It began as a tacit dissatisfaction that quickly blossomed into full scale disillusionment. I lived in a rapidly gentrifying and soulless neighborhood in Philadelphia that featured million dollar condos up on one end of the street and crack deals going down on the other. I could see my future stretched out before me in the grey light of mediocrity; stay in the city a few more years eking out an existence and stashing money away before getting married, the big move out to some suburban bedroom community, two point five kids, mortgage, car payments, a spare tire from the late night pizzas and Doritos, which were nothing more than futile attempts to suck some sort of joy out of the day, to make a last stand, a last statement ‘this is my life, I’ll do what I please!’ and male pattern baldness. The slow suburban march toward death, a zombification that comes on so slowly one isn’t aware they’ve been transformed until it’s too late.
I peered out the windows of the commuter train in the morning dreaming of getting away from it all as I watched working class neighborhoods give way to urban blight, and to decaying industrial sectors. The CEO of my company had moved our offices from center city to an industrial and commercial zone next to the airport to cut costs. I spent the majority of my day in a green office cube soaking up soul and mind numbing florescent lighting as I tried hornswoggling authors into purchasing over priced and completely ineffective marketing packages.
Things went from bad to worse when my long term girlfriend broke up with me, I’d seen the signs but chose to repress instead of acknowledge. I was enveloped in a cloud of conflicting emotions and began to question my every motive. Hadn’t I been railing against the white picket fence suburban lifestyle my ex wanted? Wasn’t I now free? Why did it feel like the bottom had fallen out? What do I really want? Is the grass always greener?
It was an unseasonably warm afternoon in early March and I was on my back porch working my way through a second bottle of Bordeaux, without a glass, when I decided on two possible courses of action; the French Foreign Legion or teaching English abroad. It took one documentary and three articles to scare me off of the French Foreign Legion for good. There were too many shady characters and criminal elements, the risk of death in combat or training was too high, and the images of the dead and dying took the romance out of Français par le sang verse, French by spilled blood.
I applied to jobs in Japan, Korea, China, and Turkey and within a week’s time landed a job teaching in English for a private academy in Yangsan South Korea. I touched down in Korea on May 30 2008, after a fifteen hour long flight made exponentially more unbearable by an all night send off party featuring whisky, expecting to stay for a year. Five years later I am still here and can’t see myself leaving anytime soon. My time here so far had been nothing short of spectacular. Among other things I’ve traveled around Asia and Korea, opened the Hemingway, the first expat owned restaurant and bar in Yangsan, owned a small English language Academy, written two novels, met and married the woman of my dreams, befriended interesting, and strange, people from all corners of the English speaking world, worked as a hired gun for some of the biggest companies in Korea, including the Navy, and have grown extensively as a person. The experience of becoming an expat in East Asia, I have a multitude of friends teaching in China and Japan, is unique because it allows one to slip through the cracks and exist in between countries. I owe many of my spectacular experiences, as well as a lot of my personal growth, to the fact that I can exist in between societies.
In Korea the word wegooken is used for anyone who isn’t Korean no matter where they’re from. There is an ‘us and them’ mentality that makes it nearly impossible for a foreigner to assimilate into Korean society and while it can be alienating and cause one to sink into a funk, as many foreigners who have lived in East Asia can attest to, it has it’s upside as well. Societal pressure is completely removed, any social blunder or affront to norms is excused, as a wegooken you’re exempt from having to obey the norms, you don’t have to fit in, in fact you never will. I’ve even been pulled over for traffic violations and been laughed at and set free once I removed my helmet and the officer saw I was a wegoogen. Assimilation is not possible and so one is left in an introspective state not only being able to look in as an outsider at the society whence they came but also being able to look in as an outsider on the society in which they now exist. While this may not be exclusive to East Asia, in most other places after a number of years one would start to assimilate. After five years in a more multicultural society, France for example, one would feel much more a part of French society than the day they landed which is not the case in Korea. While I have a much deeper understanding of Korea society, history, language, and politics I am still reminded, on a daily basis, that I am indeed a wegoogen.
I exist between two societies, a man without a country and I find it’s the case with most of the long term expats I meet in East Asia. Many I know have tried to return to their countries of origin only to come to the disappointing realization it is no longer home. Some have experienced such severe reverse culture shock they return within a few months, they no longer belong or fit in in their home country and although they don’t necessarily belong in Asia they can comfortably live in the cracks between worlds. It’s a strange and frightening epiphany that you’ve become a man without a country. In slipping through the cracks one is allowed the freedom of self determination, largely unaffected by outside pressures and influences, and can easily recognize that their existence preceded their essence. It is a natural breeding ground for existentialists and I’ve met so many people living by some variation of existentialist code, whether they acknowledge it or not, I’ve coined a new term for them; The Unlanded Gentry.
Currently I’m an English professor at the Korean Naval Academy in Korea and am expecting my first child this September. I don’t know what the future will bring or what continent I’ll be living on five years from now but I do know I wouldn’t trade my experiences this far for anything. If you’ve been thinking about living overseas I encourage you to take the leap. If you would like more information on teaching or working in East Asia please feel free to contact me at Joshua@theruggedgent.com.
Guest Author Joshua Newett is an entrepreneur, rugged gentleman, existentialist, poet, musician, sportsman, adventuring traveler and the author of the novel Along the Naktong who currently resides in Yangsan South Korea. Check out more from Josh on The Rugged Gent.
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