When I first encountered the term “culture shock”, I shuddered. I remember reading those words on a college webpage about studying abroad. It spoke of the study-abroad life cycle.
During the first phase, the student loves life. Everything is new and awesome. In the second phase, the novelty fades and a bout of depression sets in. Culture shock tests one’s character.
Initially, it made sense. Traveling to a foreign land immediately robs you of the routines, comforts, and conveniences of home. Everything is different. You wonder how you can possibly survive here. You rely on informational social influence and cannot rewrite your schemas fast enough. Homesickness becomes the norm. You fear it will last forever and wonder if you made a terrible mistake.
However, the site also offers hope. “Soon enough, students adjust to a new level of normal, learn more of the local language, and come to appreciate their new home.”
Before I left for Korea, this webpage reverberated in my mind.
“You won’t know the local language.”
“Just getting food will be an ordeal.”
(This blog makes me more aware of my persistent preoccupation with food.)
“You’re going to miss home before you know it.”
“You are going to regret this decision.”
Anxiety-Brain did his darndest to dissuade me. Fortunately, I failed to listen.
At orientation, our coordinator re-defined culture shock. Culture shock does not encompass solely negative reactions to life in a new land. It simply refers to everything different – everything that causes you to second-take your perceptions and second-guess your decisions. Some of those experiences can be shockingly refreshing.
Thanks to my Korean cultural immersion, I see societal processes that I wish American society would emulate. I’m sure American society will be too stubborn and self-absorbed with its own greatness to listen, but I can dream.
I already touched on how moving to a new country can present immediate challenges. I instantly abdicated my linguistic capabilities. My communication skills regressed to that of a Kindergartener (or worse). I had to ask for help more often in one month than I have in the past year. I would have asked more often, but many people have given sympathy help to the struggling foreigner. Simple activities that would take me mere seconds now lasted long and agonizing minutes.
I remember my second day in Korea. I returned from a coffee shop sojourn and was fiending for more java. In my hotel lobby, I noticed a self-serve coffee machine.
“Let’s do this.”
I approached the machine and froze. Every button was in a foreign script that I had yet to learn.
I was still too stubborn to ask the front desk attendant for help, so I spent several minutes studying the instructional pictures. I knew a picture was worth a thousand words. I learned then and there that it was also worth a thousand words in the language of my choice. I chose English. I got my coffee. However, an activity that would have taken 30 seconds took five minutes. At that moment I knew I had to accept a new normal. No longer could I coast through tasks on an effortless System 1 autopilot. Simple processes now required System 2 deliberation.
However, I admit that most of my “culture shock” experiences have been positive. For example, I am very impressed by Korea’s system of trash disposal. There is no “trash day”, the designated day of the week when suburban American households put their trash bins on the side of the road for pickup (and don’t you dare forget). Rather, garbage disposal is managed through the purchase of specific bags from grocery and convenience stores. They sport specific text that I assume is Korean for “put your garbage in here you filthy animal.” I purchase the bags I need, fill them up, and leave them on the side of the road. I’ll admit. I am unsure of who actually picks the bags up.
I tend to favor progressive consumption taxes. If one uses more resources than they truly need, then one ought to pay extra for the privilege of doing so. Inversely, if one takes steps to conserve resources, one should be rewarded in the form of savings. Korean trash disposal does just that. If you use less “stuff” and produce less material waste, then you can purchase fewer bags and more soju (recycling bottles is free). If one produces an excess of trash, one must purchase more bags. I believe this is fair as well as a good incentive for resource conservation – a win-win.
Another wonderful culture shock has been the relative safety I have experienced in this country. My parents and grandparents pontificated that “nothing good ever happens after midnight” (to which I disagree). While I often regret the things I do after midnight in Korea (mainly staying out too late and killing my sleep gains), violent crime is significantly lower than most North and South American countries.
I have no qualms about walking around town at ungodly hours. In the United States, I always had my head on a swivel after 10:00 P.M. I constantly worried about opportune predators and pickpockets. Suspicion reigned supreme. Here, I fear less (though I am not fearless). Most people I pass are merely living their lives, indifferent to what I am doing. I am largely at ease until a niggling anxiety perks its head.
“Stop feeling so safe. Something is bound to happen once you relax.”
This is my paradox of safety. I feel generally secure in person and property most places I go in this country. However, perhaps that feeling of security is merely an illusion. Maybe once my vigilance is mollified, something bad will happen. My co-teacher did tell me (obligatorily) that there are unsafe neighborhoods in Korea. I believe him. Regardless, for now, I am impressed by Korea’s relatively low violent crime rate.
I’m sure I will have more musings about culture shock in the future, but these two points will suffice for now. My Korean experience has been overwhelmingly positive. Despite early challenges and obstacles, the “shock” has at times been a pleasant surprise. It is deeply rewarding to realize how societies can do things differently. While I was cerebrally aware of the existence of other cultures, experiencing a new one first-hand provides a deeper level of understanding. It allows me to better appreciate the depth and breadth of the human experience. I relish the daily opportunity to explore this new culture and use those experiences to grow in body, mind, and spirit.
We spent the day at a café full of giant teddy bears. At one point we taught the bears martial arts moves.
Emergency vehicles in Korea look a lot like those back home except for the phone number. Dial 119 for assistance.
Sometimes you just feel like taking a spontaneous street corner selfie.
This is my expression when a family member offers me food that tastes terrible but I don’t want to be rude, so I eat it with a puckered smile and a thumbs-up. Then they offer me more and I’m like “Thanks but I’m so full I just couldn’t.”
One of my students wore this sweatshirt to class. Koreans have a proclivity toward shirts with strangely-worded English expressions with lots of room for interpretation.