The Obligations of an Expat


It was a wasted day.

And it was totally my fault.

Sitting on an intercity bus, darting eyes searched for some sort of recognizable landmark. Predictably, frustrations grew as seven expats attempted to navigate a foreign metro system. Each using varied algorithms involving a compounding formula of the least amount of transfers and the shortest distance travelled.

I slinked off to a convenience store. Offering any advice, especially at this point, would surely be met with fierce, glaring looks. Looks which would last just a second too long and communicate something passive-aggressive like, “Hey Sarah, remember what happened last time you said you knew where you going?”

A friend followed me into the store. Staring at a freezer of Korean treats, we each grabbed an unknown flavour of ice cream. Hiding from the team of metro mathematicians, we discovered hidden slabs of peanut butter nestled in the bottom of the cones.

“This is the best part of my day!” she exclaimed.

I ate the last of the cone. I was too ashamed to say, “me too.”

I had forced the day from the beginning. I had given the group a hard (yet convincing) sell on a mountain hike to Seokbulsa, a temple made entirely of stone in the coastal city of Busan, South Korea. I wasn’t really sure if I even wanted to go. That’s probably why I never really bothered to research actual directions. But my lack of enthusiasm in the event was only confirmed once the rest of the group expressed the same shrugging indifference.

So why did a bunch of expats, most perfectly content with the idea of remaining motionless until sundown, spend upwards of 6 hours looking for a temple none of them had any real interest in?

Well simply put, we felt like we had to.

This isn’t just Busan. This happens in Bangkok, Beijing, Battambang, and Borneo. This happens everywhere.

Be it as an expat or a traveller, we often experience this weird sense of obligation in a new city or place. We feel that just because we are a certain somewhere, we need to do a certain something. These commitments, forced on us by no one in particular, make it incredibly difficult to differentiate our motives and intentions when we travel. Yes, some of our travels are designated by our own genuine interests. But how much of it is done, just to avoid those overwhelming feelings of guilt? For having left a place without snapping a shot in front of the famed tourist attraction?

For every weekend I spend in my neighbourhood in Seoul, deciding to stay in the city instead of exploring the rest of Korea, I feel this overwhelming urgency to open my passport to the stickered work visa page, and slap myself across the face.

Why did I move to a country on the opposite side of the planet, to only recreate the same activities I would do at home?

Well simply put (again), it’s because I want to.

What if I told you that I travelled to the city of Agra in India but didn’t visit the Taj Mahal because you know, I just didn’t feel like it?

(Alright. So that’s a total lie. But you should have seen the look on your face!)

The point is, my travels would still be valid. It would still mean something. It would still mean that I went to Agra. It would still mean that I had that experience.

Living in the capital city of South Korea, I find it very difficult to leave. Not only do I have a hard time leaving this city, but like I said, I struggle to even leave my own neighbourhood. At times, I feel guilty because comparatively, I’m not having a “real” expat experience.

But then I quickly overcome the guilt. I remind myself that nothing seems more disingenuous than a forced travel experience. I recognize that I’m getting to know a different Korea. One with unmarked alleyways left off the map. One with secret neighbourhood hang outs. One with travel want-to’s instead of travel have-to’s. One with experiences and recommendations and peanut butter ice cream cones which never seem to make it onto any “Top Ten Attractions” list.

I will probably never fulfill my commitments as an expat.

But maybe I never really wanted to, anyways.

Author: Sarah Kloke

Sarah is a columnist for Vagabundo Magazine. She brags a lot about meeting a dude in the Philippines with 11 fingers. She keeps a steady routine of travel, write, brush teeth, repeat, and will continue to do so until she runs out of stories. Or countries. Whichever comes first, really. Sarah has been making different parts of Asia her temporary and not-quite permanent home for the past three years. She also writes at

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  1. Love this. I call it Sunny Day Anxiety, and I have it bad.

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  2. Huh. I kind of have the opposite feeling when I’m staying put for a while, because it’s not like those attractions are going anywhere. I’ve been in Thailand for 9 months and I didn’t even SEE an elephant until a few weeks ago. But since I kind of feel like I failed Thailand, a little bit of Sunny Day anxiety is probably good.
    Susan Sharp recently posted..We Need to Talk About Stink BeansMy Profile

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    • I sometimes wonder if I too, have failed Korea. But then I get sort of self-defensive and I’m all like, “Nu-uh Korea! YOU totally failed me.” Which also is not the case. And makes me feel like an accusatory jerk.

      But you’re right. Unless on wheels, those attractions will not be moving any time soon.
      Sarah recently posted..How Gangnam Style Ruined My SummerMy Profile

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The Obligations of an Expat