Sunday, July 7, 2013

Things I've Learned So Far: Reflections on Culture Shock and Adaptability

Moving to South Korea marks the second time I've lived in a foreign country.  I first studied abroad in France for a semester back in 2010 and now I'm working a year contract as an ESL teacher in Daegu. I've been in Korea for almost 5 months and figured it was time to share some of my personal experiences regarding culture shock for those of you still living in the comfort of your homeland. These are mostly just general observations and it should be noted that 'everyone's experience will be different-yada-yada'.

Being a traveler and a cultural anthropology major during university, I'm pretty confident in my ability to adapt while in a different culture. I'm not saying it's easy or that I don't make mistakes, but a lot of the 'shocking' cultural differences don't bother me here in Korea. Getting shoved by old ladies or seeing men dramatically spit in the street is not a big deal to me. I'm also pretty patient when it comes to people cutting in line, or staring at me as they walk by. There are some unpleasant smells sometimes lingering along the road, but I just walk by and don't really hold any of these things against Korea.

You just need to realize that things will be different. This seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how annoyed people get over this little fact. Things will be different in big ways, small ways, clever and stupid ways. The real trick is being able to accept that they are different, and then move on with your life. You may not agree with them, but this is how people live here. Deal with it. A good example to look into is switching from an individualized culture to a collective culture. To put it simply, higher priority is placed on making decisions with the group in mind over what may be best for an individual. This line of thinking often conflicts with western opinions of capability over seniority.

All in all I feel like I've comfortably confronted these differences, but that is not to say I have not experienced culture shock. My largest struggle has been the language barrier. It's true that many people here speak (or have studied) English, but many are too nervous to actually communicate with you. Nothing makes me feel quite as helpless as being illiterate and unable to communicate in a foreign country. While I'm pretty good at miming and playing charades to get my message across, it is exasperating to be forced to do so for all interactions. This has resulted in me staying inside and eating ramen, all because I did not have the mental energy to try and order food at a restaurant with no pictures or English names. At least with French or Spanish I knew the alphabet, but Korean was completely new to me. The best thing I've done in Korea has been to learn Hangul. Lucky for me Hangul is pretty easy to pick up once you start. While I may not know the meaning, I can sound things out and recognize words I already know. This has made life so much better for me and has been  a critical part of adapting to life in Korea.

This is not my first time  facing the language barrier, but it certainly affects me more when I have to live with it for long periods of time. It also makes me really appreciate when people take the time to try and understand me, or patiently wait while I fumble my way through a Korean phrase. This is the reason why I empathize with and do my very best to help people who do not understand English, when at home in the U.S. or abroad. It's my way to express gratitude for the strangers who have helped me during my travels. Learning another language isn't easy.

I also don't mind answering the many questions Koreans ask about me or American life. I know that many of my fellow expats get annoyed whenever Koreans gasp in amazement over the fact that we can use chopsticks, or say hello in Korean. You could also potentially be offended by the belief that foreigners can't handle spicy food. If you are not Korean, you will most likely be judged by stereotypes here. Congratulations, you are now living as a minority! As such I try to take an educational stance on addressing the issue. Some questions may seem silly but I think an honest question or curiosity deserves an honest response. Here are some questions I've been asked:

"How did you learn to use chopsticks?"

"How do Americans know how to cook rice?"

"Why do Koreans stay in America?"

"Do you eat lots of fast food?"

It has been a learning experience, that is for sure! Now I will leave you with the view from my office at school. It's monsoon season!

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