Culture, Expat life, Personal

Summer in the city (3 Months in Denmark!)

This summer has been one of tears, goodbyes, joy, light, and love. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. Yesterday I cried because I talked to some of my friends back in the UK and I missed the life I had there and all the wonderful people I still know there. I cried because I don’t know when I will be able to see my closest friends again in person. I cried because I’ve been through a lot of frustrations and obstacles to get to where I am now. I cried because I’ve had to say goodbyes. I cried for the bittersweet memories and the unresolved stories I left behind.

But I also smiled because my life in Denmark is better than I could ever have imagined. I’m meeting all the goals I’ve set for myself at work, I have great colleagues, I’m finally getting enough sleep (ish…), I’m in a relationship with someone I see a real future with (which is really saying something), I’m actually getting invited to parties, and I’m just making the most of the good life and not taking a single second of it for granted.

Since the start of my 20s, I’ve either spent my summers in Korea or the UK, or doing little trips around Europe. Talk about pre-pandemic privilege! With the exception of last summer, when I finished up my PhD and took up a temporary full-time office job while looking for my first academic post, I have always felt the desire to move around or explore someplace new. Some of that desire was genuine curiosity and a sense of spontaneity, but it was also a way for me to while away my dissatisfactions. I kept wanting a taste of change, a different environment, because I often felt like whatever I had or was doing just wasn’t it. Going ‘away’ inspired me, and allowed me to indulge the most cliched fantasies of possibility: I’d be a writer in NYC, a fashionista in Paris, a curator in London. I felt like a dreamer passing through an ocean of opportunities whenever I found myself exploring a new place or a big city.

Since finishing up my PhD in 2019, I knew I had to get serious about my future and do a little less of the physical travelling and a lot more of the spiritual, speculative kind of travelling. I couldn’t just jet off to a romantic city every now and again and pretend myself a chic, free, burden-less cosmopolitan citizen (and let’s be honest, you actually have to be quite privileged to sustain that kind of jet-setting mobility). I’ve had to ask myself where I want to be in a year’s time, 5 years time, 10 years time. I’ve had to ask myself what country I’d like to work in – and how far out in the world I am willing to go for the kind of career I want. I’ve had to reflect on what adventure, stability, and home mean to me, and what it is that I value most about life and all that can be experienced within it. I’ve had to think about the kinds of relationships I could and could not part with. And as I’ve discussed countless times on this blog, the answers to these questions were never set in stone or obvious to me. This is because my life and my identity has always been defined by being away from my country of birth. I never really felt like I had an existential constant, or anchor, that served as a foundation for the answer to my purpose.

I think part of that lack of an anchor has to do with my perceived lack of an identity which for most people is greatly shaped by the cultural, legal, and in many ways moral membership to their country/nation/state. Let me put this in the form of a trivial example. In the Western world, the number 13 is considered unlucky if you are superstitious. Where I’m from originally, it is not so – but number 4 is considered unlucky. There’s little things, quirks of culture and belief, that never ‘added up’ from where I stood because I would have the ability to inhabit multiple worlds simultaneously. And those worlds were in constant tension: Does my intuition tell me that the number 13 is bad, or is it 4? How am I supposed to decide which belief systems I pledge my loyalties to? And why does any of it matter? Did my cosmopolitan attitude actually erode the stability of whatever ‘personal identity’ I have?

I’ve met so many people for whom purpose seems to come easy. To them, it’s like, I was meant to become a parent and start a family. I was meant to give back to my country. I want to settle in _____. And I’ve always had this sense that their ability to, literally and spiritually, locate themselves as a stable member of some spatio-temporal environment, was what allowed them to see their purpose.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I don’t have my goals or principles. I want to be a good person. I want to better myself. I want to take care of my friends and family. I want to foster meaningful connections. I want all the universal things that I like to imagine everybody else wants in their life too. It’s just that I also have to ask: Ok, but which country to do you belong? Where are you going to settle to achieve all those things? Do ‘your people’ actually accept you? Where are you supposed to buy a permanent property? What happens if you have a cultural clash with the person you want to be with? Whatever objectives I had, they’ve always been complicated by questions regarding immigration, citizenship, integration, and belonging.

Like many others, I so desperately wanted to make 2020 ‘my’ year – a fresh start in a new decade. My first academic job contract was due to end in May 2020 and I had to find something to do next. But then the pandemic spread all across Europe and I had no idea where I could go given all the chaos. I could barely hold it together the first three months of 2020. It took blood, sweat and tears for me to figure out how not to get deported from the UK when my visa ran out mid-pandemic, to stay in Europe, not have to move back in with my parents all the way in Korea, and somehow land my dream job – all at the same time.

And what do you know, I somehow managed to figure it out in the nick of time, and now I’m here. The answer I was looking for all year was Denmark.

It’s now been 3 months since I relocated to Copenhagen, and I’m so grateful. The world has shown itself to be a scary place, full of tragedy, disappointment, resentment, violence, fear. And we can probably all agree that 2020 has been a dark and disastrous time, on many levels, for humanity on the whole. We’ve collectively and individually ached for the things, people, and ideals lost so early on in the new decade. But I take my experience of this year thus far as a true gift, in spite of the tears I’ve shed. I will forever count myself lucky to be able to say that I’ve thrived and endured in my own way, at this strange juncture in human history.

I’ve started to appreciate the beauty of staying put in one place, making do with what is, observing the interesting and beautiful things around me, caring more about those that mean the most to me, and learning to love the small and simple things. The work I put in all year to be right here has meant that my life doesn’t consist of fantasies and dreams anymore. Rain or sunshine, my wish is my life. I cherish it, and I’m content. I’ve been chilling, working, living, meeting new people, and enjoying the city at a very leisurely pace. This country is not perfect, nor is it ‘my’ country by any means, but it’s a beautiful stopover if nothing else. I look at these photos I’ve taken over the summer below and honestly think the city is a sight to behold at every single hour of the day. I’m here to embrace it and make the most of the experiences it has to offer me as a young and ambitious woman trying to live a good life, a beautiful life, a meaningful life. That’s all I can do to continually create my own realm and sense of belonging. And the beautiful memories I’ve made this summer make my heart sing. I hope I can look back on this time, Summer of 2020, and remember that life can be simple yet full of meaning. A life worth living.

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Expat life, Personal, Sunday Musings

What is Home?

What is home? On the surface, this seems like a simple enough question with a simple enough answer. Aphorisms like “Home is where the heart is” indicate to us this much: home is warmth, home is love, home is belonging. Home is the place you go back to after a long day. Home is always there.

Once issues about nationality, citizenship, race, and migration are added to the mix, however, home becomes a contentious concept. If you’ve ever been a “foreigner” or a “minority” it doesn’t take much imagination to interpret comments like “Go home” as a “We don’t want you here“. The meaning of “home” in this context can be fraught with hostility and resentment. The assumption underlying such comments are that because you look and sound like you’re from somewhere else, somewhere else is where you must go back. It’s where you belong. You aren’t invited into the club of people who are meant to be here.

It’s impossible to avoid comments like these sometimes, even from the most well-meaning people. When I was desperately looking for a job to continue my stay in the UK (before I took this Denmark gig), many were puzzled. “Why don’t you just find a job back home? In Korea?”

The answer is complicated.

For a lot of people, “home” is just the place of their permanent residence. Of course, permanent residence is often the place in which they also happen to have full citizenship. In other cases, “home” confers a personal identity: many friends I’ve talked to will reference “home” as the place that makes them identify as “Spanish” or “Vietnamese” (despite, for instance, having citizenship elsewhere). Whatever the case, there is “home”, and for many people these links between place, identity, and legality are never in conflict. Home is not questioned.

I’m not sure how I would tie down the concept of “home” in my case, as it’s not quite as easy for me to match “home” with any of the aforementioned. In the UK, I didn’t technically have “strong ties”: no ancestors or family members living there, no spouse, no big investments, etc. Yet I lived there continuously and law-abidingly for almost 10 years, speak the language at native level proficiency (sorry, I refuse to accept that I am merely “good for a foreigner”), been educated extensively at the tertiary level there, became a Doctor (PhD) there, worked my first jobs there, and have most of my friends based there. All this, and I didn’t yet qualify for permanent residency in the UK. I most certainly didn’t qualify for citizenship. So what is “home”? The place I was born (South Korea), but don’t really remember growing up in? The place I did grow up in as a child (Austria) and would have qualified for citizenship if my parents had applied for it on my behalf? Yes, that’s right – in an alternate universe, I may well be a European citizen by now. Or does home have to do with the places I’ve resided the longest (in that case, “Europe” is the clear winner – I’ve been in Europe close to 20 years)? Is home the place in which I am currently making my livelihood (Denmark)? Is it where the people I truly love and care about are (in that case, the entire world may as well be home – many of my close friends are just as nomadic and ‘International’ as me if not more so)? If home is about what I “feel” I am, or what I identify as, I can’t say I feel particularly British, or Austrian, or Korean. And needless to say, having only just arrived in Denmark, it’s not even a question that I don’t “identify” with the Danish way of being – and I wouldn’t even know what that is (yet).

So none of it seems satisfactory, if only because my situation does not meet the substantive concept of “home” (which I’ve assumed is residence, citizenship, and identity – at least in this context of migration). Of course, if “home” was a more thin concept, like places I’ve lived or something, then all of the places I mentioned above could become plausible candidates for “home”. But this is clearly not what people mean when they talk about “home” in the substantive sense or ask me what I consider my home to be – the point of home is that it’s somehow constant, special, and unique. It’s not merely about the house you live in or the people you know.

Sure, I could have just “gone back home” to find a job. It’s clear that people think I should go back to the place I look like I’m from, as if opportunities for me will be more abundant just by virtue of that connection. It’s just that I’m not sure I did want to “go back home”, or to frame my next steps in life by reference to “home”, which as you’ve just seen is a pretty complicated concept for me. I was more interested, I suppose, in moving to the next workable adventure that made most sense to me. I would have been willing to go anywhere that would give me what I want out of life. I have, after all, been trained in my field abroad, I’ve had an upbringing in a culture away from my place of birth and citizenship, and I’ve only ever attended international schools. Perhaps not so shockingly, I identify more with cosmopolitan attitudes than country-specific ones.

Much of what it took for me to be me, then, is crucially bound up with an absence of a strong concept of “home”. As such, “home” is a demand I struggle to meet. I like where I’ve ended up. I cherish the experiences I’ve had in all the places I’ve lived. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without all that I’ve experienced. And isn’t that enough? Do I really have to designate a home?

One might still protest that there is a practical consideration I am underplaying here: the reason to “go home” is not so much an existential question as it is a legal one. But here, too, I resist the idea that there is a default place I’m supposed to be simply because I was conferred a legal citizenship at birth. It might seem like the obvious thing to do, but I don’t think it’s that obvious. People move “abroad” for all sorts of reasons, all the time. No matter how valid my reasons for wanting to stay in Europe, I suspect my status as an outsider (and a racialized one at that) would always have worked against me in terms of people’s attitudes towards my wanting to settle here. This is despite me being more advantaged than many other nationals due to being South Korean, thanks to the relationship South Korea has with countries like the UK for example. So I believe there is a strong intuition (prejudice?) that is masked by a language of legality – the intuition some people have that it makes most sense for “foreigners” to “go back to where they came from”, if no obvious reason for their being “away from home” emerges.

I am of course very much aware that I’m lucky to move abroad for “nice” reasons, like studying abroad and working abroad (many people have told me I’m ‘spoiled’ because of this) – not reasons that have to do with civil instability and persecution and so on. The advantages I had in that respect are very similar to advantages that UK citizens have to move to other parts of the world. But you know what, no matter what reasons people have to migrate, resettle, vie for dual citizenship, etc., the very obvious thing that is being overlooked is that “home” can become ambiguous to an individual just by virtue of going through the experience of moving around. My official immigration status is besides the point. Something as common sense as “home”, then, can be a huge question mark for people like me who are still trying to figure out how to connect the dots between the where, the why, and the who I am.

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Denmark, Expat life, Personal, Travel

Why I’m moving to Denmark from the UK in the middle of a worldwide pandemic

Days before Denmark became one of the first countries in Europe to close its borders and go on coronavirus lockdown back in March 2020, I received a job offer from Copenhagen for June 2020. I was delighted, of course – I accepted the job offer. My hope originally was to visit Copenhagen during Easter, scope out a place to live, move in the beginning of May, and be settled and ready to start by June.

But then, chaos.

Since the lockdown, questions from others that would otherwise be easy to answer (like if I’m going to travel by land or air) have, in this pandemic time, implicated sheer panic-inducing uncertainty for me. My most frequently used phrase in the past couple of months must have been ‘I don’t know’.

Last week I would have told you I’d be in Denmark by now, but my flight got cancelled last minute. I spent a small fortune booking another flight to Denmark (I’m supposed to fly in a couple of days, heavens willing) but who knows if this one will fly. So – I still don’t know. All I can do is wait and see.

Ok, back up. Can I not start my new job contract remotely? Why not just wait until travel restrictions are relaxed further before traveling/moving?

Believe you me, it’s no fun making travel plans during a global pandemic, let alone plans to up and move my entire life to a country I’ve never lived before under these exceptional conditions. I’m about a grand short due to travel and moving related expenditures at this point and don’t think I would have been able to sort everything out without savings. I’m also still juggling my current job (my contract in the UK expires the day before my new job in Denmark is set to start).

Here’s the reason it is imperative that I travel and move now (aside from the fact that I would like to start my job on time): my visa in the UK is about to expire. The UK Home Office is still only offering to extend people’s imminently expiring visas due to coronavirus (to those who are self-isolating due to illness or cannot book flights back home) until the 31st May 2020 – as if normal flight routes will be back up and running by then (?!)

Given the Home Office’s position I must make haste. 31st May 2020 is the absolute limit; after this date I would become an overstayer. It is on us ‘foreigners’ to travel out of the country, if we are able to so, by the end of this month, if we don’t want to risk repercussions related to our immigration status. There is no luxury of sitting back and waiting out the virus. It’s surreal to think about – despite getting my PhD in the UK, and having lived, studied and worked here for 9.5 years continuously, I am effectively forced out in the middle of a pandemic despite ongoing travel restrictions/disruptions because of my visa expiry.

Many people have incredulously indicated to me that, surely, the Home Office could not be that draconian – they wouldn’t actually punish overstayers and so on, given the pandemic. Hopefully not. But who actually knows? As a ‘foreigner’ with a precarious immigration status in the UK I find this kind of incredulity naive and frustrating. It’s easy for people to sit back and speculate about what they think human decency amounts to at the policy-level when they aren’t the targets of exclusion. I would love to believe that everyone gets treated in a reasonable way in the end, in whatever country they reside – but I’m wise enough to worry! Mind you, I’m speaking from a position of relative privilege. I’ve never made trouble in the UK, I can afford to live on my own abroad, my passport gives me international mobility, I don’t have dependants to worry about, I’m not stranded, I’m not fleeing a terrible situation in my home country, and so forth. Even so, I’ve had my fair share of Kafkaesque nightmares regarding immigration matters in the UK, and the psychological centrality of my insecure immigration status as a ‘foreigner’ is largely what makes me so eager to leave to a place where my permission to be there is not under threat.

But hey – I’ve made peace with the injustice of my relationship with the UK. I certainly don’t want to stick around to find out what happens to me if I stay here. My one beacon of hope throughout the uncertainty of lockdown has been the great competence and clarity I’ve received from Denmark. My experience applying for my work permit, enrolling my biometrics, and receiving the documents necessary to pass border restrictions in Denmark, has been unbelievably smooth, relatively unbureaucratic, and incredibly fast (I got my visa in 7 days). This has made a hugely positive impact on me during such an uncertain time. I will never forget it.

See you soon, Denmark, and thank you.

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