I think it’s necessary at this point to attempt to spell out a few things about my culture shock so far in Korea. First of all, I want to say that I am truly loving the experience so far and despite all the drama I’ve been going through with my foot recently, I can honestly say that I’m so glad I’m here. Don’t think that I’m a bitter and mean spirited person after reading this, just bear with me as I am still growing and changing and I am getting better. Culture shock is just very simply a sneaky and very difficult thing to go through and I just want to describe a little bit of what I’m going through here, for whatever that’s worth, if nothing else than to work through things on my own.
I’ll try not to talk about the stages of culture shock in an overly rote, anthropological sort of way but in the end, it’s sort of accurate and may save you a google search.
The first part is easy and pretty carefree and tends to be all you experience if you are more of a tourist than a traveler or an expat, like me. That first weekend, everything was basically awesome, we walked around smiling and bowing and greeting people in a jet-lagged yet blissful ignorance. We shopped and drank coffee and saw lights and met friends and ate Korean food that (at the time) seemed so authentic and tantalizingly spicy. It was great.
For me, this “honeymoon stage” lasted for all of the first weekend, or about three days. Albeit a brief period, this isn’t that hard to imagine when you realize that I arrived on a Friday, toured the school that day, began training Monday and started teaching Wednesday. Side note: other teachers have told me they arrived and started teaching the next day so I count myself lucky.
Now I have this small theory about those first few days (or however long you last). I think there is a threshold of how much you can take of new input, language barrier, and general change, during the first part of your time in a foreign culture. It is probably different for everybody, but there are just things that everyone has to put up with when they first start living in a new place that include: accessibility of public restrooms- better here than Europe and certainly better than in Peru; local standards of sanitation- don’t get me started on the public bathrooms and their communal BARS of soap; local daily routines- why doesn’t anything open on Sunday before noon???; price differences- 4,000 ₩ ($4) for a cup of coffee?? 24,000 ₩ ($24) for a watermelon!?! Nope!
These differences are usually things that if you are just a tourist for a short time, never make it to your radar, you are just going to have to deal and besides, you’re on vacation! And even if you are going to be there for an extended period of time, at least initially, you tend to put up with things that you never would have settled for at home. This continues indefinitely until you reach your threshold and you feel overwhelmed and disoriented and maybe even hostile about the fact that things are not the way you are used to them being, and there is little you can do to change them. THAT, my friends, is the beginning of the second stage.
Anyway, this threshold isn’t rigid, in my opinion, you can certainly choose to be more flexible in certain areas and you can choose to accept the changes but the bottom line is, I think you will always inevitably compare your current experiences with your past ones. Perhaps the more international experiences you have, the broader your comparison “home base”, which may allow you to put up with more than you normally would, but perhaps not. My wise aunt told me this simple phrase that I have to remind myself of here nearly daily: “This is not necessarily better or worse, just different.”
It may sound over simplified, but I can’t count the times when a little prideful American spirit wells up inside me and wants to yell at people here and let them know just how idiotic I think they are being. 50 year old man drunk on the subway: get your life together, you are pathetic and this is not age-appropriate! Know-it-all teenager in my class speaking in Korean like it’s code and treating me like an imbecile: you are not the coolest thing in Korea and your social skills prove it! Other pre-teen in my class laughing maniacally like she’s the funniest thing in the universe: NO you are not that funny or original, and your pathetic attempts at gaining attention are actually incredibly irritating! Taxi driver: I may have dark hair and light eyes but I am not a Russian prostitute, I am an American and a teacher!!! Too many times, I internally loathe people, I meet their stares with vicious glaring, and I even talk about people in English right in front of their faces. Obviously, not appropriate responses at all, but as you can see, it’s not like it’s been a total cake walk here.
Like I said, don’t be discouraged for me, I am just trying to be as honest as possible. I don’t want you to think I am hating on all Koreans or Korea but it is just real that I am in the thick of the second stage of culture shock and there’s no telling when I’ll move on. For the most part, I am maintaining a positive attitude and can really say that things are getting better day by day. It just takes time.