Being an expat myself, I’ve always had a soft spot for those who left everything and everyone behind to start a new life in a new country.
There’s the predictable culture shock, and in many cases a language barrier. In the beginning, every day is an exciting and surprising adventure. But as you start to settle in, you quickly discover that your dream of living in a new land does not resemble reality in any way, shape, or form.
To some people in your adopted country, you’re an unwelcome foreigner trying to steal their jobs. To others, you’re an exotic outsider with weird manners and a strange way of speaking.
As you’re settling in, you come to the following realization.
Living, loving, and working far away from home, you’ll never feel more connected to where you came from.
The longer you’re gone, the stronger this feeling gets. Until you go back for a quick visit after a few years have passed, and you notice how much has changed in your absence. And for the first time in your life, you feel like you’re no longer fitting in at home either.
I remember coming back to the Netherlands, and finding out all the money had changed from guilders to euros. It’s only money, but it’s something valuable you use every day. It’s a symbol of a nation’s identity and pride.
I also observed that people had started speaking differently. The familiar Dutch was increasingly interspersed with English words and expressions. And when I spoke, I saw some raised eyebrows because -as I learned later- I was using words that had gone out of fashion.
FROM NORTH AMERICA TO SOUTH KOREA
In this edition of the Nethervoice blog, I am talking to fellow expat Barri Tsavaris. She’s an American voice over colleague who lives and works in South Korea. When I asked her how she ended up there, this is what she told me:
“I was working for the jewelry brand John Hardy, planning all their trade shows. At the end of ’08, the US was struck with the housing crisis and subsequent recession, which led to me losing my job in early 2009. I used that year to produce my semi-autobiographical play, I Will Follow, which debuted in the NY International Fringe Festival. Once that closed, I sat in my office (the grand hall of the New York City Public Library) and decided that I couldn’t just go back to temping and the occasional acting gig while waiting for the next big thing. I had to create the next big thing for myself.
The economy in NYC was a mess, I’d gone through a divorce the year before, I lost my apartment…all signs were telling me it was time to step away from New York for a bit. So I googled “what job can I get abroad with only a bachelor’s degree in film?” Haha good times! I got a job teaching English at a public school just outside of Seoul. I flew to Asia 4 months later.”
Are you there permanently or temporarily?
“Temporarily. Wait…does 10 years count as temporary?! When I left New York, I told myself it was just for a year. My plan was to write the next “Eat, Pray, Love” and return to NYC to produce it on stage. But toward the end of that first year, I was in a production of The Vagina Monologues, and one of my castmates was a woman who was working as a voice actor. We became friends, she introduced me to her agent, and within a few months, I was scurrying around Seoul to recording studios.
I know all too well how difficult life is trying to be an actor in NYC. I found myself suddenly working full-time as a voice actor, while friends that had put in 5, 10 years in NYC and LA were still struggling to make ends meet. So I decided to stay. I say I’m here temporarily (despite owning all my appliances, getting married and having 3 cats) because my husband and I do plan to leave Korea eventually.”
What do you like about life in South Korea and what do you miss?
“After a decade, it’s easy to get Korea-fatigue. But I try my best to focus on the positive. Like the phenomenal public transit system. I can get anywhere in Seoul for a buck, the trains and busses are always on time, and I swear, you could eat off of the subway floors. The city employs older Korean women to clean all the subway stations. That’s another thing I love – growing old in Korea is viewed differently than America. Older generations aren’t put out to pasture; they’re encouraged to stay active physically and mentally. I love my expat community. There are countless English teachers here and many help form a thriving expat arts scene.
I thought I would miss New York City, and I do, but what I really miss are people. I miss hugging my parents, I miss sitting around and gabbing for hours with my best girlfriends from high school and college, I miss all the cool artists I used to perform improv and theatre with. So people… and food. Seoul has gotten better during my time here in terms of foreign food, but man, I miss a real bagel and a slice of New York pizza. That’s always the very first thing I eat when I visit the states!”
Tell me about the voice over scene. How does it differ from the US? What do you wish you would have known in the beginning?
“How much time do you have?! I could go on for hours about this. First, entry into voiceover here is much simpler. Pro demos, a VO website and home studio are not required. You can go into one of the main agencies here, audition, and if you’re good, you could be sent out to work the next day. Second, demos. Korean voice actors use voice “samples” and the professionally produced demos that reign supreme in Western markets are unheard of here. A sample is a short voice clip, 15-30 seconds, oftentimes an excerpt from an actual job you did. Actors keep a file of anywhere from 10 to a few dozen voice samples that they send to prospective studios and clients.
When I decided to venture into the global VO market, even though I had almost a decade of recording experience, I didn’t have a single demo appropriate for use outside Korea. Third, it’s a small pond. The core English-language VO community is just a few dozen people and we all know each other. And lastly, we don’t have a union, we’re not permitted to join the Korean voice actor’s union, and it’s illegal for foreigners to unionize. This means we’ve had to work tirelessly as a group for standard rates, protections, and respect.
From the business perspective, I wish I’d known about standard rates, both within Korea as well as globally. I was taken advantage of when I was new and I worked far too many jobs for far too little money. From the performance perspective, I wish I’d known sooner that voice acting is storytelling. Korean clients tend to want a woman’s voice to be bright and bubbly (though that’s gradually changing), so I spent so much time focusing on making a certain sound. Now, especially after coaching, I focus on telling the story first and allowing the sound, whatever it is, to come from that.”
Do you have to speak the language?
“It certainly helps, but I wouldn’t say you *have* to. I learned most of the Korean I know in my first few weeks here. I don’t eat beef or pork, so I had to figure out how to say a few key things quickly or starve. While it’s tough to learn to speak Korean, it’s super easy to learn to read it. You can learn the Korean alphabet, Hangul, in an afternoon. A few years later, I hired a Korean tutor to teach me what I call “studio Korean” – about 50 phrases I wanted to be able to communicate during a recording session. That got me through most of my career here! Last year I formally enrolled in a course for the first time, but then voiceover work picked up, so I dropped out. I’m actually a touch embarrassed at how little Korean I can speak.”
Is it easy to get work as a foreigner?
“It was 10 years ago! It’s definitely not now. It used to be all you needed was a 4-year degree in anything, from anywhere, and you could get a job teaching English. Over the years though, the government has shifted money from language education to math. This has affected the work for voice actors because roughly half the VO work in Korea is for the language education machine – textbooks, exams, prep materials, etc. COVID has further impacted employment; nobody is hiring anyone from abroad right now. A decade ago I would’ve said, yeah, sure, come on out, there’s plenty of work to go around. Now, I wouldn’t suggest trying to move here for work, at least until a vaccine for Coronavirus is developed.”
Do you feel you’re integrated in Korean society, or are you mainly mingling with expats?
“I’m mainly mingling with expats. I’ve integrated in the sense that I have a strong and steady career and the respect of the Koreans I work with.”
How has living in Korea changed your outlook on America?
“It pains me to say it, but living in Korea has made me view America as not quite the great nation I was taught it was. My quality of life in Korea is so high compared to the life I led in New York, and that is due to Korea’s national health care system, prohibition of guns, state-of-the-art infrastructure, and the familial mindset that stems from Confucianism. We certainly give up certain privacies and liberties here – the government can track our every move. But that’s been exactly why Korea has been a forerunner in combating COVID-19.”
When and how did you know that voice overs was the thing for you?
“It was after the first month that I went full-time. I’d been part-time for 8 months and was very nervous to walk away from a very good job at a private elementary school within a major Korean university campus. My agent told me it was time and I’d be fine. That first month I earned twice what I did as a teacher. I knew voiceover was my calling and I never looked back.”
Who have been instrumental to you in terms of getting your VO career off the ground, and in what way?
“The very first person that I always have to give credit to is my friend and fellow voice actor, Jessica Rau Chin. She’s the one who first introduced me to her agent in Seoul 10 years ago. She left Korea several years ago and is now in LA.
And the next person I met several years later: Anne Ganguzza. I knew I needed coaching and proper demos. There were a few coaches on my short list. I scheduled a 15-minute consultation with Anne. We spoke for 45 minutes. I’ll never forget the final thing she said to me during that first call: “Whoever you choose for your coach, be sure they are going to brand you and focus on marketing.” I wound up coaching with Anne for a year and in the end she produced a corporate narration demo and an e-learning demo that are each perfectly suited to my brand.
I also have to give a shout out to Marc Scott. VOpreneur in all its incarnations (the blog, the Facebook page, the podcast) is where I’ve gotten most of the information I’ve used to pivot my career from the Asian to the Western market. In that community I’ve discovered knowledge, support, and an overall touchstone for the voiceover business and where I fit into it.”
What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from them?
“From Jessica, I learned that it’s okay to allow space for new voice actors to enter the business. Operating from a place of scarcity and fear will only fill you with negativity. Now, a decade later, I do my best to create space for other women just starting out. I’m a mentor to several newer voice actresses in Seoul, and it fulfills me just as much as landing the raddest video game job or global commercial spot.
From Anne, I’ve learned (and am continuing to learn) how to be a VO Boss. As my performance coach, she helped me engage the storyteller in me. But our sessions were also peppered with chats about the business side of VO.
From Marc, I’ve learned that I need to outsource! Haha! But seriously, Marc’s Marketing Playbook is an invaluable resource. My greatest takeaway from it is that the work is out there, and how much of it I’m gonna get is entirely up to me and how much effort I put into direct marketing.”
Congrats on your new website. What were you hoping to accomplish with this new site, and what were some of the stumbling blocks you had to overcome to make it happen?
“Thank you! The point of this new site is to introduce me to the global VO marketplace. They love me in Asia, but it’s time for me to step out of the pond and dive into deeper waters.
There weren’t many stumbling blocks, per se. It was more that various pieces took me longer to put together than I originally thought. Like coaching and demo production, for example. I naively thought that it would be a fast process. Bang that out in 6 weeks. (Hahaha) I realized after a few sessions with Anne that it would take much longer than that. Then I had to find a way to process my antsiness, my just wanting to launch and start booking ASAP. So I suppose the greatest stumbling block was learning to give everything time to come together.”
Why barrivoiceover.com and not barritsavaris.com?
“I’ve got a tough name. Both halves are tough – the Barri and the Tsavaris. People never know how to say either one, how to spell either one… sometimes they don’t even know I’m a woman! For the record, Barri is pronounced like Barry, as in Manilow, Gibb or Sanders. So, after talking to some trusted people in the business, I decided to keep it simple and go with just my first name. That’s how most of my Korean clients know me anyway. (I’m like the Cher of English voiceover in Korea). But believe me, it was a tough decision to make.”
What was working with the folks at voiceactorwebsites like?
“Karin, Joe, Lo-An and the rest of the team at Voice Actor Websites are just incredible. I came to them with some unique requests and at no point in the process did they ever say, oh no, we don’t do that. It was always, oh cool, we haven’t done that before, but we’ll figure it out for you. Specifically, I wanted my site to be accessible to both my Western and Korean clients, so having a Korean language version was key. I also wanted clients to be able to submit testimonials directly through a form on my site.
Voice Actor Websites had never done that for anyone else, but they figured it out for me and now it’s a function they can offer to other actors. I also really appreciated that they always made themselves available to speak with me at times that were convenient for me, despite the awkward time difference. The experience was smooth, collaborative and well worth the investment – So much so that we’re now having them design my husband’s site!”
Looking back at a decade in South Korea, what are you particularly proud of?
“I’m proud that I came to Asia completely by myself and built an amazing voiceover career from nothing, but I’m particularly proud to have been the official voice of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.”
What’s next for you?
“Short term, I am in conversations with agents in the States and Europe and am looking to have representation in those markets soon. I’m also gearing up for the launch of my passion project, TIGHTS, a radio play about superheroes and their alter egos (@tightstheshow). It is the brainchild of my producing partner, Greta Wink. I came in as the recording director, we brought together two dozen actors from around the world, and we recorded most of it in my studio in Seoul. We’re in post-production now and it will go live before the year is out.
In the long-term, I look forward to moving back to America with my husband and 3 cats (a.k.a. The @Voiceover.Kitties) and finally getting to meet in person all of the amazing voiceover peeps (like yourself!) who I’ve had the pleasure to connect with on social media these past couple years.”