moving back to Seoul

Danielle Kim has lived most of her adult life in the US. She has good friends here and her children were born here. She has a house and she likes her kids’ schools. Yet she is now in the process of planning her family’s move back to South Korea. Danielle grew up in Seoul and arrived here in 1992 as a high school student and except for three years of grad school, she has lived in the US ever since. She came by herself and stayed with her Aunt’s family in Pittsburgh.

As Danielle explains it, she decided on high school in the US because she didn’t get into the art school she wanted to attend in South Korea. Most of what she knew about living in America she had learned from TV shows such as Beverly Hills 90210. Her impression was that everyone was cool and interesting and being here was like a dream come true. She was really excited and her friends were jealous.

Life in the US wasn’t exactly like the TV shows however, and it was harder to adjust than she had expected. Danielle missed her family and she felt out of place, not really knowing how to act to fit in. The biggest hurdle was the language. “You can’t be the person you want to be when you can’t tell cool jokes, or express yourself like other people do. You become more of a listener and not a talker” she says, thinking back on those high school years.

Danielle was involved in many traditionally American activities at school. She played lacrosse and was part of the yearbook committee. She had a couple of close American friends, though she felt more at ease with her Korean friends whom she had met at church. It was just easier to be with them: she could express herself without language restrictions, she felt like she could be herself.

It was when she was back in South Korea for grad school that Danielle met her husband Don, and when he got relocated to work in the US, they decided to move back (he had been in the US for part of his schooling as well) and they have been in the Seattle area ever since.

The South Korean community in the US is very church-oriented, so when they first arrived they joined the biggest Korean church in the area and that is how they made their friends. To this day, most of their friends are Korean or Korean-American and she says part of the reason is that they are more comfortable speaking Korean. Once their two children started school, Danielle made friends with American moms as well and she says “these days I hang out with whomever I feel a connection with. Ultimately, it depends on how open-minded you are and how much you want to integrate with American life”.

When Danielle and Don arrived in the US, they came as expats via her husband’s company. They eventually got Green Cards and then, about 12 years on, they became US citizens. Reflecting on her move back to Seoul, Danielle muses: “we are now Americans who are moving to South Korea. I think that makes us US expats”.

The idea to move home came about after Danielle’s younger sister had come to live in the US for a year. She explains: “We got to spend some time together during this year and it struck me that I really didn’t know her well. I wasn’t sure if she was the same little sis from ten years ago. I just started feeling like I didn’t want to miss out any more. Also, my parents are getting older, there are cousins for my children to get to know – I miss my family”.

The decision to repatriate has not been an easy one and Danielle is aware that there will be a period of adjustment when returning. There are many things she worries about, in particular the educational system, which she explains is all about surviving loads of homework and not receiving a lot of nurturing. She says: “we had to consider the cultural, educational and financial aspects when deciding where we wanted to end up living. For us it was the desire to be with family that drove the decision”.

When asked about what she’ll miss the most about the US she says “I will miss how there is respect and decency when it comes to how you view others and how there are manners between people. For example, in South Korea, if you hold the door open for someone, you will end up holding that door for a long time. No one would think to release you. Also, people are better behaved in traffic, laws are followed and basic rights are respected to a larger degree here. And air-quality, I am not looking forward to the air quality in Seoul. What I will not miss is the gun culture here or the silence at night”.

Danielle started actively planning the move in January with applications for schools and house hunting. She is hoping they will be in place before the school year starts in South Korea. They decided on an international school for the kids, as they don’t speak Korean, though she hopes they will pick it up quickly. Based on recommendations by the teachers at school, they waited with telling the kids about the move until about a month ago. They didn’t want them to be distracted or lose their motivation. The kids were sad at first but the thought of being close to cousins and grandparents is starting to grow on them.

Danielle is excited and a little scared. She recognizes that there will be culture shock. At this point in her life she feels not 100% Korean and not 100% American. She says “it’s like being half human and half expat, and that feeling applies to all my relationships, whether in the US or South Korea”.

By: Felicia Shermis

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