I met Isabelle a long time ago when we attended high school together in Brussels. We’ve been friend ever since. I asked Isabelle to be part of this interview series as she currently resides in Asia and I was interested to hear her views on expatriation in that part of the world. During the interview I realized she had previously lived 3 years in Switzerland. I had forgotten all about it although I had actually visited her there on more than one occasion! From moving to Switzerland for work, repatriating smoothly in Belgium and later on leaving for South Korea to feel complete and learn her “mother tongue”: this interview of Isabelle shows us a path to self-discovery, another face of expatriation, raises questions about what an adult life is and how culture differs from one place to another. This interview took place in November 2016 via Skype.
Isabelle, tell us a bit about you!
I will turn 40 in 2 weeks!!! (She burst out laughing). Adulthood! Let me translate. Real age: 40; Korean age 42 and in my head 17! I was born in South Korea and was adopted by a Belgian couple when I was 18 months old. I am a trained physiotherapist specialized in dealing with children with motor disabilities. During my free time I enjoy swimming, painting, photography, walking, gardening, reading comic books and traveling. Both my parents passed away so friends are really important to me and have a special place in my heart; you don’t choose your family but you do pick your friends. I am single and don’t have kids, which means I am free as a bird and can live my life as freely as I want to.
Wait, before we continue, I am sure many of us wonder what you mean by your real age and the Korean one!
In Korea, when a baby is born he is 1 on the day of his birth as they count as from conception time. The following 1st of January you add on a year. Each 1st of January you grow a year older. As I was born in December, I turned 1 on the day of my birth and 2 just a few weeks later! Now you understand why when in Korea I prefer to give my European age!
When did you discover South Korea?
I have been living in Seoul since February 2016 and visited South Korea for the first time in May 2011. Before that I had never even thought I would one day travel to my birth country or even learn to speak the language! When I first landed in South Korea I was really moved. I immediately loved the place and felt the urge to come back on a regular basis.
Is this your first experience abroad?
No, I lived for 3 years in Switzerland from 2001 till 2004. I moved there for work, not really to live abroad as such. During that time I would drive to Belgium twice a month so when I moved back home it went really well as I found everything was still the same.
Do you need a visa to stay in Korea?
I do. I have a visa specific to « Koreans from abroad » that is valid 3 years. I can leave the country and come back as I want during that time. They recently passed a new law making it easier for adoptees to regain their lost nationality. I have already filled in all the forms to get back the nationality I lost when I was adopted. I can no longer imagine my future without it since it is fully part of me.
How would you compare your experience in Switzerland with the one in Korea?
They are very different, one was for work, and the other one is a personal choice. I think I never really integrated in Switzerland: I was working in a local hospital but with 2/3rd of my colleagues being Belgians I didn’t have enough contacts with the locals, although I did have a few Swiss friends.
I have a completely different lifestyle in Korea, that of a student. I don’t work and am learning Korean at University. I don’t feel like I am living a real life at the moment. Well, at least not an adult one in my vision of adulthood: I don’t have to get up in the morning to go to work and don’t have social constraints. I “just” have to go to class, study and pass my exams. It is very demanding and I barely have any free time. Thanks to my studies I meet people from all over the world, not necessarily locals.
Any experience related to cultural differences that surprised you?
I think I must shock some people in Korea, especially older ladies (I received a comment on my outfit once). Here everyone finds it normal to wear a barely there skirt or tiny shorts. It doesn’t cause any turmoil when your underwear can be seen! But in the hot summer days, if you wear a sleeveless shirt people are shocked because of your cleavage, they are not used to that.
What did you learn about the local mentality?
The pressure, whether social, professional of familial is tremendous in Korea.
As from an early age on kids have to be the best at everything they do. They need to excel in school to obtain top-notch grades to get in the best universities. After school hours, they all attend private schools until 10PM to study some more. Whenever you see them in the public transport they are so tired they frequently sleep on their commute. When the national exam to apply for universities takes place, you hear on the news about the student who committed suicide after failing the test. Korea is the country within the World Health Organization with the highest number of students committing suicide as they have so much pressure on their shoulders.
Family is very hierarchical and you can’t do what you want. Education is based on Confucianism: if your parents don’t want you to do something you just don’t do it. It is slowly starting to change with the new generation.
In the work environment the chief is omnipotent, you obey without questioning his decision. Generally speaking, in Korea you don’t usually address someone by his or her first name. You always add the word Miss or Mister. It is a very hierarchical society: you will, for example, call the boss “Boss”. In the street they will call you Mam, Sister, Brother or Mister.
I was not raised like that so it is a bit complicated to accept. Social pressure goes through the need to have the most beautiful car, the nicest clothes. It is really noticeable here. I am really happy I grew up in Europe and not here. I might put South Korea on a stand but for some things they are really not open-minded and I am well aware that not everything is perfect here.
Did moving away change your views on Belgium?
Not really but some things are not to my liking in Belgium and it started a little while ago. Seeing how everything is turning out recently doesn’t make me want to go back. The political situation might not be great in South Korea (there is a big scandal with the president who was impeached in March 2017) but I find that Belgium is really messy. Politically speaking, but also the education system and the economy. I continue to read Belgian newspapers everyday and I don’t like what I see. I find Switzerland was a real democracy: organizing referendums and asking for people’s opinion.
What do people say when you tell them you come from Belgium?
“But you have a Korean face”! Then I explain I was adopted and they understand.
When they don’t know where Belgium is I tell them it is between France and Germany, which for them is a good indicator. Some of them have been there. As I don’t speak Korean they sometime ask me if I am Japanese. When I ask them why they reply it is because I am cute!
In a few words, Belgium is ….
The country I grew up in and where most of my friends are. The country of chocolate! The country where I own an apartment that I sometimes miss because in Seoul my living space is smaller than my bedroom in Belgium!
Missing anything from Belgium?
The food! The “Américain frite” (a Belgian specialty of raw beef).
Do you feel you stepped out of your comfort zone for this chapter of your life?
No, not really. A very peculiar thing is that I feel as much home here in Korea than in Belgium or in Switzerland. I feel like I am a citizen of the world and that’s what makes it easy for me to live here.
Did living in Korea change you?
3 years ago I visited the city I was born in. I closed a first loop. Coming back and living here for a longer period is another loop that is closing. After that I don’t know. I am usually someone in control, planning everything. Here I don’t feel that urge to have everything figured out and I’m fine with that. I think living in Korea makes me let go of that need for control I usually have. I might be more serene. I need to do things for me and Korea is definitely for me, taking care of me. I don’t think my friends back home all understand that I am happy living this experience, they worry about me but I do not see why. I would not want to exchange my current life for another even if it is a very tiring and demanding one.
Even though I didn’t grow up here I think I have some personality traits that stem from my Korean roots: my energy and obstinacy as well as the search for everything beautiful. I also think I have a cultural richness and open-mind due to my European upbringing.
I get to spend a day in the place you call home. Where am I? Where would you bring your visitors and what would you like them to discover?
Home is my apartment in Belgium. It is not related to Belgium as such but more to the fact that I own it. As an adopted kid, this apartment is home; it could be anywhere in the world.
When it comes to things to visit it would be here in Seoul. I would take you to the Gwangjang Market, a local food market where you can try a lot of Korean specialties. We would discover the Changgyeonggung Palace that has beautiful gardens as well as the National Museum with its local treasures (paintings, objects, pottery, ceramics). At night I would recommend going to the top of Mount Namsan where you have a 360° view on the city. That is where you realize how big the Seoul is: including the surroundings you have 12 millions inhabitants, more than the entire Belgian population. The view is magnificent.
What are your plans for the future?
At the moment I don’t see myself living in Korea in the long run. My current study program runs till February 2017. After that I would like to do some voluntary work in a Korean orphanage for disabled children. The orphanage would allow me heal children: I really miss my job as a physiotherapist as well as the contact with children. It would also allow me to practice my Korean. I realize it is one thing to learn how to read and write a language but practicing it is what makes you progress.
Do you consider yourself an expat?
I am not a standard expat as I was born here. I am more local than others but I am not a real Korean and will never be a real one. It is not my goal anyway.
Isabelle, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions and being part of this interview series.
What is your experience of expatriation? I’d love to hear about it in the below comment section.
If you are an expat or once were and would be interested in being featured in an interview, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me, either via the below comment section or through my about page where you will find my email address.