It seems like it’s been a while since I’ve experienced anything that constitutes culture shock, but leave it to sneaky culture shock to sneak up on me and teach me some lessons. Let’s just say a brief weekend in Daegu, which was also the first Korean city I’ve experienced outside of Seoul, fed me a heaping helping of humble pie.
Having spent only a short weekend, I’m certainly no expert on the place, but the way I see it from the limited experience I did have, Seoul and Daegu represent two very different Koreas. I can boil down it down into one main observation: there are so few foreigners in Daegu! It’s been SO long since I’ve felt the stares with such intensity. We’re talking the return of the Korean catwalk feel. I can’t express how easy it would be to obsess over this and to berate Daegu for its backwards and ignorant behavior. (We were essentially kicked out of two restaurants for no reason that we could understand other than being foreigners and not speaking fluent Korean.) But, a city is a city and not a representation of an entire nation of people– who while for the most part are ethnically homogenous, they are still individuals that make up a whole.
So often I talk using a distinct “us vs. them” sort of rhetoric. This is both unfair and simplistic. I don’t truly believe in the existence of pure forms of culture and I’m not interested in looking at Korean culture, or any other for that matter, entirely from the outside through the security and comfort of distance as if there was value in the experience of gawking at people and only seeing them through the lens of a judgmental behavioral scientist taking notes on how the “others” are different compared to me, how utterly narcissistic and ethnocentric.
What I am interested in is raw human connection. I am fundamentally fascinated by the moments in life when you take a chance and speak Italian with the Sicilian women in Versailles and then end up getting to spend the entire day chatting with them and later meet them for dinner and wine. Or when the kind and quirky staff of a 24 hour gym in Japan used their personal cell phones to help you call the obscure hostel you had been frantically hunting for that had started to seem like it didn’t exist. Or when serendipity strikes and you run into the Korean woman you sat next to on the plane who made you feel so welcomed and calm during the original 14 hour flight to Asia a week after arriving eating dinner on the street and she recognizes you. Or how about the Korean ajushi in a city that didn’t feel so welcoming at first, randomly offered you hospitality in the best way he knew how: a shot of soju and a bite of the local fare.
Regardless of location, the perspective you bring will shape your experience. I genuinely believe that every person has a story worth telling and that if we truly desire real cultural immersion, it is about time to strip it of all its elitist ideas and its immaturity. I am making the more difficult choice and I am choosing to see the positive.