Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Emigration does not have to be a tragedy

A three month internship with a Korean newspaper turned into a permanent job and an eye-opening opportunity for journalist John Power.

Mon, Nov 21, 2011, 09:29


John with a traditional Korean calligrapher at a "hanok" (traditional Korean houses) village in Jeonju.

A three month internship with a Korean newspaper turned into a permanent job and an eye-opening opportunity for journalist John Power.

I left Dublin for South Korea in July 2010 to take up an unpaid internship with an English-language newspaper in Seoul. Just two days before my flight I had handed in my thesis for a master’s in journalism, thankful to be relieved of an academic burden and anxious about what lay ahead.

The decision had been made quickly and with minimal planning. I had no accommodation set up apart from a hostel for the first night, no grasp of the language, and no friends, family or contacts to guide the way. With so much to focus on in the final few weeks of college, I’d barely had time to read up on the country I was to live in for the next three months. As it turned out, my unpaid internship before long became a paying job and three months became 16 and counting.

So why move 9,000 km to a country culturally alien to my own, all without even the guarantee of paid work? I could say that I had no choice, that I’d been betrayed by the previous generation. I could say that I had no future in the country of my birth. I could list these fatalistic responses and others as my motivation. But I wouldn’t be telling the truth.

Media outlets are generally adept at distilling significant events and phenomena into easily-digestible nuggets that claim to reach the “essence” of the story. What they tend to do less well is nuance and perspective. The Irish media’s depiction of the return of large scale emigration has been typical of this tendency to oversimplify. Emigration is invariably a “tragedy” foisted upon people with “no choice,” as if many of those, young people particular, aren’t delighted to experience the boundless possibilities on offer outside our small country. There is rarely any acknowledgement that thousands of people were leaving the country even when the economy was booming, or that the motivations of those who emigrate cannot always be reduced to a convenient set of wretched circumstances befitting of a Greek tragedy. Similar to how in the media’s telling of things it would appear that everyone on social welfare must regularly scour the couch for change for their next meal, the self-pitying narrative around emigration is rarely challenged.

This is not to say that Irish people are not experiencing real hardship or are not justified in feeling anger over how the economy was driven into a ravine. They are, on both counts. But reality is always more complicated than 800 words of newspaper copy allows. In my case, and in that of many expats I’ve met here, emigrating has been an opportunity for adventure and self-improvement as much as a decision based on economics.

One of the most valuable things you gain from living abroad is a new sense of perspective about the country you left. It makes you appreciate your country’s attractive qualities — a cosy semi-detached in Dublin is a veritable mansion by micro-scale Korean standards — but also magnifies its flaws. One of the latter in Ireland is a sense of entitlement, something which is all-too-prevalent among my generation. A few months before I left, an episode of RTE’s “The Frontline” looked at youth unemployment and emigration. The audience was composed largely of young people, most of whom complained of being unable to find work. They’d been let down by the government, they said. One young man, clearly convinced he’d suffered some great injustice, opined that he’d worked hard through college only to struggle to find work afterward. His tone implied that he felt owed employment for having gone through the education system. It hadn’t occurred to him, or to his mind was of little significance, that he’d had his 17 years or so of education paid for by the state. By any reasonable measure, he wasn’t owed anything.

Bill Cullen, also in the audience, took the audience to task. He drew boos when he said the young people of today don’t know what tough times are, especially compared to what previous generations faced. But he was right.

Another example. Last month, it was reported that absenteeism is above 5 percent in many Irish hospitals. In one in particular in west of the country, it is at almost 10 percent. In other words, almost one in ten of its staff fails to show for work — every single day. It is inconceivable in Korea that so many people in positions of responsibility could have the same sense of the world owing them something. If you take a sick day here, it isn’t because you have the sniffles or a hangover — you were probably hit by a truck.

When it comes to not just enduring adversity, but thriving in spite of it, there are few nationalities as awe-inspiring and worth learning from as the Koreans. After the Korean War — which, despite being largely forgotten in the West today, killed over 4 million people — the country rose from Sub-Saharan Africa levels of poverty to having an economy today close to the European Union average in terms of GDP per capita on a purchasing power parity basis. Not only can Korea in many respects match the living standards of some western countries, its quality of life is continuing to rise at a healthy pace. Especially instructive for Ireland is that Korea was subject to its own IMF bailout in 1997. The country bandied together, with many citizens selling or donating gold jewelry to be melted down and sold on the international markets to help the then struggling economy. In 2001, almost three years ahead of schedule, the country’s $57 billion IMF loan was paid off in full.

Ireland can, and will, be vibrant and prosperous again. But it would do well to first shake-off the debilitating self-pity and sense of entitlement that permeates so much of the national conversation. Emigration does not have to be a tragedy. The only tragedy would be to let fatalism keep us from our true potential.

Follow John on Twitter: @John_F_Power