Third year’s the charm: Reflecting on culture shock and expat life in Korea

I spent my first year in Korea being totally enamored with the country – fairly typical for most expats when they arrive in their new home. It would be quite unfortunate for you if you didn’t experience this honeymoon phase, since that’s what makes everything so exciting and cool as you start learning the customs and culture. I was also so busy with my new job, my new students, my new relationship, and trying new things that I didn’t have time to sit back and critique.

I spent my second year in Korea sitting back and critiquing a lot. To be honest, I was frequently stressed out and angry at various things that I deemed cultural shortcomings and flaws. I let the things I couldn’t understand and the things that were different than Western culture get under my skin and bug the heck out of me. Why do it this way when there is clearly a better way (aka my way)? Why do people say this? Why can’t they do that? I let my students stress me out. I let my co-teachers stress me out.

Now, in my third year, I’m adjusting. I’m accepting what it means to live in Korea as a foreigner with a well-rounded, more matured perspective on the good and the bad.

In fact, the anger and frustration I had in my second year are textbook symptoms of culture shock. Culture shock is commonly misconstrued as the initial feelings of confusion and floundering when you first enter a new country, but actually, there are multiple stages, and that honeymoon stage is just the first part.

Culture shock is NOT just “Whoa, Koreans take their shoes off before they enter their homes!” “Whoa, Koreans eat rice, kimchi, and mildly-to-very spicy soups every day!” “Whoa, Koreans bow to each other and they want me to bow too!”

It happens after you learn all that stuff. It happens after you think you know what’s up. It happens after you think you’ve got this foreigner-in-Korea thing all figured out, no problem.

It happens when you realize that you think X, Y, and Z aspects of the culture are annoying or unnecessary or weird. It happens when you encounter (insert somewhat-irritating cultural phenomenon here, e.g. good ol’ street-spitting ajeosshis, or even something as trivial as botched “Italian” cuisine) for the 1,859,374th time and you’re like “Why does it have to be like this?”

After all, how many people can go through an experience that flips their life around and just immediately be and stay happy about it (even if it was a change they wanted in the first place)?

It takes time.

It takes a gradually-developed, ever-growing, rational understanding of the realities of life in this culture as a foreign person.

Some people get stuck in the anger and frustration stage, though.* Some people get depressed. Some people start loathing everything about the country and culture, as unfair as it may be. It’s understandable; adjusting isn’t easy, especially for English teachers in Korea, where quality of life can be so totally dependent on students, co-teachers, the school-provided housing, etc.

But if you do get through it, you emerge on the other side. You enter the final stages of culture shock: adjustment and acceptance.

For me, and perhaps for many expats in Korea specifically, acceptance means accepting that in this homogeneous culture, I will always be a bit of an outsider – but this doesn’t mean I can’t have really good connections with Korean people.

It means accepting that there are cultural things that irk me – but I don’t have to let them irk me, and that perhaps they aren’t that irksome anyway. Maybe I’m just blaming my stress, which I would experience from time to time no matter where I live, on the external cultural things around me instead of placing the blame within myself and finding ways to overcome it.

It means accepting my role here:guest English teacher. No, I don’t have the power that a regular Korean teacher has. I can’t discipline and control my classroom the way I did as a taekwondo instructor in America. I can’t form the same bonds with my kids that I could with my students back home because of the language barrier.

Sometimes that hurts. But it’s okay. My job is to give my kids a positive experience with a native English speaker. My job is to teach them things about Western culture that they might not otherwise know. My job is to make English less boring. My job is to spark their interest in learning the language.

I can still show my students that I care about them and their progress. I can still try to inspire them. I can still have a positive effect on my school and my students, however small it may be.

I can still make a difference.


*From what I gather on forums and such, a surprising number of people seem to stay in the country even though they’re stuck in the frustration stage. Maybe they need the money, maybe they just feel trapped or unsure what direction to take next. But conversely, it certainly doesn’t mean that people who only stay in a foreign country for a year or two leave because they’re bitter about the culture. Obviously.

Also, if you’re an expat and you skipped from honeymoon to adjustment and acceptance, well… go you!

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