Ciara Kenny

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

A steady income

Young emigrants might only intend to stay abroad for a year or two, but financial stability is a strong incentive to remain on, writes Anita McKay in South Korea

'The idea of moving to a country where the language and culture was alien to me is what drew me to South Korea'

Sat, Aug 24, 2013, 11:13


Anita McKay

Emigrating is daunting. I’ve done it twice and the second time was not any easier, although making sense of the London underground was a lot less stressful than battling my way through Seoul’s mammoth subway system. Both cities are an attractive option for Irish looking to emigrate, and they both present similar challenges; finding your way around a new city, figuring out a new currency, and developing a new social circle. But there’s one main difference – the language.

The idea of moving to a country where the language and culture was alien to me is what drew me to South Korea. Why not spend a year abroad teaching English, immersing myself in a new culture, and spending time travelling to other Asian countries building up the stamp collection in my passport?

I landed at Incheon International Airport almost two years ago, and I’m currently finishing my first semester of a two year MA at an English-speaking university in Seoul. This wasn’t the plan. In fact, my initial plan to stay just one year only really lasted about four or five months before I started to think about extending my contract, which soon turned into a college application. For many Irish over here, the idea they arrive with seems to change with the stability that a regular income can provide.

“A plan only survives the first five minutes,” says James Russell, an education graduate from Dublin. Russell, who has been teaching English in Korea for over two years, arrived on the peninsula with a self-confessed “plan of desperation” after being unable to find employment in Ireland for almost a year. Although he admits his current job is not his ideal one, he says a stable income has provided him with the opportunity to think more clearly about his future.

“The plan was to come over here, save the money I needed to get a visa for Australia and go there. It changed pretty fast once I got back working and re-evaluated things. Your attitude changes when you’re not just absolutely dying to not be unemployed. You can think a bit more clearly about what you want to do,” he says.

Last year the Embassy of Ireland in Seoul announced that the Irish community was fast approaching the 1,000 mark. From my experience with Irish expats here it’s evident the majority are recent graduates who came in search of work. In conversation, after initial introductions are made and it’s established you have at least one mutual friend back home, it’s standard procedure for the friendly banter to turn to more cynical conversation about the economy, unemployment and stories about friends who have emigrated.

Maria Wilson, a fine art graduate from Cork, came to Korea with a story similar to most. “I was working in a cafe part-time which was fine, but not something I wanted to do long-term. Initially, I was planning on going home after 12 months to start an MA. But I’m going to stay an extra couple of months instead,” she says.

Even though she enjoys teaching English, she admits the longer she stays the more she wants to return to her initial plan of working in community arts. Unfortunately, this isn’t something she thinks Ireland will be able to offer her and only sees two alternative options; do something else entirely or move away from Ireland once more.

The years following graduation can be viewed as a transitional time for many, especially those of us who are in our 20s. Making a five-year plan, let alone a life plan, is made all the more difficult when our immediate prospects are so limited. Taking advantage of opportunities abroad, although they may not be ideal, can offer something more valuable than work experience or a source of income; the opportunity to re-evaluate a plan that was most likely thrown together out of desperation or frustration.

Emigrating without a fully-fledged plan of action might seem overwhelming or even stupid to some, but the thought of what could have been had I not is slightly more unnerving.