Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

A couple of years ago, I got back in touch with an old acquaintance, through Facebook. We sent a few catch-up messages back and forth, and I told him about what I’d been doing. Travelling in Europe, writing, house-sitting, teaching in Korea, exploring Asia. His response was to ask me when I was going to go home, “settle down, get married, etc.”

This is not new to me. I’ve written before about relationships and how the fact that I don’t want one seems odd to many people. Leaving the marriage issue aside, though: I do struggle to explain to people that what I’m currently doing is not just something I have to get out of my system before I return to the town of my birth and get a mortgage and a desk job.

I understand it, though, coming from people who are ‘home birds’. Travel is something you do with your time off from work. Home is where your possessions are. Life is about putting down roots, climbing up career ladders, establishing yourself as a member of a community. I realise that that makes someone like me seem like a bit of an oddball: of course she must be planning on settling down at some point! That’s what life is.

However, I do not understand it when I encounter the same attitude from fellow ex-pats. Time and time again, I’ve heard other foreigners in Korea speak about this life of ours versus what they call “real life”.


The more I hear it, the more agitated and frustrated I become. These are people who shouldn’t need me to justify or explain my lifestyle. It’s the one thing all of us have in common. We share that yearning for travel, thirst for adventure, longing for new experiences. We’ve all chosen to leave “home” behind and throw ourselves into a totally different culture by living and working in another country.

Yes, living. LIVING.

When I hear the remarks about returning to “real life”, or how much harder everything will be once we’re back in the “real world”, I almost have to pinch myself to check that I really do exist and have not just been a figment of someone’s imagination since 2008. Has my life not been real?

Let me tell you about my life, the one that may or may not be real.

I fell in love and moved to a tiny little Eastern European country I’d barely even heard of. I worked as a freelance writer to fund my travels, as I ambled through Europe on a shoestring budget at every possible opportunity. I got to live in fabulous houses in Switzerland and Belgium, as a house-sitter. I had my heart broken – which is pain as real as it gets! I moved to Korea and became a teacher. Was all of that a dream?

Let me tell you more.

I work. I work really bloody hard. I teach, I plan, I do paperwork, I make worksheets, and I stay at my desk in the evenings for far longer than I’m getting paid to. I live in an apartment, I cook meals, I pay bills, I read, I write. I wash dishes. I meet my friends in the pub, or go for dinner with them. I take the occasional day trip to another city. I do laundry. I laugh, I cry, I have fun, I occasionally bicker with my friends, I go to the movies, I get crushes on inappropriate people, I buy groceries at the supermarket, I sing karaoke when I have one too many mojitos. I have meaningful friendships. I learn, I grow, I experience.

What is it about all of this that is fake? I’m getting angrier and angrier every time I hear this lifestyle – my life, my actual, real, permanent, full-time life! – dismissed as if it is some kind of temporary hiatus from reality. “Things are different back in the real world.”

If  “real world” actually means something like “home country”, then yes. Yes, things certainly are different there. There are no jobs, for example. People I know and love are unemployed and broke. Shops and restaurants are closing down at an alarming rate. Everything is expensive. In the country I’m currently choosing to live in, I’m pretty well-off. True, my salary is low – but then so is the cost of living. I can dine out every night of the week if I want to, and travel from one end of the country to the other for less than the cost of a few drinks in the pub back in Northern Ireland. Is that it, then? Is that the reason my life is not real? Because it’s not a constant struggle to make ends meet?!

I have no intention of returning to my home country and getting into an office environment. I would suffocate and die. And the more people talk to me about the “real world” as if that should be my ultimate destination, the madder and more offended I get. My life is every bit as real as the life of a sales executive in Belfast or a stockbroker in New York.

No, I don’t have a career.


Since when does one require a career in order to have a life that qualifies as real? The life of an ex-pat is not a bubble. Although it is pretty fabulous at times, it is not an extended vacation. It is not some kind of easy option – in fact, living abroad brings challenges, emotions, and struggles that can be really, really tough.

What is more real than experiencing more of this world we live in, and adapting to life in a foreign culture? Do  other ex-pats really believe this is all worth nothing – that none of it counts because it’s not happening in their country of birth? That “real life” is somehow paused until they go home?

I am not living a dream, and I’m not putting off some inevitable return to reality. This is it. This is the real life. This is not fantasy. My life is about travel, adventure, learning, growing, adapting, working, moving, experiencing. I am very much out here in the Real World.

This life, this ex-pat life? This is my life, and it is not a bed of roses.

Damn certain it’s real, though.   


9 thoughts on “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

  1. Good on you girl! I wonder if all that muttering from people at home is actually a jealousy at your strength of spirit to get up, go and fulfil your dreams? You have lived in the past four years while they have dragged their feet, scared to break out from the security of the birth bubble of home.

    Live your dream…… for you and for me.

    • Thank you, Grannymar! :) I do want to make it clear that I don’t see my way of living as better than anyone else’s. It’s better for *me*, but it’s not for everyone! But I’d love for people to understand that the reverse is too, true… some of us were just not cut out for the staying-in-one-place kind of life.

  2. At the risk of sounding old(well, I am) and getting all ‘My dear, I gained much wisdom in the many years I’ve walked this earth’ on you, I think – as an English teacher – you really probably do run across a lot of people for whom living in Korea really is just a year or two of doing something different before returning back to ‘real life.’ Since so many of them see their time in Korea as just a blip on the graph of their ‘real’ lives(finish Uni, spend a couple years somewhere cool, go back and get started on whatever), it’s understandable that they would just assume everyone else is in the same boat.
    That being said, let me tell you that many of the people I run across don’t see it that way at all. Many of my friends are serial expats who’ve lived in other foreign countries before moving here, and most expect to move on to the next foreign country after this one. The teachers at the International School where I work (and my son’s school) have worked all over the world, and most will spend the bulk of their working lives overseas.
    My guess is that the difference between you and the ‘this isn’t real’ contingent is that you know it’s real and they just haven’t figured that out. More’s the pity; I wonder what they’ll take back with them.

    • That’s true, about the younger folks in their early twenties. Like a gap year. However, most of the people I know here have already entered the workplace in their home countries, and spent at least a few years working there. For various reasons, they decided to leave it behind and come here. And inevitably, they grow tired of Korea and start talking about going back to reality, like it’s probably time to grow up now, or something. Everyone I know who has left has gone “home” rather than to the next new country, and now speaks of their time in Korea as if it was a game, or somehow a waste of time. As someone who hopes to keep living the ‘serial expat’ life for as long as possible, I just find those comments quite hurtful… I may be too sensitive about it, but it’s certainly comforting to hear that there are others like me who see this life as reality!

  3. Norma says:

    You are not living a dream – You are living Your Dream ;)
    Good on you – cant wait to catch up when you come visit this summer, and I know I will be jealous when I hear all the plans for what’s next xx

  4. As someone else who left UK for pastures new down under, I definitely agree with what Norma said about living your dream and not a dream. You may not lead the ‘normal’ life you’re ‘supposed’ to have – what’s normal? Sod them. I’d much rather be in the place you are in than letting your brain be turned to mush by another episode of X-Factor in the “real-life”. Keep on eating the Mandu!

  5. Thank you! I’m reassured to hear that there are others out there who don’t see this as a break from reality. I was starting to doubt myself!

  6. Billy says:

    Are you serious? I’d give anything to be living like you are, instead of just existing and be crippled by poverty! You are really LIVING – much more than anybody else I know. Why would you want to give that up for a townhouse, 2.4 kids and a Labrador? Not to mention how yucky husbands probably are – no, I will NOT clean your dirty underwear, you horrible old man!

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