When I relate my 5-month extended overseas stay in South Korea with my boyfriend to other friends, what I often get in return are looks of envy and yearning. “You’re so lucky. It must’ve been a dream,” many often reply, but was it? Sure, an entire semester in a foreign land with the one you love—what could go wrong, you may ask. But there’s only so long before the high of the honeymoon wears thin, and even the simplest of actions trigger frustration and vexation. The truth is, living overseas with a partner can be both a dream and a pain all at once, but it’s all part of the process.
Cue the fights, the quarrels, and all the instances when we didn’t see eye to eye. Casually hanging out at one another’s houses is one story, but having to live together is something else altogether. I knew we’d have differences to iron out, but I was unprepared for the fights we had during the first two weeks of being there.
For the first couple of days, we were fighting almost every day, sometimes about things I didn’t even think were going to be problems. Growing up in a male-dominated household, my boyfriend, Clement, had the shock of his life initially when strands of long hair started collecting on the floor. To me, this was utterly normal seeing how I live with two other women in my family, and so strands of hair lying around was always just another thing on my to-clean list—not to mention, I have a very thick and long head of hair.
Soon enough, tiny habits of his—that were unbeknownst to me all this while—started surfacing and my patience, too, started wearing thin. I was getting frustrated at him for sometimes leaving the toilet lights on, he had a bone to pick with my cooking habits, the list went on. It got increasingly suffocating because we were at each other’s throats from dusk till dawn—something that we were both not used to back in Singapore.
Being there for our exchange programme, we did everything together—cooked, cleaned, attended classes, studied, shopped, and even attended church. It was everything I’d dreamed about and seen in the movies—I could almost illustrate a cute anime out of our little adventure, making the everyday things look adorable and idyllic.
But like most things, being with each other 24/7 was a double-edged sword, and I’m sure many can attest to this.
I’ve had friends tell me how much they value their me-time, and that the thought of sharing a space with someone else sends eternal shudders down their spines. While I’m not exactly that person, I do admit that being in the presence of someone else every minute of the day—no matter how much you love them—can sometimes be a tad smothering.
Back in Singapore, Clement and I had time apart with family and friends, time at work, and just time to live our lives in general. Under the same roof and in the same bed, we were always in each others’ spaces—which isn’t always a good thing.
Now I know this might sound contradictory to the aforementioned points, but hear me out. No matter how much we fought, at the end of the day, we’re still a couple and always a team—and a close one at that. If you could profile us as a couple, then I’d probably have to pick the boyfriend and girlfriend whose lives are closely intertwined with one another.
It could not be truer seeing how we have been working so hard to become that power couple—we spearheaded an a cappella team in our free time, and made pop covers together. I have close friendships with his friends, and we’re always present at each others’ family gatherings. And while that has made us both happy and accomplished, the cost that’s tagged to it is the comfort of sticking together, which in turn presents the opportunity cost of making new friends.
Similarly in an overseas setting, the unfamiliarity banded us together more, even though there were 50 other students from Singapore Management University, our home university, who were also on exchange at Hanyang University, our host university. We did manage to mingle and spend some time with other groups on different activities and trips, but the main group that we’d hang out with every week comprised mainly of our international friends from church.
On hindsight, I’m sure that Clement and I always came as a package in the eyes of these friends—not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something to think about in any relationship. Had either of us gone on exchange alone, I can say with almost 100% certainty that we’d have put ourselves out there more, and made more friends individually.
But of course, it’s not all bad. There was, in fact, much to be thankful for. Forgive my pessimism and have some takeaways that are more light-hearted instead.
Yes, inevitably, there were squabbles and differences like I mentioned earlier, but they can be used in our favour too. People say that going for exchange as a couple is a short snippet of how married life would be. Whoever came up with that was not wrong. Although not entirely scaleable, it does give you a heads-up of sorts of how living with this other person would be like, and definitely, a headstart in ironing out the kinks (in both senses of the word) of the relationship.
This way, you get to sort out cohabiting issues early on in the relationship, paving the way for a smoother transition to moving in together when the time comes.
Chores! Chores all day, every day. I’m not going to hit you with some sappy saying like, “when you’re in love, anything is fun”, but I’m not going to lie—tackling the mundane everyday obligations with someone whose presence you enjoy does inject a little more happiness into it.
Suddenly, hanging the laundry becomes a game of who can do it quicker, and cleaning the floor turns into a race. Even if you’re not the playful type, just having a long, thought-provoking conversation with your partner while you watch your laundry spin-dry can be chicken soup for the soul too. You know what they say, teamwork makes the dream work.
As part of any relationship, it’s normal that as time passes, couples will soon enough experience new milestones and—what I like to call—’firsts’ together. Despite having already been together for a year and half at the time of our exchange programme, living overseas definitely did help to expedite us experiencing these ‘firsts’.
To name a few, we visited cities such as Busan and Gwangmyeong for the first time together, experienced snow for the first time together, travelled to Japan for the first time together, watched our first live baseball match together, and climbed our first mountain from base to summit together.
The beauty about sharing these experiences is the feeling of intimacy that comes with it—almost like the ‘you and me against the world’ mindset that everyone raves about. And the best part? Venturing into these new experiences together feels so effortless, you won’t even realise that many of them have already happened until you look back.
In Singapore, not having a space to call our own (yet) can be tricky for more reasons than one. For starters, whenever we’re looking to chill and binge Netflix’s latest series, we have to resort to either of our houses to do that, but it’s tough to go over every so often without at least one party feeling bad for constantly interrupting the space belonging to the other’s family.
This shared space doesn’t appear to be necessary until you realise that you don’t have it—a space for doing work, chilling, and heck, even applying for a BTO flat together, amongst other things.
In our apartment in Korea, we had the luxury of this privacy in the space we called home for the short five months. A place where we could cook, dine, study, and have movie nights together—uninterrupted and comfortable.
Some other things that I really find myself reminiscing are midnight supper trips and morning grocery runs too. Though it may seem like something so trivial, it truly is one of the things I miss the most about living together, but I hold onto to the hope of having that once again when we finally say hello to our forever home.
So you see, an overseas adventure with your partner might not be a total bed of roses, but it sure does count for something where growth and intimacy are concerned. Above all, it’s a good experience for any couple to have for the joys of it are sure to outweigh the bad—and if they don’t, then you’ll be thankful that you found that out sooner rather than later.
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