Ciara Kenny

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

Being away has made me change the way I see Ireland

Being away from home at Christmas gives me time to reflect on what I’ve learned in the last year while teaching in Korea, writes Andrew Sweeney

Sat, Dec 22, 2012, 11:52


Being away from home at Christmas gives me time to reflect on what I’ve learned in the last year while teaching in Korea, writes Andrew Sweeney


It’s nearly one year to the day since I arrived in South Korea. I left just as my family were getting ready to celebrate Christmas and bring in the New Year together. It was hard to leave home in the middle of December for obvious reasons; everyone is in great spirits, the Christmas tree was up, presents were beginning to pile up underneath the tree at home, my family and friends would all be home for the holidays.

There was also that beautiful mist that sits in the air in Ireland in December that makes the square of Thurles, my hometown, look like one great big snow cone that has been shaken and left to settle slowly.

It is these thoughts that reminded me that all the comforts and privileges I am used to on December 25th will not be there this Christmas. It’s been wonderful year – new friends made, new challenges met, new cities and landscapes seen, new cultures experienced and many great nights and hangovers dealt with – yet it is ultimately a year away from home.

Twenty hours is all it took for my girlfriend and I to realise just how far from home you can be. We went from Ireland to South Korea; from being on the “inside” of a community in one country to standing nervously in Incheon, Seoul airport, knowing that we were now very much “outsiders”, on the margins of this country with absolutely no clue of the language or its people. We didn’t even know where to get the bus to Gwangju, the city we now live in.

Similar to many who have decided to up sticks and leave Ireland for a new life or work, the feeling on the plane over is one you won’t forget. It is like a potion, mixing tremendous excitement about the adventure you have just begun with a pinch of anxiety about the unknown that awaits you on the other side.

Standing in the middle of frantic Incheon airport however, with the excitement well and thoroughly gone, only the anxiety remained. We were alone, but not lonely, we had each other and we would make it work. And work it did.

Fitting into Korean life was a pleasure. It didn’t take long for us to feel secure and happy with our surroundings. This is more a compliment to Korea and its people than to us. Working, as teachers, straight away helps significantly; it gives you an immediate structure and focus to your lives and it also allows you to begin to connect with others, both Korean people and expats.

At the beginning, going to a restaurant and trying to order food on your own with the handful of Korean words you have remembered, or getting a taxi and trying to instruct and navigate the driver with the remainder of the Korean words you have left over, are very difficult at first, but become easier and part of everyday life very quickly.

As time moves on, you try and make Korea your home, and by doing so you see it as your home. You become confident in your work, where once you were a little apprehensive. You begin to step outside your comfort zone, by eating Korean traditional food, getting decent with a pair of chopsticks in your hand, learning simple everyday Korean words and phrases, and socialising with people at the weekends. These are the things that let you know that it is in Korea you live now, not Ireland. Eventually, it is Korea that you want more of, the adventure that it only a new country can offer.

I have come to the stage where I’m losing interest in asking about how Ireland is doing when I speak to my family. I still visit online sites for updates now and then on what’s current, but even this is on a downward spiralling frequency. I am proud to say I am from Ireland when people ask, a country that makes people become open, friendly and interested in you when you say you’re Irish, but news headlines about the state of the health system, our policies on abortion that are making us look like stone men, and cuts to child benefit in the budget, to name just a few, are not the things that inspire any sort of hope and positivity about one’s country.

These were not the reasons I left Ireland, but, the side effect is this: they are certainly not reasons that make you want to go back in a hurry. The headline stories that have surfaced over the course of the last two weeks alone are not the exception, but are becoming the norm.

Proximity has a lot to do with it. When I was home, I read the papers, saw the news and got vexed and often angry, as did everyone at what has transpired in our little island. The news when I was at home became personal as I was a living active Irish citizen, who studied hard, paid for my education with the aid of my parents, and I could see and often personally experience the economic and social handicaps that were and are being placed upon people at home.

Yet what I have found now, one year on since I, with my girlfriend Eva, left for Korea that distance hasn’t necessarily made the heart grow fonder. In fact, distance has allowed me to feel removed from what’s happening back at home; not unemotional, but just more passive in the knowing that I am not there, and as a by-product, I won’t be as affected by what goes on.

It’s a great time to be in Korea, witnessing a country steeped in a unique history and tradition steam-roll into the future. The old Korea was an oppressed one, certainly. Surviving the World War and Japanese control, and then a civil war that separated Korea into North and South, it left the country in ruins. Confucianism was the dominant religion, thus respect, and particular respect for the elders played a huge part in Korean culture.

Similar to Ireland, the country was, and to a large extend still is, defined by its landscape, its mountains, woods and rivers. The lifestyle was a primitive one but resourceful. For food they used everything they could, taking from the ground and the sea as much possible. It was a primitive way, and there was a beauty to it also.

The present then gives a clear indication of where Korea is heading. Gwangju is a prime example of this. The city is ever expanding. Buildings are constantly being knocked, only to be replaced by something bigger and better.

Culture, not tradition is the dominant force in society now. The role of religion is dying out, much like at home, and the youth are focused primarily on study. But tight jeans, K-pop and iphones have their place also. Education is key to the success of the country; the availability of teaching work here is testimony to that, as well as the growth of huge monopoly corporations such as Samsung and Kia are the financial driving force behind the economy.

Some say it’s becoming “Westernised”, yet this just makes me think of Starbucks and McDonalds, of which there are many here. It’s unfair to say Korea is becoming like the west, when in fact it is the east that is thriving at the moment. They are the ones getting things right, not America, not England and unfortunately not Ireland.

My girlfriend and I are going to stay one more year in Korea. It’s been wonderful so far, and it has changed me for the better in many ways. Being away from home, you cannot rely on the people you know, or anything colloquial to aid you. Your character and personality come through stronger than you could ever imagine, and that’s all you have when you are so far from home with no family, friends or sports team to fall back on.

Being here has given me an objective perspective on Ireland. From the outside, it is a country people from all over the world love, respect and desire to visit, yet what’s happening to its own people right now is, ironically, and sadly, driving people away. Let’s hope things change fast.