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!

Jetlag

I wrote this post shortly after coming back from my 7-day visit to America – a 13-hour flight away, and 24 hour journey in total from one home to the other.


Sunday, February 26th.

Do you know why time travel is impossible? It’s not because we don’t have the technology yet or because physics and science say it can never be. It’s because our frail little bodies can barely take traveling across time zones, let alone the time-space continuum. Pretty sure we’d shrivel up and die on the spot if we ever did manage to land ourselves back in 1697 or 1919 or 2015 or whatever.

I spent the last 5 days since my plane landed feeling like I’d been hit by the Korean express train itself. It was the most severe jetlag I’ve ever experienced. In all my trips to and from Korea, I’d never really understood what people meant by this incapacitating jetlag thing until now.

To be honest, the last few days were a fever-like blur of sleep, sleepiness, and wakefulness at all the wrong hours. I recall unpacking everything immediately upon arriving home on Wednesday morning and then promptly sleeping for 6 hours, and from there is a memory montage of nap after nap (almost feeling the need to recover from one nap by taking another), crawling out of bed to eat something at inappropriate hours such as 2 a.m., waking up feeling fine at 9 a.m. but becoming overwhelmingly exhausted 2 hours later.

It really does describe an illness, but I suppose that’s what jetlag mimics at times. Upon googling, it seems there are a myriad of symptoms that can be caused merely by having crossed a few time zones while thousands of miles up in the air.

I don’t know whether I was fortunate or unfortunate that I had those 5 days to recover before returning to work, since maybe having the rigor of a schedule and an obligation would’ve helped. Or maybe not. Yeah, probably not.

Regardless, 5 days later I seem to have pulled through. I no longer feel like a toxic fog is eating my insides from the brain down. Whew.

My recollection of the visit itself feels similarly blurry as I scan through the memories that stand out – singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love” with my sister as she strums her ukulele… sitting in the kitchen with a bunch of former coworkers who took time after a long day to eat and laugh together on a weeknight… watching my friend walk down the aisle looking like a princess… being surrounded by my extended family for a lunch gathering during which we packed Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and every other missed occasion into an intensely uproarious, laughter-filled, warm, bright, happy few hours… and hugging my best friends and family as I said goodbye again.

 

5 things I can’t wait to do when I visit America

As my short & sweet 8-day visit approaches, I find myself getting more and more excited for the following things. Beyond the expected “see my family,” “see my friends,” that is.

1. See my dermatologist. This is not #1 by chance. I have informed my family with about 93% seriousness that if I could choose one American to come live next door to me in Korea, it would be my dermatologist. That man is a miracle worker and the number of times I have bemoaned the fact that he is halfway across the globe in the last 2 years is incalculable.

2. Drive a car. The freedom, control, and relaxation of using a car to get around is so underrated.

3. Stand in a Target. I won’t even need to shop*… I’ll just breathe in the endless possibilities of shopping that exist around me. So many choices. So much useless yet adorable stuff. So many overpriced and delicious Archer Farms snacks. There’s just nothing in Korea that can quite measure up to Target.

*Who am I kidding? I’ll probably buy more than I can bring back with me.

4. Eat cereal. Wait, just eat. Western food in Korea is bound to be disappointing. Some of the cereals taste different or just don’t exist (hello, I need my Multigrain Cheerios okay?). Mexican is rare. “Italian” consists only of overcooked spaghetti drowning in sauce. Once I ordered “lasagna” for nearly $12 and received a shallow circular ceramic dish of meat sauce and cheese, with a single layer of limp, boiled-to-oblivion lasagna noodle in the middle. It was a travesty.

[Disclaimer: Yes, there are authentic places serving really good food in Korea. For example I’ve found a couple of really good Indian restaurants here in Daegu, although one of them has since closed (likely because only foreigners were interested). And Seoul is a whole different story. But the average restaurant in my area claiming to serve a particular country’s cuisine is typically awful.]

5. Shower in a real shower. My current bathroom is quite an improvement from my first in Korea, since it was new when I moved in and therefore I’ve been able to keep it clean and mold-free. Plus the hot water actually works here. But again, most Korean bathrooms are wet rooms with a shower head installed on the wall and a drain in the floor, and mine is no exception, which leaves me longing for the luxury of a separate shower that doesn’t get my toilet, floor, and everything else completely soaking wet.

And a bonus…

6. Be reverse culture shocked. It’s always strange and funny to me when I first step off the plane and hear the chatter of English around me and can make small talk with strangers. The different smells and sounds, the English commercials on TV, the vast, beautiful spaciousness of suburban neighborhoods, the colorful cars (as opposed to the sea of black, white, and silver vehicles here) all contribute to a feeling of reverse culture shock. I look forward to being surprised by other things too.

Yeongju Festival

Disclaimer: Okay, I wrote this post in September, and yes, that was 4 months ago. I just never got around to polishing it up and adding pictures. But I’m in the process of cleaning out my drafts once again, so I decided to just publish this one anyway. Better late than never.

 


 

Last weekend, I joined my favorite co-teacher’s family on a trip to the ‘city’ (more like rural area) of Yeongju (about a 2-hour drive from Daegu – short by American standards, long by Korean standards). They were having an all-day festival, sort of a family fun package deal which included a packed program from 2 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. for just 10,000원 (less than $10).

I was really grateful and touched that she invited me, since it was actually the event her extended family had chosen as the location for their quarterly family reunion. Her cousins (or maybe second cousins or cousins once removed? that stuff is confusing enough in English let alone translating from another language) and their kids met us there, 22 people in total. Everyone was very kind and welcoming to me, and I enjoyed being around the craziness that is a group of kids under 10 years old again.

It was basically pure countryside, mountains, and fresh air. Thankfully, the weather was cool and cloudy – perfect for the walking and stair-climbing we were going to do.

 

 

 

It ended up being just our group and a group of high school boys who were on a Saturday field trip with a few teachers and their principal – which was amusing because the boys kept gawking at me (if they’re from a rural area, it’s possible they don’t have a foreign teacher at their school). A few said hello, and one brave soul asked me where I’m from (maybe on a dare from his friends).

The first item on the program was a brief introduction by the program’s leader/tour guide inside what used to be a tiny countryside high school, but has now been converted into a sort of cultural building to be used for programs like this. We then watched a “Little Red Riding Hood” puppet show, performed live but with a blaring prerecorded voice-over / soundtrack. What relevance this had to the rest of the day I’m still not sure, but the young kids seemed to enjoy it. The poor high schoolers were pretty bored, though.

Next we walked to a soybean museum, which was literally just down the road. A brief tour yielded some interesting facts about the different uses of soybeans in Korea vs. in China and Japan. Koreans use A LOT of soybeans in many traditional dishes.

For whatever reason, this museum also had a giant outdoor spiral slide attached to it, starting at the 2nd story roof. Instead of normal slide material, it was called a “roller slide” and the surface was a bunch of rolling metal bars. For anyone in the martial arts world, imagine sliding down a series of metal nunchuks.

My co-teacher convinced me to try it with her against my better judgment, but I was wearing shorts and quickly experienced one of the more severe friction burns I’ve ever received – red, itchy, burning welts from my calves straight up the back of my thighs, and yes, also my bottom (though these were not visible obviously). Whoops. They were fine the next day, mostly.

There was an apple museum practically next door, because I guess Yeongju is famous for really sweet apples.

*Sidenote: Every city or even village in Korea seems to be “famous” for something. It’s a popular and somewhat endearing catchphrase among Koreans when they speak to foreigners – “You will go to Busan? Busan is famous for hwe (sashimi/raw fish).” “If you visit Cheongdo, you must eat persimmons. They are famous.” “I will visit Jeonju. Jeonju is famous for the hanok village.” “Do you know that Daegu is famous for makchang?” I don’t know just how famous all these famous things can possibly be, when there are so many of them, but it’s fun to try all this famous stuff anyway.

Next we headed to one of the highlights of the program: Buseoksa Temple. There were over 120 steps to climb on the way up, and one of my ears was plugged by the time we reached the top of the small mountain. But if you come to Korea, you should be prepared for intensive stair-climbing at just about any temple you visit, so it wasn’t a surprise.

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They were really steep though.

 

And the view was amazing.

The tour guide/program leader had a Polaroid camera and took pictures of every family and small group. My co-teacher insisted I be in their family photo. He took two and gave me a copy.

We stayed at the top for about an hour, because dinner was scheduled at the traditional restaurant just at the bottom of the mountain at 6 p.m. On the slightly-treacherous trek back down (not only because of the very steep, railingless stairs, but also the steep, gravelly path after the stairs), we stopped to buy the aforementioned famous apples from the ajummas selling them on the side of the path. They were indeed very sweet and fresh.

Dinner was mackerel (also apparently a famous dish in Yeongju – not sure why, since it’s not a seaside town), 된장찌개 (soybean paste stew, much better tasting than it sounds), rice, and a variety of vegetable side dishes. We sat on the floor, traditional style. My co-teacher’s 8-year-old son was very concerned that I wouldn’t be able to eat because it was all Korean food, which was cute.

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yumyumyum

After dinner, it was back to ‘base camp’ (the abandoned high school) for a traditional drumming lesson.

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In which Maddy discovers she has Absolutely Zero Drumming Ability.

After hardcore failing at learning to drum, I slowly backed away and sat on the sidelines with my co-teacher and a few of the other adults who were over it as well, and watched everyone else.

Now it was 8 p.m., the sun had set, and it was time for the highlight of the evening: a bonfire and lighting Chinese sky lanterns. I got to release one of them with my co-teacher. So pretty.

Then, apparently because I was a special guest because I’m a foreigner, the tour guide announced that the high school principal and I should do the honors of lighting the bonfire. At the same time. Holding the same flaming torch stick. It was about as awkward as it looks.

While we ate the barbeque (which I honestly wasn’t that hungry for considering we’d just eaten a couple hours ago!), a C list magician performed some weak magic tricks (but for 10 bucks, what can you really expect). The adults drank beer. The kids ran around. I found it odd that we kind of abandoned the bonfire right after lighting it – rather than sitting around it, we were facing the opposite direction to watch the magic show.

Then it was time to go. I hovered near the dying bonfire, part of me feeling cozy as I watched my co-teacher’s extended family planning their next reunion and saying their goodbyes, thinking of my own family gatherings and that safe warm feeling you get as you joke around – the other part feeling alarmed that 7-, 8-, and 9-year-olds were being allowed to throw things (plastic bottles, soda cans, grass, whatever else they could find) into the fire to see what would happen. Just as I was sure they were going to set the whole field and forest on fire, it was time to bundle into the cars.

“Bye!” shouted a few of the adult cousins cheerfully as I climbed into the back of my co-teacher’s SUV.

After a sleepy and quiet drive home, including a couple of bathroom/rest stops, we arrived back in Daegu near midnight. A long day but a fun one, and a nice chance for me to experience a more casual side of Korean family and culture.