An interview with Tim Leffel

Tim Leffel is a travel writer who has spent several years traveling throughout the world, circling the globe three times. He has published dozens of travel articles in magazines such as Specialty Travel Index, Transitions Abroad, Trips, Inns and Retreats, and Big World, and is a regular contributor to IgoUgo.com and FabulousTravel.com. He has reviewed hundreds of hotels in nine countries for a travel trade publication and has dispatched articles from countries on four continents. His stories have covered a wide range of subjects, from sailing on the Nile to wandering holy men, while he sampled everything from Kentucky bourbon to Korean soju in the line of duty. He has also worked as an English teacher in Turkey and South Korea.

How did it all begin?

I grew up in a small town in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and did not travel outside the US until I was out of college. My American girlfriend (now wife) talked me into taking a round-the-world trip for a year and the rest is history.

We spent five months teaching English in Istanbul because we were aware from the start that our funds would not last a year. We knew a little bit about Turkey and really immersed ourselves once we got there, learning enough of the language to be able to take a cab and bargain in the market, etc., but not much more since it’s a useless language outside Turkey.

The second time, we wanted to have a more long-term experience and save some money, so we signed a one-year contract with an English school in South Korea and ended up staying about 14 months. We both took the Cambridge RSA TEFL teaching course together in Bangkok, so it was always going to be something we did together. It wasn’t related to either of our career paths–just a job that would allow us to live abroad in relative comfort. We both enjoyed it a lot though.

In Korea we knew a lot of vocabulary and could get what we needed in a store, but couldn’t really have a conversation. Once again, the main lack of motivation was that we were only going to be there a limited time and we would never have use for the language once we left the border. English is universal, which is why we had a job I guess.

Did you experience any (or all) of the stages of culture shock?

There’s always culture shock, but I wouldn’t say we had any real problems except dealing with all the dishonesty in Korea. Korean business owners put no stock in contracts or agreements and feel no qualms about breaking their word. Other than that, we viewed everything as a trade-off. There’s plenty to complain about anywhere you would choose to live and you find that the US runs far more efficiently than you think it does before you’ve left, but there are plenty of positive differences to focus on as well. Anyone who goes abroad thinking it’s going to be just like home is nuts, even in western Europe. Just have a few beers with other foreigners and vent for a while. That usually does it for me.

Were you homesick?

In the end, I was very sad to leave Turkey, but very glad to leave Korea I must say. I never called anywhere but the US “home”. The things I missed most were having a wide variety of food, especially ethnic food, to choose from. In both Turkey and Korea, that’s quite difficult unless you have money to go to five-star hotels. Korea sort of had some trappings of Christmas around and one of the teachers had a party, but Christmas in Turkey was tough.

What I did not miss at all was all the chest-thumping, black and white issue patriotism, the Christian fundamentalists, urban sprawl, having to drive everywhere, short vacations, workaholics, and comparative materialism.

Was making friends difficult?

In Turkey, made a lot of great friends with other teachers and some friends were locals who were adult students or ex-students of the school where we taught. In Korea, we became friends with some of the Korean teachers, but it was much much harder to meet locals there. In Korea, individuality is frowned upon and everyone wants to be the same, so having in-depth conversations or debates is like pulling teeth.

Overall, did you enjoy your expatriate experience?

Yes. I would definitely recommend it and would say that each place was a fantastic experience and education. Living somewhere else gives you a whole different perspective and you learn so much more about the country and its culture. You also see your own country from others’ eyes.

Is there a specific incident that stands out in your mind? One thing that really hit you over the head as being so different from everything you’d ever known before?

A whole slew of them that relate to women’s rights, whether that be the overriding desire to have a son instead of a daughter, the helplessness of a woman living in the home of her husband’s parents, all the highly educated women who are forbidden to work once they have children, etc. It makes the “glass ceiling” arguments we have here seem pretty petty.

Was there anything you just hated?

The pollution. In Turkey it was from heating with coal. In Korea it was from people burning their garbage, including plastic. The two smells I remember most from Korea are kimchi and burning plastic. I also hated the way Koreans did business–very dishonest and deceitful, from not honoring contracts to Enron-style accounting fraud at nearly every major company on a routine basis.

Do you feel more rounded as a person now that you’ve lived in a different culture? Are you more attuned to what’s going on internationally? How?

Yes, far more rounded, more educated, and more in tune with what’s happening in the world. Americans are woefully ignorant about international affairs, partly because we get most of our news from TV instead of from things like NPR, the BBC, and the Economist. We’re lazy and self-centered when it comes to getting a rounded perspective. We also don’t realize that most of the world’s people, even in developed countries, don’t have all the luxuries and conveniences we take for granted.

Was your re-entry to the States strange? Did you feel different? Did you notice things you never really “saw” before?

Everyone was fat–really fat. That’s the first thing I noticed. I also really noticed how predictable and boring most people’s lives are and how limited their perspective is. Just work, meals, the kid’s soccer practice, bad TV, repeat. A week’s vacation here and there, to some sheltered resort or to London. I laughed out loud when one friend asked me, “Didn’t you get bored traveling around all that time?” All I could sputter was, “THIS is interesting?”

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