Ten years ago, if you would have told Jessica Cobbs she would someday quit her “adult job,” donate all of her worldly possessions and board a one-way flight to South Korea, she likely would have thought you were crazy. However, after an unexpected, yet fortunate series of events, she found herself navigating the “ins and outs” of English language teaching at an elementary school in Seoul, South Korea’s largest city and cultural hub. That was two years ago. Now living in Madrid, Spain, Jessica is embracing her new “home.” Read on to learn more about her expat experience.
Up in the Air Life: Why did you make the decision to move abroad? Jessica: I’ve always had a fond interest in other cultures and languages and caught the travel bug while studying abroad in high school and in college (to Mexico and Costa Rica, respectively). After finishing undergrad, I entered the full-time work world and lived comfortably, but often daydreamed of ways to break out of the cube life and become an expat. During that period, I used all of my vacation days and disposable income to take multiple international trips per year, but I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied until I achieved my dream of living abroad as an adult.
U: Where do you live? J: I’m from Chicago, but spent the last two years living in Seoul, South Korea, teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL). After returning to the United States for a few weeks, I recently moved to Madrid, Spain to pursue a similar opportunity.
U: What do you do? J: I worked in the international development/humanitarian field for several years prior to resigning and moving abroad to teach EFL. My initial move to Korea represented a career shift for me.
U: What are some of the travel advantages of living abroad? J: Not only have I been blessed to encounter and befriend interesting people from all over the world, I’ve had the freedom and the funds to visit neighboring cities and countries. I’d only been to a few Asian countries before moving to Korea, but by becoming an expat in the region, I was able to cross a lot of places off my bucket list for cheap! During my two-year stint in Korea, I also visited Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, mainland China, The Philippines, India, and very briefly—Japan. I have plans to do even more exploring while in Spain!
Also, simply put – I get to experience the world! Living in a country and immersing oneself in its culture is different than traveling somewhere for a weeklong vacation. Life abroad has its challenges, but there is not much I would change about my trajectory.
U: How long have you been an expat? J: I spent two years in Korea and am only recently beginning my expat journey in Spain.
U: Do you have a network of friends, colleagues? J: Yes! The internet allows people to facilitate connections and soak up information with the click of a button. I’m a member of several travel/ expat groups that are active on social networks and in person, and I’ve also made friends with others participating in similar English teaching programs. Such people have been integral in my decision to live abroad, and they’ve provided endless support and inspiration as I’ve made the transition. I can’t imagine having taken such a huge leap without assistance from others.
U: How long do you think you will be an expat? J: I don’t plan to be an expat for the rest of my life, but I’m currently happy with where I am and what I’ve accomplished. As I approach my thirties, I look forward to having a family of my own and a partner who values travel just as much as I do; it’s extremely important for me to raise globally-minded, well-rounded children. I’d love for my future offspring to be exposed to the world at a young age, but I would also love for them to live close to extended family and experience life in The United States.
U: What do you miss about the U.S.? J: I miss NBA season, baked macaroni and cheese, and being able to find shoes in my size. I miss house parties, game nights, and hilarious office banter. I miss my record and book collections and living in an apartment that feels like home. I miss my family and friends and watching my little brother, nieces, and nephews grow up. I miss having the ability to sit on a loved one’s couch when I’m having a bad day.
I also miss having convenient access to Black American culture and ethnic diversity. In Chicago and in many cities across the United States, it is completely normal to regularly encounter people of various backgrounds. In South Korea—one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world—I was considered “different” and somewhat of an oddity. My brown skin and curly fro caused me to stand out wherever I went. I’m a person who loves travel and cultural exchange, and while I generally embrace friendly curiosity, sometimes it’s nice to go about my day without feeling like such an alien.
U: What would you tell someone that is considering moving abroad? J: If you are considering becoming an expat, take the leap! While some may not support or understand your decision, you’ll likely encounter many people who will be excited to witness your journey and will be there to cheer you on.
Secondly, be careful not to romanticize expat life! Recognize that such an experience can be fun, rewarding and life changing, but it won’t be perfect. You will see beautiful places, people and things, but if you’re anything like me — a girl who moved to a new city in which she knew no one — sometimes you may look up and realize that the people who most matter aren’t there to share in the experience with you.
Know that some days will be lonely and isolating as hell, and that life’s ebbs and flows may be exacerbated by the fact that your support system lives thousands of miles away. Be social and leverage various networks, so that you can have the best experience possible.
Finally, embrace your new country, its culture and people, and even when the honeymoon stage ends, appreciate the experience for what it is.
U: Have you met other “Lifers” while abroad? J: Unfortunately, I’ve yet to attend any official UITAL meet ups while abroad, though I’ve met Lifers who hold memberships in other groups I’m affiliated with.
With that said…Spain 2016 anyone???
Thanks, Jessica, for sharing your expat experience with us!
Click here to read more about Jessica’s experience as an expat living in Seoul.