to do, but you have to go find it.

Thanks to our lovely co-teacher and her boyfriend we enjoyed several lovely outings with a Korean photography club.

2. Find positive people. This might be the most important tip. If your community isn’t positive about life in Korea, go find another one. Negative attitudes from those around you can ruin your experience. Don’t let them. It’s easy to bitch about life in Korea, but it’s a lot more fun to enjoy the eccentricities that might annoy you about life here.

Every month we organized a Korean-foreigner dinner. We met our best friends through this dinner.
Good, positive people make all the difference. Find them.They are here.

3. Travel with a smile. Traveling around Korea with an open mind and heart makes it as good a place to travel as any Asian country. It is in Korean’s DNA to share and welcome a stranger. Especially when you are doing something active like hiking or running in a marathon or even cycling Korea’s bike paths. We’ve had a meal bought for us on the spot, had a lovely evening drinking with an old Korean couple we could barely understand (and vice versa), were welcomed into a home on our bike trip for drinks and food and just last week my friend and I drank makgeolli with a hiking group. Don’t shield yourself from these interactions. Smile, say hello, be respectful and accept what comes to you. These interactions will make you fall in love with Korea.

4. Be flexible. Life in Korea can be unpredictable most of the time. A lot of that comes down to language barriers and a lot of that comes down to being on a need-to-know basis. Every place I’ve worked in Korea I’ve had days off, classes and extra hours sprung on me at the last minute. Westerners need to know things well in advance, Koreans don’t. If you go with it, you might even enjoy the spontaneity.

My running buddies and I said “yes” to an invitation from Eeodeung Running Club void of details. We ended up running a half-marathon and drinking loads of makgeolli. It was a blast.

5. Leave things at home. Between Costco and other large supermarkets, these days you can find almost everything you want from home.  Also, sites like iHerb and GMarket can get you what you want or close to it.  If you are military or a professional that can ship things over for free, be sure you know that in the big cities you can stock your apartment with second-hand goods for cheap. Cars and appliances are all made for life in Korea and yours might not be. We’ve come almost empty-handed, stocked our apartment with second-hand items and then sold them when we moved. We’ve sold almost all of our possessions every time we’ve come and gone and it can be liberating. You’ll love the feeling of a good purge.

6. Don’t compare it to home. Don’t come with any ideas about how you think things should be. The moment you start comparing Korea to your homeland is the moment you start feeling negative about Korea and maybe even angry with it. It isn’t and never will be your home country. It’s best to only worry about what you can control.

7. Don’t be intimidated. I think the people who don’t survive here are the ones that are intimidated by the new food and language. You can find yourself scared to try the food. Scared to leave your base or apartment. Or scared to have an interaction with a Korean. It took me about 3 months to really feel comfortable getting out. My wife and I hesitated to try a restaurant in our neighborhood because we had no idea what to expect. It also took me a few times to be open to the random conversations on the street. Koreans usually just want to practice their English for nothing in return. And of course as we’ve said time and time again, the food is amazing. Don’t let anything about Korea frighten you.

See a similar post with expat “wisdom” from way back in 2008 after only a year here.

The Expat Life

By Lindsay Nash

“Life might be difficult for a while, but I would tough it out because living in a foreign country is one of those things that everyone should try at least once. My understanding was that it completed a person, sanding down the rough provincial edges and transforming you into a citizen of the world.”

“What I found appealing in life abroad was the inevitable sense of helplessness it would inspire. Equally exciting would be the work involved in overcoming that helplessness. There would be a goal involved, and I liked having goals.”

–David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day

Finn and I always grab cookies after school at our neighborhood bakery.

Most days, at 12:30, I rush from daily lunch dates with Whit, to Finn’s preschool program to pick him up. I don’t have to go far–we have restaurants every 10 feet here in our neighborhood. And Finn’s school is just next to our high-rise. I rush to the door, ring the doorbell, and grab Finn’s shoes from the cubby just outside the door. He comes out with a big sneaky smile that brags about his day, dons his shoes, and then with his red backpack weighing down his shoulders, turns around and gives a full bow to his teacher.

Finn and one of his teachers at school

We’re out the door in a flash. He tells me what he had for lunch: rice, soup, seaweed. It’s always the same, but every day, I ask him. Sometimes he comes up with something different to tell me. We go to the bakery (again, about 20 steps down the road). Finn gets one cookie shaped like a pig, the other shaped like cow. Only two, I tell him. One. Two, he says, counting on his fingers. He gets to give the money to baker. He holds it out with the traditional Korean two hands, and then bows deeply after she gives him his loot.

Finn has adjusted wonderfully to his new life. He has a new best friend, Abigail (he calls her Dabi-dail, and I’m certain this is why she adores him), and they’re in class together at school. They play together in the afternoons after naps. Dabi-dail’s father is British, and his mother Chinese. Dabi-dail only speaks Mandarin, but seems to understand English. She and Finn are truly the best and closest of any two-year-olds I’ve ever known. It warms my heart.


Every Wednesday, we go to a Play Cafe, a wonderful place where moms sit and sip coffee, and toddlers run around to their hearts content. A train circles every hour, which they get to ride in, and there are enough toys to keep them busy for a lifetime. Last week, I took a video of Finn and Dabi-dail jumping on the trampoline there. “DO-YAK! DO-YAK!” they kept chanting to each other. I asked Jade, Dabi-dail’s mom, if it was Mandarin. Never heard it, she said. Later that night, I showed Whit the video. Wait a minute, he says, pulling out our trusty Korean dictionary.

“Doyak: Jump,” it states, plain as day. Finn and Abby are already speaking Korean, and Korean words that we don’t even know.

Whit is busy with his job. He teaches in the afternoons, and is usually home by dinner. He’s getting back into the swing of teaching and this week is already giving mid-terms. Wow, time is flying!


My new jogging stroller


Nice to see the husband in a tie again

Life as an expat is just as wonderful for me. There is something so special about an expat community, something I truly missed last year back at home. I haven’t been this busy with life and friends since my university days.

Every Tuesday evening I have yoga classes in my neighborhood. My new friend Shauna teaches them, and she’s truly an asset to our expat community. I’m learning to bend, stretch, and challenge myself in new ways, and it gives me an hour and a half of quiet meditation every Tuesday. I feel very lucky to have this quiet time to myself once a week.

I started a book club this month, and Monday night was our first meeting. I wasn’t sure who would show up–I only know a handful of people. But we had nearly 10 women, from all walks of life, to come and decide on our first book. Expats are interesting, like-minded people and conversation was easy and entertaining. I can already tell that these women are going to be some kind of special for me.

I work in the mornings until I pick Finn up from school, and any time I can squeeze in an hour or two in the afternoons and evenings. I am working for BikeToursDirect, a great company based out of Chattanooga, Tenn., that is connecting people to local bike tours all over the world. Just this month, my boss informed us he was going to give us 3 weeks of paid bike tours anywhere in the world every year. All expenses paid. (I’m currently planning a fall trip with a co-worker somewhere in Asia).




Next weekend, we’re moving to a bigger place after spending a couple months in a tiny one-bedroom. We’ve made it work fine, but we are really excited to move into this new place and make it our home. And lucky for us, it’s just in the building next door.

Life is busy and full for us here in Korea. I think it’s hard for some people to imagine us living over here, wondering what we do and how we get by. But it’s a wonderful place, with warm people and fiery food. We do feel challenged on a daily basis, and sometimes it is frustrating when you can’t just ask someone for exactly what you want. But there is something so nice about living in a culture very different from where you came from, and learning to accept it, and then embrace it, and then seeing your own life and world in a very different light.