Expat Interview : Brian Williams

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This is the third interview in my Expat Interview Series, where I plan to interview my expat friends who have dotted themselves all over the world. I’m hoping this series of posts will provide some insight into what it is like to live overseas, and might even encourage a few people to pack their bags and make the move! 

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Meet Brian Williams, an American Expat, who has spent 8 out of the last 16 years living and traveling overseas including a year in Botswana in Southern Africa. Brian recently returned to America after 6 years living in Korea and one year backpacking around the world. He recently completed a book on Korea and his life there as an expat, something he hopes will be published later this year so keep a look out for “Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea” or check out his excellent blog, Netsidebar.com.

I’ve recently returned to America after 6 years in Korea and a year backpacking around the world. To say I’m dealing with some kind of reverse culture shock would be a huge understatement.

What made you move abroad?

The short answer was the economy. I graduated school in 2008. Need I say more?! Long answer? I caught the travel bug early on during my visit overseas trip when I was 18 and always said if I could find a way to combine travel with earning money, I’d do it.

What ‘s the most difficult thing about living so far from home?

I’m guessing this is what everyone says. It’s being away from friends and family and missing out on big events like weddings and stuff. But the hard truth of life is you can’t have it all and at least with traveling you come to appreciate the people you miss all the more and are, hopefully, better at making the most of it when you get to spend time with them.

How did you make friends when you first arrived?

Western Bars. I didn’t realize there was any way a bar could be set up, but by Asian standards a bar is a place to sit with friends, not a place to walk into alone, grab a beer and strike up a conversations. Luckily, Korea had a few Western bars and Westerns congregated there. For me, that was all I needed.

What do you love about being an expat?

I liked hanging with other expats. People who are willing to travel halfway around the world for work have a fair amount in common, I find. An expat community can also be pretty diverse. Korea’s had a decent representation of people from six different countries with a few more popping up from time to time.

 

Has anything funny happened to you due to cultural differences?

Well, as  a large black guy, I can say it wasn’t unheard of for a random person to stop me on the street and ask for a picture sometimes. But one time I wore an American football jersey out and I guess people thought I was actually a player or something. 50 different people asked to take pics with me. It became very annoying and I never wore that jersey out again, but in hindsight it was pretty funny.

How do you cope when things are going badly?

No matter where you live and what you’re doing, you’re going to have a bad day sometimes and a bad day can feel way worse when your thousands of miles from home. The way I dealt with it was a call home to hear a familiar voice or, more likely, heading to my favourite expat hangout where other expats are pretty accepting of the idea that people need to vent from time to time.

Is there anything about your adopted country that drives you crazy?

Sometimes with Korea it’s like where to begin. There’s pushing in just about any crowded space. There’s no such thing as personal space and seemingly no suggestions from an underlining will ever be acted upon at work because that’s just not how things are done in Korea. This is to say nothing of the blatant racism that can literally be seen in job ads that ask for whites only.

What can you do in Korea that you can’t do back home?

The most important thing is being able to walk around safely. Korea is insanely safe. And, as a black man, I can also say I don’t fear the police in the slightest. It’s something you can’t take for granted. The other big thing is you can drink in public. Simply put, it’s great. 

What are your future plans?

In what I believe to be classic expat fashion, I don’t know. I’m not sure where I fit in, anymore. I sometimes miss my home country, but I love the expat/international life I have gotten used to. The only thing I feel certain about saying is that I’m likely going to keep moving around every few years.

If you could give one piece of advice about moving abroad to find work, what would it be?

Do it! If you’re not going into debt, to work than you’re likely a leg up on working back home. Being an expat gives you a great excuse to cut back on your consumption and you’ll find you can get by on way less than you think. The next thing you know, you’re having a great time overseas, traveling more often, buying less junk and putting away more money than if you were just staying put in your hometown buying every new thing that comes out. So yeah, do yourself a favour and an some adventure to your life.

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Expat Interview: Oisin Feeney, A Photographer in Korea

Couple Kiss at Korea Burn

This is the second interview in my Expat Interview Series, where I plan to interview my expat friends who have dotted themselves all over the world. I’m hoping this series of posts will provide some insight into what it is like to live overseas, and might even encourage a few people to pack their bags and make the move! 

In this installment of my Expat Interview series, I met Oisin Feeney, a media graduate from Ireland, who is currently working as an English Teacher and Photographer in South Korea, having previously spent some time living and working in Chicago. I believe that Oisin’s interview, and his general outlook on life abroad, make him an excellent role model for others becoming disillusioned with life back home. He is carving out his own future, and plans to continue doing what he loves, and encourages others to do the same!

“Usually my job and my passion are separate things; The job allows me to stay in a place, the passion allows me to be content there.”

What made you move abroad?

I got back from Chicago completely broke and accepted the first job that I was offered. It was a job in a call centre for a bank and with each passing day I grew more and more depressed and dissatisfied with the lifestyle. When I saw a friend post that there was a vacancy for a teacher in Korea I jumped at the opportunity!

How did you make your first friends?

Well when you first arrive in Korea, most towns will have a facebook group for teachers in the area. So a lot of your friendships at the beginning are geographical friendships. Then I started working as a photographer/ tour guide for a group at the weekends, WINK Travels. Many people go on these trips solo and it is a great chance to meet people and find people with similar interests.

Sonia

What do you love about being an expat?

I suppose my favourite thing about being an expat is that you live a relatively untethered life over here. My job looks after my bills, rent and insurance. I never feel like I have to struggle to make ends meet like I did in Chicago, living for tips. When I have free time I can totally devote it to my own creative pursuits.

What have been your favourite moments from the last year?

Oh now this one is a difficult question indeed. One would have to be the Jindo Sea Parting Festival. It happens once a year and the sea parts just wide enough for a procession of people to walk from mainland Korea over to a smaller Island, the curiously named Mordor. We did it the opposite way round, we got a boat to the island, danced and sang with the locals and as the waves receded we began to walk to the mainland.

The drums never stopped playing the whole way across and it was a great celebration when the island folk met the mainland folk in the middle of this ‘bridge’. It was wonderful. I took one of my favourite ever photos there of older Koreans taking a break from fishing and dancing with the drums. Korean traditional drums are an amazing sight.

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Night fishing in Jindo, during the Sea Parting Festival

What are your favourite places in Korea?

One of my favourite places has to be Deokjeok Island. It is beautiful. We organised a trip there but only one person signed up. We used this time to explore the island and make it more interesting for future trips. We found a beautiful hike to the top of a mountain and there you can get a stunning sunset over the island. Hiking down in the dark is a bit tricky, mind! But it’s worth it!

As well as that, the mountains in Korea are simply stunning. Seroksan Mountain was a bitch of a climb, but after 15 hours of hiking the view at the top was breath taking.

Why is Korea such a great place to photograph?

Korea is a great place to photograph because the country is so alive. There are people everywhere… Seoul city is positively teaming with life, and photographic opportunities. Yet only a short bus ride away you can be on a mountain, on a beach or at a beautiful temple. The possibilities are limitless.

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Sunrise in Jeolla


Are there more opportunities to take interesting photographs in Korea than Ireland?

I think when it comes to taking photographs it is not about the camera or even about the location. It is about the artist’s perception. If I am happier, I take better photographs. When I am bored and uninspired, my photos reflect my feelings. In Ireland I was uninspired… My country is so beautiful, but I just wasn’t ready to settle there.

Is it easy to get paid work as a photographer?

NO! The vast majority of the gigs I get offer a free ticket in exchange for photos publicising the trip. It works fine for me though, as it gives me the chance to perfect my portfolio. I have recently started doing couple photography and really love it. The happiness I feel after a successful shoot is like a drug for me. Whatever about the money but when a customer tears up because she likes my photos, that is the best payment I could ever receive.

Korean-Couples-Photograohy

What are your future plans?

Future plans? I will stay in Korea another year and keep working as a photographer/ tour guide. I currently interview other photographers for the ‘Photographers in Korea’ website. As well as that I want to do a lot more photo shoots for couples, it is my one of my favourite styles of photography right now. I will also be working on the website kimchibytes.com to try and improve my photo blogging/writing skills. Along with the teaching of course!

What advice would you give to someone moving abroad?

Finding work is easy, but finding happiness is not. I find happiness in being busy and always trying to better myself. There are so many ways this can be interpreted though. If yoga is your thing, then do it. Use the job to get to a country and then TRY EVERYTHING. EXPERIENCE EVERYTHING. You have nothing to lose.

To view more of Oisin’s beautiful photography, check out his website here and his Facebook page here. You can also read his piece on ‘Moving to Korea’ on Irish Youth site SpunOut.ie.

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Expat Interview: Shauna Browne – Irish in Korea

shauna on stage

This is part one of my new ‘Expat Interview Series’, where I plan to interview my expat friends who have dotted themselves all over the world. I’m hoping this series of posts will provide some insight into what it is like to live overseas, and might even encourage a few people to pack their bags and make the move! 

Meet Shauna Browne, an Irish expat who has been living in South Korea for almost 6 years. In this time she has totally immersed herself in Korean culture, has made every effort possible to learn the Korean language and has tirelessly promoted Irish music, Irish sport, Irish culture and all-round positive links between the two countries.

If ever there was an example of a ‘model expat’ or a person who embodies what it means to be Irish, Shauna Browne would be that person.

What made you move abroad?

I guess it was fate. I had travelled around Europe when I lived at home but never had any desires to live or work abroad. Then, in my final semester in college, I interviewed for a job in France and was convinced I had got it. At the same time, I was encouraged to apply for a Summer program in Korea. I never got the job in France but I did get a place on the summer program in Korea. Those three weeks changed my thinking. We learned about Korean language, culture, tourism, religion and so on. When I came home, I graduated, saved up and returned.

What is the most difficult thing about living so far from home?

Not being there for your family. You miss so many big moments and no matter how many Skype calls you make or how many gifts you send home, the guilt never goes away.

What do you love the most about being an expat?

The adventures and the people. Being an expat, you make your own story, your own life. As an expat, I did more travelling and took more time to explore, and although they weren’t always good stories, I’ve still got lots of them to tell.

The people you meet along the way are a big part of it also. The bond you share over a pint in a pub or in a hostel somewhere is really special.

Tell me about your involvement with the IAK.

My involvement with the Irish Association of Korea (IAK) started my first year when I went to their September Ceili looking for other Irish musicians to play with. I got chatting to the committee and that lead to me attending meetings. I took several roles including P.R.O and vice Chair before being elected to Chair two years ago.

The IAK is a voluntary organisation that aims to promote Ireland and all things Irish in Korea. We do this mostly through events, our biggest being the St. Patrick’s Day festival in March. Others include weekly music sessions, Seoul Ceili, the Ireland Korea video competition, literary events and so on.

Over the past few years the knowledge of Ireland amongst Koreans has increased. Many of them play Irish music and regularly fly to Ireland to take classes.

Is there a strong connection between Ireland and Korea?

I think the connection between the two countries is getting stronger. There is still a long way to go in really understanding each other’s cultures but working holiday visas, home stay programs and the increased knowledge of culture is helping. The Working Holiday Visa between Ireland and Korea is also extremely popular and the rise of movies and TV shows set in Ireland has helped also. It’s really great to see the increase in Irish products available here and the continuous link between the two countries.

What do you love most about Korea?

I love lots of things about Korea. There’s a lot of randomness here that I like. I think it’s the freedom I love the most. It’s possible to carve out your own adventures here. There are so many groups to get involved with and so many people to meet. Each one leads to a new adventure so I think that’s what I love best.

Is there anything about your adopted country that drives you crazy?

The backward approach to foreigners is crazy. While some Koreans are so open and friendly to you, others just look at you with suspicion and the second anything bad happens, the foreigners get the blame.

What can you do in Korea that you can’t do back home?

That’s a tough one. I think in Korea, I can be the person I want to be and not the person that society dictates I should be. I’m not sure if that makes sense but it goes back to being able to join a wider community.

What are your future plans?

I’ve just gotten accepted to do my Master back home so I’m heading back in August. I want to re discover Ireland and do some foreign travel while I’m there. After the year, I’m not sure where I’ll be but hopefully back as an expat!

If you could give one piece of advice, what would it be?

A good attitude is the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t. When you move abroad, everything is different; the culture, the language, the food, the way of thinking. Have an open mind, laugh at your mistakes and you’ll have a great time!

You can check out Shauna’s adventures in Korea over at her Award-Nominated blog,’What A Waygook‘ and you can also read her thoughts on emigration on The Irish Times ‘Generation Emigration’ blog here. Also….That time she made history in Seoul can be read about here!

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That Time A Korean Cosmetic Store Photoshopped My Face

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Over the weekend, I went to a Soccer game in Seoul World Cup Stadium with a big group of friends. We had all had a very late night/early morning the night before so were a little worse for wear come Sunday afternoon. Lack of makeup and unwashed hair aside, we spent the day cheering on Seoul FC and feeling pretty proud of ourselves for opting to be productive rather than hibernating in out match box-sized apartments.

After the match we headed into the shopping centre to grab a coffee, relax and try to warm up having being outside in the almost freezing cold Korean winter for the last 2-3 hours. As we walked in a well dressed, perfectly manicured Korean lady approached me and my friend and asked if we would like to get our photo taken for free. It all looked professional with proper lighting, cameras and a “set” where we could sit and pose so without delay my friend and I signed up.

The photo shoot was organized my Korean Cosmetic brand “Skin Food” which specializes in all sorts of lotions, moisturizer and cosmetics for your face, body and hair to make you look both younger and “whiter”, two aspects of beauty which every Korean aspires to be. We answered a few questions which had been roughly translated from Korean to English with regards to our skin tone, how old we were, how old our skin looked, what we would like to change about our skin and other questions which I usually avoid/hate to answer. 

After about 5 minutes we sat down and were asked to pose naturally, which we attempted to do. While they loved my dear friend Mandy (a 38-year-old with the skin of a 31-year-old, or so they said with much delight and awe), they kept telling me “smile bigger”, “smile with your eyes” “You’re too awkward” and “Still too awkward”. The 3 hours of sleep I had had the night before, many hours of dancing, cocktails, hours of shopping, match day pints and general tiredness was suddenly catching up with me and I simple did not have the energy to pose like a Korean. We gave our phone numbers and the woman said we would be sent 2 photos; the first one would be of us “au natural” and the second one would be photo-shopped by the “talented” photographers and would make us look younger and whiter, the look we should aspire to be.

Instead of writing any more, I’m simply going to post the ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots as I am still slightly frightened and slightly horrified at how they think I should look as opposed to how I look right now. I may look tired, I may look hung over, I may look “too dark”, but I still like the way I look “au natural” way, way more than their idea of “photoshopped perfection”.

The "before" picture

The “before” picture

The "after" shot.

The “after” shot.

Related posts:

Big is Beautiful – Except in South Korea

Cosmetic Surgery in Korea – Starting Young

Korea- What Grinds My Gears

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My first South Korean Half Marathon

peace marathon

When I signed up to run my first ever South Korean Half Marathon, I never imagined I would find myself limping along a motorway, having ran consistently for 18km, suddenly being shouted at my some strange Korean man telling me to get into his car. No, that was definitely not how I imagined my first half marathon would go.

Many of you reading this blog will probably get a good laugh out of this post. Many of you know me pretty well, and know I’m not *exactly* the athletic type. While I’m ashamed to admit it, the type of marathons I’m associated with involve either sitting on the couch and watching 10 episodes of ‘Criminal Minds’ back-to-back or heading out with friends for a marathon drinking session. Like I said, this is not something I’m proud of but it is the truth!

For Lent this year, despite not being in the slightest bit religious, I decided it was about time I followed in the footsteps of my Dad and gave up alcohol. How hard could it be to not drink for 40 days and 40 nights?! Actually, considering I included all the Sundays, it was actually a 46 days…and while the first few weeks were killer it really wasn’t AS hard as I thought it would be overall. Just don’t EVER make me do another Paddy’s Day sober!

In order to keep myself on track, I signed up to run a Half Marathon in Seoul on March 30th. I’m not entirely sure if I decided to give up alcohol so that I could get fit enough to run the Half Marathon or if I signed up to the Half Marathon to ensure I stayed off alcohol! Either way, the plan worked!

first 10km group pic

With Aiden, Lauren and Tammy having ran our first 10km race of the year!

After months of training in the gym, and completing a few 10km races with some friends, March 30th was fast approaching  and I was slightly terrified. I originally thought the cut off time was 3 hours (and while I know that seems like an awful lot of time to established runners, to me it just about made the race seem ‘doable’!) but the week before I was notified that you must finish in under 2 hours and 30 minutes or you will be thrown off the course. I wasn’t quite sure how they would ‘throw people off the course’ but this scared me even none-the-less! In the lead up to the race, another hurdle was thrown at me when my training  buddy dropped out as she felt she was unable to complete the race in time.

I started to get cold feet. “Nobody would know I didn’t run it”, I thought. “Nobody would really care”. However, at the end of the day, I knew I had put the hard work in, had trained (relatively) hard, and had been sober for over  a month. If this was ever going to happen, NOW was the time!

My friend Lauren and I stayed in a jimjilbang the night before the race, which meant we ended up getting only a few hours sleep on the hard floor of a sauna which was packed with Korean families, old men who snored all night long, and the annoying buzzing of a Korean TV channel  showing the news on repeat.

We woke up early, but not exactly fresh-faced, and headed to the Kintex Stadium in Ilsan where the race was being held. Nerves really started to set in on the walk to the stadium, as we saw all the Koreans kitted out in professional running gear. Not only were we the only foreigners, but it seemed we were also the only women! We had a sudden moment of panic that maybe it was an all-mens marathon but worry soon drifted away once we saw an assortment of middle-aged Korean women stretching and preparing for the race. Besides a scattering of Korean soldiers running as a group, I feel we may have been the youngest runners there. Not that this made me feel much better, in fact if anything it made me feel worse. People twice my age were going to be running past me and laughing, and there was nothing I could do about it.

peace marathon

The day the race pack arrived…it even had my name on it. There was no turning back now!

For the first 6 or 7km of the race, I stuck with a group of people who were aiming to finish the Marathon in 2 hours and 15 minutes. There was a man with a big balloon attached to his backpack with the time written on it, so presumably if you stuck at his pace for the entire race you would finish around the 2.15 mark. Turns out that was over-ambitious on my part and my the 8th kilometer I was running with the 3.30 group, a group that may well have been first-timers.

We were the group at the back, and behind us there was maybe 10-15 stragglers. Behind them was something that scared us all. Each time I glanced back, it seemed to be gaining speed. It kept getting closer, hovering over us like some sort of evil villain. It was of course ‘The Timer Bus’. This wicked bus followed the race and if anyone, anyone at all, falls to the back of the pack and behind the bus…BOOM you get thrown on the bus and are disqualified from the race. At various stages throughout the race, I came dangerously close to this bus, and every time it crept up behind me I wanted to cry. There was no way I had run this far to drop out and spend the last hour following the rest of the runners on a bus!

I reached the 10km mark in about 1 hour and 5 minutes, and was delighted with this time as it was my fastest 10km to date. I also had a renewed source of energy at the 11km mark, as it meant I was on the home straight. There were 2-3 water stops along the way (not enough in my opinion!!) and 1 food/snack stop. I was so far behind the majority of the runners, however, that by the time I reached the ‘snack stop’ just before the 15km mark, all the food was gone. All that remained was empty cereal bar wrappers and banana peels scattered across the road. DEVASTATED.

At this stage the creepy bus was coming really close to me, and few of the people I had been running with early on had already been forced off the course and onto the dream-wrecker of a bus. I tried to push myself, and fasten the pace, but my energy levels were falling rapidly. The internet on my phone had stopped working and the only song that was loaded was The Proclaimers ‘500 Miles’…so that’s pretty much what I listened to on repeat for the last 6 kilometers of the race. Could have been worse, I guess. 

lauren and i

Lauren and I before the race

By the 18th kilometer I was really struggling, and the bus was ramming right up my behind. At the speed I was going (a slow jog) I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to complete the race in the alloted time. In fairness, the longest run I had ever done before this was 10km, so to get this far was an achievement in itself. No matter what, I told myself, even if I have to walk or crawl the last 3km, I will NOT give up! By muscles ached, my stomach rumbled, my face was the colour of a lobster and my ears started to hurt from listening to the same upbeat song on repeat for the past hour!!

And that is the precise moment that some stranger pulled up beside me and started trying to get me into his car! I was towards the back of the group, all us stragglers sticking together, and this guy starts shouting at me in Korean. He was kind of swerving in front of me, determined to get me to stop. I just pretended not to see him, looked dead straight ahead, and kept pushing my body to run. He would not go away though and soon he started shouting at me in broken English saying, ‘Time’s up. You cannot finish. Get into this car. Get in’. Ehhhh not a chance in hell was I getting in that car. I did not run 18km to give up now. He was super persistent though and drove along side me for the next kilometer shouting intermittently in Korean and English. He finally got the hint that nothing he could say or do would get me into his car and eventually drove off to pester some other runners.

I’m happy to say, despite a wickedly steep hill towards the end, and almost losing my motivation in the final Kilometer, I successfully finished my first Half Marathon in just over 2 hours and 35 minutes and have the medal, certificate and photos to prove it.

half marathon seoul

Tired but happy – first ever Half Marathon completed!

Lesson Learned: Never let anyone stop you from achieving your goals…you have nobody’s expectations to live up to but your own! 

 

 

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