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.