About a year and a half ago I interviewed Danielle Kim about her upcoming move back to South Korea after having lived in the United States for most of her adult life. Back then we discussed her concerns about moving her children who were in elementary school, and her hopes for reconnecting with family back home. I caught up with her at the end of 2017 to see how the move had gone, and what life is like now that they have had time to settle in Seoul.
Q – You have been back in Seoul for about 15 months, what’s your experience been like – what does your daily routine look like and how is it different from when you lived in the US?
A – Life is much easier now. The kids take a school bus that stops right in front of our apartment and my son rides his bike to martial arts class twice a week. It’s quite amazing that I let him do that since drivers here can be a bit crazy. He has a cellphone now that he’s in middle school so that helps with letting him have a little more freedom.
In general, my life-balance still leans towards the kids’ needs rather than my own. I have been trying to get back into my professional field – glass blowing – to find something meaningful to do other than being a mom, but that’s proven to be not so easy.
Food is cheaper here and very good, so I find I cook less than I did in the US. There is also more nightlife among the moms and my friends and that has been a lot of fun. In general I would say life is busier and there is a lot of stress, but weirdly I find I have less time to get depressed. I love being with my family and speaking my own language.
Q – When we last spoke one of your biggest concerns had to do with your children adjusting to a different educational environment – how have they adjusted? Are academic expectations different? What about the parents’ roles in school, are you expected to be involved and volunteer?
A – I would say my kids are still adjusting. Academically it’s harder here with many kids excelling over their grade level. My older son had a rough time last year because one boy bullied him. Once one boy started, others tagged along as a group. Luckily my son is pretty positive and confident, and he doesn’t mind too much what others think of him so that has made moving forward easier. It seems to me that there is more of a group mentality here, and people are less willing to accept differences.
The group mentality is evident among adults as well. For example, parents would love to help and volunteer, but they hate to stand out so the level of volunteering is lower. It’s hard to find a room mom because there is more criticism and less appreciation. It’s not that the moms aren’t nice, it’s just that it seems that most of them are more comfortable as a group, rather than as individuals.
The academic standards here are very high and I have found that many of the parents are unhappy if their kids are performing at an average level. I keep wondering if I am doing alright as a mom, hoping I am on the right track.
Q – How about language, have your children picked up Korean?
A – Both my children are taking Korean as a second language. My older son is catching up a little faster than my younger who is quieter and shier.
Q – If you would give advice to someone relocating with children, what would it be?
A – I think the biggest thing is to give your children time and to not lose your own center for what you know is right. Don’t be swayed too much after chatting with a group of moms for example. Let your children be themselves and slowly find what is meant for them. I have built a habit of letting things depend on the kids trying different things to see what works and suits their character.
Q – What was the hardest when you first arrived?
A – The hardest has been starting over with making friends. I miss my old pals back in Seattle so much. Most of them I have known for ten years. It takes a lot of time to build those kinds of relationships.
It has also been hard to adapt culturally. I feel like I am somewhere between American and Korean. The way I observe and think is different from many Korean moms and sometimes it gives me difficulties – expressing an opinion in a group can turn pretty awkward. For example, when we had a problem on my son’s basketball team with aggressive behavior and I voiced concern, the other moms found it very uncomfortable when I spoke up and did not want to hear what I had to say. Even the head coach was hesitant to address the problem. I find myself adjusting by speaking less in these kinds of group settings.
Q – What is your social life like – do you have old friends that you have reconnected with? Is there a big difference between social life in South Korea and the US?
A – I have been trying to reconnect with old friends but have found that it’s not so easy to find common ground any more. When I left for the US we were on the same page and shared ideas. Now I feel like we have grown apart and that we get together more for the sake of getting together.
When we lived in the US most of our social life with other Koreans happened in church. We had something that united us. Looking back, that was a good basis for building deeper relationships.
A big difference between Americans and Koreans is the concept of small talk; there is much less small talk here. Saying hi to strangers is another thing you don’t really do in Korea. Now that I’ve been here for a while I can appreciate the benefits of small talk – it comes in handy when trying to get to know someone new.
Q – One of the reasons you gave for moving back was to be able to spend more time with family – have you been able to spend time with family? Has it been what you expected?
A – Yes, it is totally what I expected. I am so happy I get to spend time with my family, with all that that entails – not just the happy parts but also some of the rougher patches of getting to know people and re-building relationships. I went golfing with my parents and we had so many laughs and came home tired. To me, that is much better than just chatting. On the other end of the spectrum, I had a big fight with my sister. I know it all has to do with us getting used to each other again. Because I was away for so long I appreciate being able to have that kind of interaction as well. It wouldn’t have been possible if I still lived in the US, we wouldn’t have been close enough to get into a fight.
Q – What are some of the things you wish you had considered before departing?
A – I must say some of the laws; from opening a cell phone account, to tax details, to laws about enlisting my sons in the army. Because my sons hold dual passports they have to serve in the military here when they turn 18. Many Koreans choose to give up their Korean citizenships because of this and go back to the US.
Q – How do you feel about your sons doing mandatory military service, what would it entail?
A – Military service here is 22 months long and it is challenging, both physically and mentally. We haven’t made a final decision yet on what we are going to do. I think we are leaning towards staying here, after all we just got here and I feel ambivalent about giving up our citizenships. Also, I do feel obligated to send my kids, in part because we have close family members here who don’t have a choice in the matter. It is something to think about for sure.
Q – What do you miss about the US?
A – What I miss most about living in the US is how there is a respect for different people and how diversity is cherished. Still, I feel more at home here.
Q – Finally, you have repatriated to the country where you grew up and where you have your family – does it feel like you are home?
A – Yes! The streets and air are dirtier than in Seattle. Drivers honk and swear like New Yorkers. But I feel at home – a home in need of some adjusting perhaps…
By: Felicia Shermis
Read first interview here.