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5 Ways to Trust Yourself as a Traveler (Expat Review)

Living abroad?  Nothing like it.

I’ve made new friends and found a strange new world abroad that I’ve called home for almost a year. Overcoming the various roller-coasting battles of culture shock, food obstacles, a new work environment and an unhelpful colleague, I’ve found my own ways of coping and getting by in Korea and often, without the luxury of  Korean translations.  It’s surmounted into one exuberant exclamation…

I’ve survived! Being an expat ultimately makes you a better traveler and helps you discover ways to trust yourself as a traveler.

The Biggest Lesson I’ve Learn so far:  Trust the Unknown

All artists envision their creation, before putting chisel to stone or paintbrush to canvas. Sometimes, the vision is complete; other times, its vague but  powerful enough to pull your steps towards your goal. If there’s a lesson I’ve learned  from all my travels, living a freelance lifestyle in New York City and moving abroad to Asia, it’s definitely trust! Living in Korea solidified that fact for me and taught me to loosen up… a bit.

5 Ways to Trust Yourself as a Traveler

1. Use your intuition & risk committing the cultural faux pas

When is it proper to shake hands or bow? Or how do you remember to say-

Annyeonghi keseyo

Annyeonghi kaseyo

(Both mean “goodbye”, but differ according to situation)

Sometimes, it all jumbles into brain-tied confusion.

Being a foreigner is being an alien who’s landed in the bubble of a strange world.  So with foreign customs and cultural etiquette, I’ve learned to trust what intuitively feels correct. If I’m too confused, I cover my bases and do both!

You could be a clumsy ass spreading laughter. Or maybe you’ve stirred a reaction as offensive, as passing gas in a crowded room.  Trial and error. Live and learn. What can you do but shrug it off with laughter.  Life is too short.

2. Ask for help and forgiving your own helplessness.

Adapting to a foreign country, I can’t be as independent as I am in my American lifestyle. It’s not my native environment and I don’t always have full control over the simplest things of my life. For instance,  I’ve had Korean salespeople at Lotte Mall  fill out forms as if I were an illiterate!

Me: (pointing at the hieroglyphic word on an application for a department store point card)

Saleswoman:   Irum. Name

Me: (pointing to the next word)

Saleswoman:   “Address”….

Me: (opening my iPod for the hangul version of my address and slowly writing it down. It will take ages with my speed.)

Saleswoman:   Here, I will write it for you.

However, reliance on others isn’t a bad thing. As a solo traveler and woman, getting to be a damsel-in-distress feels good, now and then. It makes me feel like a woman; something I don’t always get to be when I have to do everything on my own.


3. Trusting the “way things are done” in another country.

Protocol exists everywhere. You won’t always know what it is or how to go about it, but the invisible wires holding up a support system are there. With time, you learn to see more proof of evidence to string your theory of how things work. Meanwhile, as a traveler, you’ll need to seed your intuition and gauge whether something feels right or not. However, in dire times, you won’t have much of a choice.

In Korean society, trust is the operative word. It’s one of the few countries, where you can leave your purse in shopping cart and come back to it 10 minutes later, without anything missing. That’s just how the society is. Within my first week of work, I had to release enough confidential information to tempt identity theft! All the things I was taught not to give to strangers, …erase. My choices: trust my Korean colleagues with my personal information or don’t get paid.

Other occasions, I’ve had a salesperson at a Frisbee/Apple store offer me the use of his credit card, when I didn’t have a Korean credit card to make an online store purchase.  I’ve also had a bank representative at my bank, tell me that the only way to close my account and transfer my money abroad, is to “ask a friend for a favor” and do it for me.

… All I would need to do is give them my bank book, pin number and a copy of my passport!

But all this, is the Korean way.

4. Unspoken understandings and going with it

Every country has a way of expressing itself through unspoken understandings and there’s always deeper cultural catalysts, which you, as a foreigner, will not know about. It will present frustration and misunderstandings in your relations with native country folk. This can’t be helped. The best things is to raise your antenna, try to pick it up and flow with it.  If this fails, then apologize for your ignorance as a foreigner.

I’ve asked questions to my Korean co-teachers and not gotten answers. How can someone pretend to not hear a question you’ve directly asked to their face? It happens. It was very frustrating to feel ignored, until I realized, my Korean co-teachers simply didn’t know how to respond. It was easier to pretend not to hear me.

Another time, I was on the bus with expat friends. They were talking loudly and laughing and bothered Koreans would turn to give me a scalding look and speak something in Korean to me. They didn’t cast this evil eye to my friends, who looked Caucasian. Instead, I got dealt the punishment. Me, the Asian, whom they thought I was a fellow countryman. They assumed I knew Korean etiquette.  In defense, I’d shrug my shoulders and say very enunciated English, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re saying to me.” When they realized I wasn’t Korean, they apologized and dismissed it.

5. Finding a supportive community

It’s likely, the expat and travel community will be your main home support network. I’m not saying don’t make friends with locals. On the contrary, definitely make friends with locals, so that you gain friendships and a richer understanding of the culture! But while you’ll experience many acts of extraordinary goodwill and kindness from locals of the country (and it is possible to befriend them); there’s a brick of a cultural and language barrier to break through first.  In the meanwhile, your fellow expat and travel community is your best translation resource, with which you’ll share many useful tips and gems of information.

What are your 5 Ways to Trust Yourself as a Traveler?

4 Comments

  1. Gray says:

    “Love is where dreams happen and take shape.” I like that.
    And you’re right–sometimes it’s so hard for us independent types to rely on other people for help, but when you’re in a foreign situation, sometimes that’s what you’ve got to do. It’s certainly a growing experiences, isn’t it?

    • @Gray: Yes, you’re so right. It is a growing and uncomfortable one. Having been independent most of my life, ascquiescing to a state of helplessness feels at times, hard. Yet it’s something we women, should be allowed to do. We don’t always get to indulge in our own vulnerability.

  2. Laura in Cancun says:

    Oh my gosh, what a great post! I can relate to so much of this.

    I’ve been lucky in that the Mexican culture is very, very open to helping and known worldwide for their hospitality. Several families have taken me on almost as their own daughter since I moved here. I had a hard time learning the cultural differences (large and small), but open-minded friends willing to help and teach every step of the way really saved me.

    I’m glad you foundpeople willing to help, and I’m also glad you seem to have learned and grown from this experience. Can’t wait to see where you go in 2011!

    • @Laura: Thanks, L. I think you were fortunate and I’m a bit envious. I’ve always had a feeling that Mexican culture was very warm and welcoming. Yes, beside the expats, the Korean folk who do help seem to be absolute strangers for some reason, but generally not anyone I work with at school. 2011 should be an interesting year for me– I’m still planning it. Wishing you and Jorge the best in 2011!

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