I am a Lifer


When I told a friend a while ago that myself and Herself (and +1 of course) were aiming to return to Ireland in the future, he was shocked. “Jeez man, I thought you were done with the west. I had you down for a lifer”, he responded in near disappointment. I was kind of struck by this term, ‘lifer’, more by what it meant that the actual word itself.

There are several kinds of, hmmm how do I describe them, well people living in Korea. The particular one’s I’m talking about are people from English speaking countries who have travelled here and married Korean women, and some who haven’t also, but essentially they spend a long time in the country and, for want of a better word, they assimilate. I’m being vague here because I refuse to tar and label all of us as expats or foreigners – this is an argument for another long day.

Those of us who assimilate, I suppose, are those who can be called lifers. Is it a bad thing to make a life for yourself here? Again another argument for another long day.

A lifer is someone who, I assume, can be reasonably expected to spend a large part of the rest of their life living in Korea. I know plenty of guys who are more ‘lifer’ than I am. In fact, I know people who have been in Korea longer than Herself has been alive. These lifers have lived in Korea long enough to have learned how to make their life comfortable enough to live happily on a day to day basis.

This description is probably what I mean by assimilate, because let’s be honest, I know plenty of people who have been here for several years and never leave Itaewon, but they’re happy. They have made their life liveable within Korea and adapted to suit whatever this country has to offer. I am not suggesting that these people live the ideal life, or that living life in Korea like this has negative connotations. It’s their life and who am I to judge when I’ve got my own problems to deal with.

There are also plenty of these kinds of people who have adapted completely differently; they speak fluent Korean, they work with a Korean company, they have kids who they send to the local schools, and other things. These people have also assimilated to living in Korea. Again, if they’re happy then fair play and long may their jubilation continue.

Personally, I see myself sitting somewhere in the middle.

What I got from the idea that I was a lifer was that it was both an insult and a compliment. Now, I know my friend and he’s not the kind of person who would turn around and make fun of the fact that I could spend the rest of my life in Korea, but I have picked up on the fact that people who have only recently arrived (the past year or two) always take a step back and look at you differently when you say that you have been here for as many years as you have. It’s kind of a reaction that instantly displays respect, but at the same time makes people look down their nose at you and ask, “are you off your fucking head, man”? The main reason I know this is because I’ve done it myself, and I probably still do it.

But what makes people want to stay in Korea so long? The news is a great place for finding regular excuses to leave Korea, but then if you don’t read the news that much having proper reasons might be more of a challenge. Negative experiences in hagwons or relationships are probably top of the list, but I know plenty of people who have had difficult times here but have persisted for whatever reasons. These things are part of life everywhere, so making excuses based on these is a bit short-sighted if you ask me.

I know I’m not alone when I say that the reason I came back to Korea has always been because of my first year here. I had a great time, saved loads of money, and met the love of my life who I’m now happily married with and we’re now having a baby together. That being said, we’re not in Korea now because Herself wants to be here near her family – she does, obviously, but that’s not an overly significant reason because she realises my family is important also. We’re here because when we were back in Ireland Korea looked like a better option. Perspectives change of course.

The longer I spend here though, the longer reality comes home and the more I realise that my first year in Korea will never be enough to tie me to this country forever. I say that like I am planning never to return to Korea, but the thing is, I will be in Korea for the rest of my life. Maybe not all the time, but until the day I die, be tied to Korea. This was confirmed the day I got married.

So, call me a lifer and make fun of me that I’m here forever. What can I do? Sneer and snark? Not much point. Just get on with life I suppose, which is what I’m good at. I just hope that the friends I’ve made here, my fellow lifers, will also always be here along the way.

A Personal History of Haebangchon


I like Haebangchon. I have only lived there briefly, but I lived nearby for a while and spent many formative years in Korea there. I made a lot of friends there, and I still have plenty who float in and out of bars and cafés and shout and wave at me when I turn up on random sorties. A bit like me, Haebangchon has changed a lot, and I’d even say it has become more sophisticated, but still with its old town grit that people come back for so much.

Haebangchon is, in essence, a slum. At least it started out that way. Officially named Yongsan-2 dong, the place gets its name after it became a place where North Korean refugees settled after the war, which is why it’s called Haebangchon, meaning Freedom or Liberation Village depending on who you’re talking too. I know that when residents ask a taxi to take them there, regardless of where in the city they’re coming from, they’ll ask the taxi driver to take them to Yongsan-2 dong. It has a dubious nature, and you’ll do well to get a taxi from Itaewon to there late at night, but that has nothing to do with it being a dodgy neighbourhood. As far as I know, there are a few more former North Korean refugee enclaves around the city, but this is the only one I’ve heard off, and it’s also probably the most famous.

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Letter from Korea, May 2012.


Dear Ireland

I feel obliged to offer an apology for a lack of social commentary on life in Korea. Being Irish, I complain all the time, even when things are going well. If you were to sit with me for a relatively short period of time, I would undoubtedly complain about plenty of things I can do nothing about. It’s kind of an old-man syndrome I suppose.

The thing is, complaining about life in Korea doesn’t interest me as much anymore. Well, at least complaining about it on the internet and pointing out all the failings and the misery and normality of living here doesn’t interest me much. I suppose it’s just not productive. It doesn’t make my life any better, and while I’d love to attract the swathes of readers across the waeg readership who are itching for scandal and tales of depravity and inadequacy, I’m pretty happy to keep to myself these days. You see, it’s not just Irish people who like to complain all the time about things they can do nothing about.

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All Foreingers Go Home


I picked Jim up just down the road from the apartment which had been his home for the past four or five years. He was standing on the corner dressed in black with the hood of his jacket pulled over his head as he paced up and down beside his suitcase and the few plastic bags holding his last few odds and ends. Loading these into the back of the car we drove back to my place and Jim settled into the spare room. Later on we walked down to the nearest Family Mart and bought a few beers. Back home, we settled in for the night.

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Letter from Korea, April 2011


Suwon, South Korea
April 30, 2011

Dear Ireland,

Apologies for my lack of correspondence, I’ve been busy believe it or not. I won’t bore you with the details but I would in fact prefer to inform you of one of the reasons that I haven’t had as much time as usual to sit down and write you a lovely letter, as has been my wont for almost a year.

Recently, myself and Herself have become business people. We are proprietors. Not in the traditional sense, more in a temporary and experimental sense.

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