Culture Shock

A neighborhood in Seoul lighting up at dusk with a thousand neon signs. The sources of culture shock are varied and subtle. One blogger's thoughts on adjusting to life on the other side of the planet.

I’m awake at 6:30, there is a mosquito net over my bed. A thousand finches are outside my window singing hello. Or, more likely, anyong haseyo. I get up. I don’t have any food or drinkable water. I have no pot to boil water. My apartment is covered in clothes hung on every surface to dry. I haven’t gotten an adapter yet and my phone is at 9%. Hopefully I can borrow someone’s adapter at work so I know my alarm will go off tomorrow. Not that I need an alarm, I have finches for an alarm now.

I walk down to Starbucks. I sit and stare at my coffee for a while. I watch the people go by. The people are endlessly fascinating to me. I turn back to my cup. One decision at a time, one thought at a time. The birds here really sound beautiful. I wasn’t expecting that.

Culture shock is different for everyone and different every time you venture into a new country, or even just out of your comfort zone for a prolonged period of time. Many factors influence how it hits you, but one that has surprised me is how well (or poorly) a culture aligns with your values.

On the surface (which is all I’ll be able to see for a while), a lot of Korean values resonate with me. I perceive Koreans to be kind in their daily interactions; hard-working and yes, overworked; strict but affectionate towards their children; openly affectionate in the streets; proud of their country, their culture, and their accomplishments. What I’ve seen of the city itself, so far: crowded and chaotic in some neighborhoods, quiet in others, as in any city. But the streets are clean; plants, trees and bits of forest are everywhere; trash is sorted into recyclables, garbage and food waste, which is fed as scrap to livestock. The people on the streets are quiet, considerate, dignified (note: I don’t participate in the nightlife :P.) I have not seen anyone try to jump a ticket-point for a subway like in some cities, or openly thieve (which, yes, has happened right in front of me in other places). Of course I’m vigilant but that doesn’t take away the feeling that I’m safe.

On one hand, I am constantly seeing my values reflected in so much of what I see around me, and I find this thrilling. I had forgotten that this is a quality in a place that could be missed. Is this lack of feeling part of what kept me so restless in Ashland?

What’s funny, too: when I first moved to Ashland, I thought it aligned with my values much more than where I was previously. It took a long time to see that the town, to put it gently, wasn’t right for me. Maybe it was just that I was growing up, into a different person than I was at 22.

So then the question is: am I just seeing a surface that, once I look more deeply, I’ll find will not be right for me? Will I end up feeling betrayed, as I did many times in my small town? Will it work for a while, until I outgrow it?

Something tells me Seoul is not the kind of place one can easily outgrow <3

On the other hand (returning to culture shock in general), aside from the thrill, I am constantly mentally exhausted as I try to navigate this place with only a handful of phrases at my command and a four-year old’s ability to read hangul. I studied vocabulary a while back but I find it almost completely useless. Great! I can say the colors. Woo.

Hangul is both useful and beautiful- incredibly beautiful! Talk about reflecting one’s values!! But that’s an entry for another day.

The effort that goes into every single action and interaction is draining. Yesterday I spent half an hour trying to figure out which bottles in what looked like the cleaning section of a store was laundry detergent and which ones were top loading vs. drum loading, which is apparently something I have to care about, according to my landlord.

Mostly, this isn’t a problem: I mean, it doesn’t affect my level of excitement or optimism. But the exhaustion leaves me particularly vulnerable when things get rough. On Thursday I found out there was a problem with my paperwork and my alien registration would be delayed. That meant delays in getting a banking account and having access to much-needed money. I felt so deflated, finding that out, it took me the whole evening to get my motivation back.

Last night (when buying the previously mentioned hopefully-drum-loading laundry detergent), I had my first bad interaction with someone: the check-out girl was basically a jerk to me because I didn’t know what she was saying (“Do you need a bag?” which could have been easily solved by just pointing at the bags and also it was pretty obvious I would need one since I was buying fifteen things). She gave me attitude and embarrassed me in front of a whole line of people. I was torn between anger that she felt justified in treating me that way, compassion for her because she probably hates her job (as a former cashier myself, I’ve been there), and shame that I hadn’t made more effort to learn such a commonly used phrase or at least been quick enough to pick it up from context.

(Let me also point out, I know how tame an interaction that was. On my first night in Paris my roommate and I were aggressively approached by two guys demanding sex from us! We argued for a half-mile of fast walking- through a public park at 8 pm with families around, no less!- before they left off. So yeah Check-out Girl will always get patience and a friendly smile from me!)

I want to believe that this city encompasses the philosophies that I hold most dear: that is why people find themselves drawn to certain places, right? It’s like falling in love: you don’t even know the person, you just saw them and were pulled irresistibly in their direction- but there’s that apprehension too, because only one thing can tell you if it’s the real deal, if this person shares enough of your hopes, values, beliefs and standards: time.

This is how I feel about Seoul right now. In love. Apprehensive.

All I can do is wait and see. And, in the meantime, ride these waves of culture shock.

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