I am a Lifer

When I told a friend a while ago that myself and Herself (and +1 of course) were aiming to return to Ireland in the future, he was shocked. “Jeez man, I thought you were done with the west. I had you down for a lifer”, he responded in near disappointment. I was kind of struck by this term, ‘lifer’, more by what it meant that the actual word itself.

There are several kinds of, hmmm how do I describe them, well people living in Korea. The particular one’s I’m talking about are people from English speaking countries who have travelled here and married Korean women, and some who haven’t also, but essentially they spend a long time in the country and, for want of a better word, they assimilate. I’m being vague here because I refuse to tar and label all of us as expats or foreigners – this is an argument for another long day.

Those of us who assimilate, I suppose, are those who can be called lifers. Is it a bad thing to make a life for yourself here? Again another argument for another long day.

A lifer is someone who, I assume, can be reasonably expected to spend a large part of the rest of their life living in Korea. I know plenty of guys who are more ‘lifer’ than I am. In fact, I know people who have been in Korea longer than Herself has been alive. These lifers have lived in Korea long enough to have learned how to make their life comfortable enough to live happily on a day to day basis.

This description is probably what I mean by assimilate, because let’s be honest, I know plenty of people who have been here for several years and never leave Itaewon, but they’re happy. They have made their life liveable within Korea and adapted to suit whatever this country has to offer. I am not suggesting that these people live the ideal life, or that living life in Korea like this has negative connotations. It’s their life and who am I to judge when I’ve got my own problems to deal with.

There are also plenty of these kinds of people who have adapted completely differently; they speak fluent Korean, they work with a Korean company, they have kids who they send to the local schools, and other things. These people have also assimilated to living in Korea. Again, if they’re happy then fair play and long may their jubilation continue.

Personally, I see myself sitting somewhere in the middle.

What I got from the idea that I was a lifer was that it was both an insult and a compliment. Now, I know my friend and he’s not the kind of person who would turn around and make fun of the fact that I could spend the rest of my life in Korea, but I have picked up on the fact that people who have only recently arrived (the past year or two) always take a step back and look at you differently when you say that you have been here for as many years as you have. It’s kind of a reaction that instantly displays respect, but at the same time makes people look down their nose at you and ask, “are you off your fucking head, man”? The main reason I know this is because I’ve done it myself, and I probably still do it.

But what makes people want to stay in Korea so long? The news is a great place for finding regular excuses to leave Korea, but then if you don’t read the news that much having proper reasons might be more of a challenge. Negative experiences in hagwons or relationships are probably top of the list, but I know plenty of people who have had difficult times here but have persisted for whatever reasons. These things are part of life everywhere, so making excuses based on these is a bit short-sighted if you ask me.

I know I’m not alone when I say that the reason I came back to Korea has always been because of my first year here. I had a great time, saved loads of money, and met the love of my life who I’m now happily married with and we’re now having a baby together. That being said, we’re not in Korea now because Herself wants to be here near her family – she does, obviously, but that’s not an overly significant reason because she realises my family is important also. We’re here because when we were back in Ireland Korea looked like a better option. Perspectives change of course.

The longer I spend here though, the longer reality comes home and the more I realise that my first year in Korea will never be enough to tie me to this country forever. I say that like I am planning never to return to Korea, but the thing is, I will be in Korea for the rest of my life. Maybe not all the time, but until the day I die, be tied to Korea. This was confirmed the day I got married.

So, call me a lifer and make fun of me that I’m here forever. What can I do? Sneer and snark? Not much point. Just get on with life I suppose, which is what I’m good at. I just hope that the friends I’ve made here, my fellow lifers, will also always be here along the way.


Re: I am a Lifer

No way in hell would i be a "lifer" in this country. How can people just give up friends a family for this place? No financial gain, nothing.

Re: I am a Lifer

Not everybody is like you, anonymous. Some people actually have a life here, with friends and family. Some people do go out. And make Korean friends. And assimilate. And make good money. Or manage to start a successful business. Or simply fall in love with the culture of the country.

I'm sure it wouldn't hurt if you'd try it out.

Re: I am a Lifer

Indeed.  If you don't like your adventure in Korea, please move on.  Bitter clingers are a downer for everyone.

Re: I am a Lifer

Ahem there are other forms of employment here for foreigners other than that of ESL teachers!! Three of the Worlds Largest Shipyards operate from Ulsan & Geoje Island. Many 'lifers' (what an odd & naive little expression!) live & work here because 1) they are making very good money tax free other than the Korean nominal tax 2) their expertise is required by the Koreans for the project being undertaken (oil / gas, shipbuilding industry) 3) we aren't all here to party party!! there are many many many foreign families who have lived in Korea for a substantial amount of time for no other reason than those stated above. Ships & oil platforms are predominantly built in Asia. These are multi million dollar projects employing hundreds, many expats, and lasting years. This certainly isn't the first time I have read something written by a foreigner here and thought "grow up"!!

Re: I am a Lifer

Good points annonymous #2 & #4. Isn't 'lifer' a odd term? It shook me when I heard it, that's why I thought the concept was worth writing about. It was kind of upsetting to hear it described that way. I've never considered my life here as some kind of set in stone sentence. I've plenty of friends close to Seoul who are also involved in business or who own their own businesses and have been quite happy. I also know a few people who have been here teaching ESL for many years and are also happy. I'm also quite happy here, but from where I stand career prospects are limited.

Re: I am a Lifer

Based on the rampant racism here i would expect anyone at any job to have little to no chance of bettering themselves. And "lifer" makes it sound like a prison term, which im sure once some people get here they feel as thought it is...

Re: I am a Lifer

Blue1005, with this kind of ignorant remark, I would bet my arm and leg that you haven't been in this country for much more than a couple of months, and that you probably have no clue about Korean culture nor about the Korean language.

I'm still dumbfounded at how (some) Westerners in Korea are close-minded and arrogant. Being a minority sucks in many ways. Think about what afro-americans have had to go through during the past ~400 years in the U.S. Think about the Thai family in Toronto, the Sikh father in Houston, or the Kenyan mom in Paris. These are all people suffering discrimination and probably having it harder than your narrow mind would ever imagine. What some westerners in Korea are experiencing are merely unfortunate outcomes resulting from either bad luck, or resulting from their own cultural arrogance coupled with a complex of superiority, and that somehow, their B.A. in fine arts gives them the right to become a general manager.

I have had so many awesome experiences in Korea and with Koreans, and I am smart enough to realize that wherever you go on this planet, you will find good people and bad people. That is, nice people and idiots. I wonder which side you stand. In any case, you will meet your share of idiots in Korea, that's for sure. You can choose to focus on the negative, and call Korea a "racist" country, or you can actually embrace the culture and try to take off your complex of superiority straightjacket, and maybe you'll find that Koreans in general are actually exceptionally open to foreigners and very nice in many ways. The number of times I've been smiled at and complimented because of my Korean. Have you ever seen an American, Canadian, or British compliment an Asian because he/she is making efforts at speaking the local language? Probably not.

Can you imagine a Chinese or Korean person going to live in a Western country, and thinking he's entitled to something because of his race and language heritage? And then would you wonder why people would treat that person differently if that person would not make any effort whatsoever to understand the local language and customs?

I'm sure Korea sucks too much for your awesomeness anyway. Your qualifications are probably so amazing, you only landed in this piece of land by accident, and I am sure job offers are pouring in your email inbox from large corporations across the globe. If that is the case, then I welcome you to kick yourself out of this country and make everybody a favor by never coming back so that you can never suffer again horrible discrimination by evil and unsophisticated Koreans.

Re: I am a Lifer

Been here almost a year so i guess we can call you stumpy. And you can berate me all you want but im just saying that it does indeed happen here. Many have posted on it before, and many more will. Perhaps you should go irate towards them too. Sorry if my opinion shattered your world but it happens. I have had both good and bad experiances here as everyone else has. To deny the fact that It is far more racist here than where im from is just pulling hte wool over eyes and hoping it will go away. There was a post a while back about a man on a bus that was being yelled at "yankee go home" was something stated. Try going to the US and screaming [email protected]@r go home and see if the same result happens.

You sir are in need of re-evaluation if you think this country does not display it far more than normal.

Re: I am a Lifer

There is little racism here,  I have been here nearly 20 years working in the ESL industry and never experienced much racism.  Learn some Korean, meet Koreans, understand there are differences.  You can make much more money here if you want than back in my country of birth Canada.  There are many chances if you know Korean and meet locals.  I worked in South Africa during apartheid and that was racism, this is a land of terrible drivers but friendly people who spend lots of time and money learning English.