Recently my native county of Wexford enjoyed some overdue victories in the GAA’s Senior Hurling Championship. I phoned home match day. My father was preparing to hit the road to Nowlan Park in Kilkenny to watch Wexford take on the Deise in an eagerly awaited clash of the ash.
I boasted to him about my impending trip to Japan. He simply replied “But Kate, where else in the world would you want to be today but here?” He was right. I would have swapped my airplane ticket to Japan for a ticket to that game in a heartbeat. It got me thinking.
I am currently in my fourth year living away from Ireland. The first two I spent in Australia, and I am now residing in South Korea. I work here as a TEFL teacher. South Korea is a country that has seen a huge rise in the number of Irish citizens coming to teach here in recent years. Some for travelling/experience opportunities but the main reason being “there’s nothing back home”. Well, that’s not entirely true for me. For me, my life is back home.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Korea. It is, simply put, a great place to live. I like my job, I like eating out every night of the week, paying 2% tax, free trips to the doctor and dentist, I like the fantastic public transport, and I like embracing another culture so different to my own.
I am based in Daegu, approximately two hours south-west of Seoul. Although it is a relatively unknown city to the western world, there is a prominent Irish community. Sometimes I feel Korea can be overlooked as an expat destination in comparison to Australia or Canada, but we are here. This is a comfort in times of solitude. We have our own Gaelic football team, Daegu na Fianna, and there is a tournament every summer with other GAA teams from Seoul and Busan. In July, Seoul hosted a Gaelic tournament that saw teams from nearby Japan and China come to Korea. To witness the mix of Irish diasporas gathered together in their numbers, was something special. What followed was an evening of ‘craic agus ceoil’ complete with a traditional Irish session and more than one rendition of “Spancil Hill.”
In October of last year, the bustling city of Busan hosted its 18th International Film Festival. On this particular occasion, the focus was on the Irish film industry; “Rogues, Rebels and Romantics: A season of Irish Cinema.” My friends and I made the short journey down to the seaside metropolis. We settled in our seats and watched as Jim Sheridan’s “In The Name of the Father” and Neil Jordan’s “Michael Collins” played out on the screen before us. My heart burst with pride. I had goose bumps watching as the heart-breaking story of Gerry Conlon and the heroic, rebellious antics of Collins were unveiled to people from across the globe. It felt as though the world had been let in to a secret that had previously been just kept amongst us. Later that evening, we had the pleasure of meeting Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan who were in disbelief at the number of Irish expats in attendance.
The Irish community is viewed favorably in South Korea. In some ways, we have a similar history. They too were (and still are) a country divided by civil war and they too suffered at the hands of their neighboring country. Many Koreans I speak with are aware on some level of Ireland’s melancholic past. Many feel that they can identify with it. In addition, we are viewed as hard workers by the schools and universities and this tends to bode well for us in terms of employment as South Korea has a famously strong work ethic.
This is the happier side of the expatriate life. This is the side that we see splashed across Facebook and Twitter. This is the “living the dream” aspect that is reflected in the statuses that fill up our news feed every day.
That’s a huge problem with social media. It is designed to allow you to portray a picture of the life you want, not necessarily the one you have. It doesn’t always convey the reality. There is a dark side in being an expat too, but who wants to publicly admit that sometimes their lives are a bit shit? I feel the Irish like to save face a lot of the time, especially when it comes to emigration. Whatever they’re doing, it is better than home. All of us twenty-somethings have sacrificed so much to live the lives we do abroad. I’ve missed my sister’s wedding, funerals, hen parties, Christmases and loved ones getting engaged. Happy moments that I would have loved to have been a part of and some sad ones I ought to have shared. I haven’t seen my best friend in over two years due to her residing in Australia and me residing here, and won’t meet again until at least Christmas 2015.
When your friends are each experiencing their own unique adventures in Hong Kong, Sydney, London and Toronto, it can be a challenge to find common ground. Our chats are no longer about our plans to do things together but memories of the past that we share. Being an Irish expat is now the theme that unites us.
The toughest challenge for me is the instability of one’s friendship circle. Sure, it is easy to find a dozen people to party it up with you at the weekend; it is not so easy to find someone you could call at 2:00 am if you needed help. Friendships seem flimsy at times and almost temporary. Everyone has an expiration date – be it because of visas, contracts, adventure seeking in other countries or duties back home.
I am not trying to slander living abroad. I definitely am not. But I felt it important to write this for those in Ireland who haven’t left. The people who comment “I am sooooo jealous” under the Facebook photos of somebody climbing Sydney’s Harbour Bridge or diving the Barrier Reef. Just remember - sometimes, we are soooooooo jealous of you too. The classic case of the grass is always greener on the other side.
Those who have left have not turned their backs on Ireland. But in the end, Bondi Beach is not Salthill, The Statue of Liberty is not the Spike and Wimbledon isn’t Croke Park.
Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteàn féin.
- Kate O'Shaughnessy, 27, Daegu, Korea.