Geoje Island in South Korea is a cultural melting pot. With a population of 200,000, more than 50,000 are expats from countries like Australia, UK, France and the US, many working on major Australian projects for companies like Shell, Inpex and Chevron.
Since 2012, there’s been a slow and steady arrival of westerners to the island, or in some cases, two hours north, in Ulsan.
Construction takes place in one of two shipyards – Samsung or Daewoo – and both resemble giant meccano sets churning out some 50 completed ships a year. Samsung Shipyard actually has the highest dock turnover rate in the world, with 30 ships per year.
Expats either work in operations, typically Monday to Friday or on an 8:2 roster, or as contractors, most working six days a week or on four weeks on, four weeks off.
Whilst the almost-all male workforce sets off to the shipyards each day, it’s the expat wives left to manoeuvre family life in a foreign country where English is a rare second language for locals, familiar food is a challenge to find and driving is a combative sport.
Christie Parody arrived with her husband, Adrian in 2012. Adrian was the first Inpex operational staff member to be deployed to the island and will have been in South Korea over four years by the time they return to Australia. At the time, very little of the infrastructure, accommodation and resources that expats enjoy today, actually existed.
Not long after Ceri Fraser arrived with her husband, Simon to also work on the Inpex Ichthys project and was one of the very first expat women to give birth on the island.
Both Christie and Ceri expected an almost third world environment but were pleasantly surprised to find South Korea, and specifically the island, was far more advanced than anticipated.
Ceri and Christie have both been instrumental in establishing many of the support networks for women and families that have evolved on the island. Ceri launched a specific Facebook page for Geoje expat women in 2012 which is now 1,000 members and provides a wealth of information and tips, in addition to allowing people to connect, meet and build relationships.
Later arrivals, Julie Wellington and Linley van der Fee, cite the greatest challenge in having to give up work to be here. Whilst Julie and her husband, Dave arrived from an initial expat assignment in Houston and Linley and her husband, Mostyn from China, both struggled with the idea of taking further leave from their own careers.
All four women however cite the most surprising element of life on the island as ‘the community’.
“I simply did not expect that there would be this many women on the island who would form such close relationships, be so open and supportive”, says Christie.
Ceri agrees, “The community and the socialising is what I like most about living here. It’s a very supportive and close knit environment, especially after coming from London on assignment”.
Julie, Ceri and Christie all have children, some attending school. They agree that the schooling offers a unique learning experience for children, with all nationalities celebrated through theme, food and cultural days.
There are day to day challenges though. Sourcing food and specific grocery items can rarely be accomplished at one supermarket. Shopping typically requires a visit to at least two, often three locations throughout the week. As some items are also hard to find consistently, bulk purchases become the norm.
Driving too is a major impediment for some. Not only is it left hand, but many road rules are often deemed optional. It is not uncommon for drivers to run red lights, ignore designated lanes or simply stop in the middle of the road for no apparent reason.
And even when driving is mastered, parking is almost non-existent. For women who have to transport kids to school, meet friends to socialise, run errands and shop for food, the simplest of tasks can take all day due to the driving, parking and language barriers.
All four women however strongly agree that the positives far outweigh any negatives.
Julie cites the lack of crime and the safe environment as a major drawcard, “people can literally come and go to your home whilst you are not there and you can trust that nothing will be stolen or damaged”.
“Living as an expat provides financial freedom to travel and to enjoy my new baby”, says Christie.
Linley and Ceri agree that “there is plenty on offer and it’s what you make of the opportunity”.