Like so many millennials, Florida-native Courtney Askins Wong has had to contend with the challenge of launching her career in the midst of America’s struggling economy. After graduating from Florida State University, Askins found work at both a private charter school in Tallahassee and the Tallahassee International Airport. That is, until layoffs caused her to lose both jobs within a week.
Unemployed and eager for a change, Wong began considering employment opportunities outside of the United States. A friend who was living in Korea advised her to use a recruiting agency to help her find a teaching position at a private elementary school abroad. Though she hoped to find a position in Japan, Wong learned the recruiter was only filling positions in Korea.
“That’s one thing to watch out for when applying to teaching jobs in other countries, “Wong advises. “Some recruiting companies can be a little shifty.”
Nevertheless, Wong left the U.S. for South Korea in 2010 when she was 23. She maintained a long-distance relationship with her now-husband Antonio Wong for a year. Today the couple calls Seoul, South Korea home, where Antonio works at a local university and Courtney is home with their 10-month-old son, Kenzo.
I’ve been places I never thought I could outside of watching The Travel Channel.
“Living here has afforded me opportunities I never thought I would get,” she says. “I’ve been places, had experiences, and met people I never thought I could outside of watching The Travel Channel. And now I get to share that with my son.”
We spoke with Wong about how her family is making things work over 7,000 miles away from her hometown, and how they are raising their son to be confident in a place where very few people look like him.
How difficult has it been for you to adapt culturally to being in a different country?
It was a little overwhelming at first. Before I got here, I didn’t know anything about Korea. I bought Korean language and culture books before I came. But as I was studying, I felt like I was butchering the language, so I thought it would be easier for me to learn once I was immersed in the culture. Big mistake! Korean is scientifically the easiest language to learn to read, but as for speaking, not so much!
The people here have been extremely helpful. Koreans are xenophobic, and will stare at you—not because they’re racist, but simply because you look different. Don’t get me wrong, there is racism here, but it isn’t as blatant. I’ve been lucky that I haven’t experienced racism in the city. I think it occurs more in the rural areas. And today, with social media, it’s not hard to find expats living here. We found a Facebook group called Brothas and Sistas of South Korea. They host lots of events for people of color living in and around Seoul.
Are you at all concerned about your son maintaining his identity as a Black man, while living in Korea?
I always knew I wanted a son. But I’ll admit, I was worried when I found out I was actually having one. In our society, he’s already fighting a losing battle. We just want him to have a winning chance.
Last month, one of my cousins was the victim of gun violence—the second incident of gun violence in my family. All I could think about [at the time] was that we lost another potential leader. I want to raise my son in an environment where he is happy and safe.
We are adamant about making sure Kenzo knows he’s a Black man, but not making him fearful of what comes along with that. His name means “wise,” and he already exudes confidence.
Do you worry that by living so far away your son is missing out on relationships with his extended family back in the U.S,?
My family understands why we’re away. They’re very supportive. I take pictures and videos almost every day. Skype also helps to keep everyone updated. My mom and my mother-in-law have visited. Now I just have to get my dad out here. He’s in love with Kenzo, so I’m sure he’ll make the trip.
But we’ve also created an extended family for ourselves here. People who aren’t related to us have stepped up to help in a big way. The parent network is really strong. Between military families, the embassies, and Samsung employees, there are quite a few expat families making it work here.
How do you feel about the schools in South Korea?
We have looked into schools, but it’s so far off for us, and we don’t know where we’ll be in the next four years. We know from our experience in working with elementary school students, that we don’t want Kenzo to go to a public school here in Korea. Although public school is free, the education system is pretty grueling, and they don’t teach critical thinking.
Kids go to school for most of the day, then they go to private academies called hagwons, where they learn a variety of subjects such as English, math, taekwondo, and music. Some students don’t finish until 8:30 at night and still have to come home, do their regular homework, and go to bed. Then, they have to wake up and do it all over again the next day. I’m all for extracurriculars, but that is exhausting—and expensive.
We’d like to be able to send him to an international school, which can be pretty expensive, ranging from $20,000-$30,000 per year. [Antonio and I] are working to become certified to teach in an international school, so it would be less expensive. But if we do have to send him to regular Korean school, we would supplement [his experience] with lots of encouragement and socialization. We’d just prefer a more Western social atmosphere.
But all in all, it’s up to the parents. I know people who have children in Korean public schools, and are perfectly fine with it. As for now, Ken and I enjoy our time together, as well as the occasional playdates and Mommy-meetups.
Parenthood in another country is like a one-armed sport.
What is the cost of living like compared to U.S.?
The public transportation system here is very efficient. We don’t see the need to have a car, which means we don’t have to budget for gas, insurance, or expensive parking fees. Driving can be sort of a nightmare when you live in a city with close to 25 million people!
Depending on where you work, your living expenses can be taken care of by your employer. Our housing is paid for by the university, so we only pay for our utilities. In terms of food, we go to the local stores or traditional outdoor markets when it comes to our produce. We shop at Costco for our bulkier items.
We’re here on a family visa, and are covered under the national healthcare plan that the school provides. I took my son to the doctor’s office and got a bill for $3! But if you don’t have health insurance, it can be a little expensive.
Overall, our budget for transportation, groceries, and other bills is under $1,000 [per month], which leaves us some wiggle room for entertainment—when we can find a sitter. [Laughs]
What do you miss about the United States?
Honestly, I miss Publix more than anything—being able to go to the grocery store and get the things I need. I have to order a lot of things online, which can get expensive. Other than that, not much!
What advice would you offer families looking to leave the states for another country?
Research where you’re going. Things like the cultural differences, the education system, and the culture’s view on Blacks. Parenthood in another country is like a one-armed sport. It makes parenting easier when you’ve done your research. For example, the hospitals [in Seoul] are closed on Sundays.
Also, try to have an open mind about the cultural differences. In Korea, old ladies rule everything. They always admire Kenzo when we’re out. They try to pick him up and make silly faces at him. It was a culture shock, but now I don’t really have a problem with people being in his face. Older women can be pushy. They think they know everything about parenting, and don’t hesitate to give you an unsolicited opinion.
My husband sometimes gets aggravated when people approach him, but I love the break I get when people are paying attention to Kenzo. It can be helpful when I’m tired. The birth rate here is low, so people really love babies! I’ve even had people give me money for having a cute baby [a Korean custom]. I’ve gotten a few dollars here and there, but one of my friends told me she got $10!
I love this journey. As frustrating and tiring as it can be, seeing Kenzo’s toothless smile makes it all worthwhile.