DUBLIN, Ireland – “As a little girl, I always had an image of England as a place where people wear top hats and dandy suits, and walk around umbrella in hand,” said Kim Do-young.
“I always believed there was something out there in a foreign country, just waiting for me.”
At 26 years old, Kim lives by the motto “seize the day,” and has only returned to her native Korea twice in over ten years. She’s one of an increasing number of young Koreans looking to expand their horizons on foreign shores, seeking a different type of education and a slower-paced lifestyle.
Kim chose the United Kingdom – and the industrial town of Coventry – as her new home.
As the geographical center of England, Coventry is mockingly nicknamed “the car park of Great Britain,” and Kim admits she sees it a little like a “black hole.”
“For the locals, it’s the center of the earth,” she adds. “But you can get almost anywhere in a day, and the Cotswolds and other scenic farming areas are within easy reach.”
After going through school, university and now entering employment in the United Kingdom, Kim concedes “the longer I stay, the less likely it is I’ll ever go back to my homeland.”
But even after 10 years there are still things she misses. “I’m surprised how little fish English people eat, considering all four corners of the country are surrounded by the sea. I miss my family of course, and I’ve had to tone down my spice-loving palette. At the end of the day, though, people are the same in terms of living.
“They eat, they work, they watch TV, they laugh, they cry, they go to the toilet and they sleep. The difference is that in Korea everything happens faster with ten times the intensity. In Coventry you get to do everything slow.”
Of course most expats do intend to return home.
Ham Ryul-suk – a former Gwangju resident – chose Dublin, Ireland as his destination, and sees himself as a more short term resident. “I expect to stay two or three years,” he says. “Until I’m satisfied with my English level, I probably won’t leave. English is more important now than other things.”
There are other benefits too, though: “In Korea I earned about 1 million won a month. For that I’d have to work 40-45 hours a week, minimum. Here I can make double that, and I only have to work 20-30 hours a week. Of course, the price of living in Ireland is higher, but whether I spend the money or not – at least to some extent – is up to me.”
Having lived with his parents right up until his move to Ireland, Ham met a host of domestic challenges head on. “I have to make meals, wash dishes, wash clothes, clean my room … in Korea, my mom did all of that. I miss my family. Things are not easy at home, and I miss Korean food and friends too.”
Overall, however, Ham seems to enjoy his new life.
“Dublin’s very cosmopolitan. I speak to people from many countries every day, and I have to speak to them in English. Sometimes I don’t want to, but in the long term it’s always an opportunity and a great benefit. At first I used to freeze when I tried to talk to people in the street. In my first week I walked into someone, and I couldn’t think what to say.
“He said sorry even though I knew it was my fault. I think the people here are very kind, gentle and polite. I’m no longer afraid to talk to foreigners. I have changed my life, and my personality. Now I feel brave, I believe I can do anything.”
The cosmopolitan streets of English-speaking Western Europe, it seems, are a new refuge for Korea’s enthusiastic youngsters to seek out an education in languages and culture, with many looking increasingly likely to stay put.
As Kim puts it, “I could write a book about it. Every day’s an experience. I still have problems sometimes. Like at university, when a friend told me a professor was going on sabbatical.
I confused the word with ‘Sabbath,’ and said I didn’t know the professor was Jewish. But we all laughed about it. I still think the biggest challenges are yet to come, but at the end of the day I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
As published in the Korea Herald, August 25th 2009.