“If the stars had sound, it would sound like this. The punishment for these solemn words can be hard. Can blood boil like this at the sound of a noisy tape that I’ve heard?” -Mogwai, “Yes! I Am a Long Way From Home”
No matter how excited you are or how much you prepare for an experience like this, culture shock is inevitable. It’d be naive to think that moving to a new country with a completely different culture would not result in culture shock. I researched everything I could about Korea before moving here, including culture shock. In a way, it prepared me for what was to come. I figured that if I knew more about what to expect, I would be better able to recognize the signs and deal with them. Living it, however, is an entirely different story. When people post about their lives on social media, many tend to sugarcoat everything or make it seem like their lives are perfect. While living in Korea has been an overall positive experience for me that has changed my life in ways I never could have imagined, this will be a personal, honest reflection on some of the things that are not so shiny right now. It might not be pretty, but it will be raw. I hope it’ll help others who are going through culture shock now or will be soon to know that they are not alone.
The symptoms and length of the culture shock are obviously different for everyone. I read somewhere that the honeymoon period ends and culture shock often hits around 3-6 months in. I moved to South Korea in February, and I started experiencing it around May. At first, I was intrigued by all the new things, interested in the culture, and excited to meet anyone and everyone I could. I love Koreans! I love foreigners! New food! Isn’t it interesting how they (insert cultural difference here)? KOREA!!
Needless to say, the newness has worn off. Several of my friends and I have discussed being in the throes of culture shock right now. One friend asked me, “How do you know if it’s culture shock or if you just hate a place?” There is a fine line between the two sometimes, but culture shock is temporary. I still love Korea. (Most of the time.) It’s not perfect, but America certainly isn’t either. Another friend and I pondered how our feelings might change a year from now. Maybe we’ll say, “That time was rough, but I love Korea! Can you believe what we’ve done and what we’ve been through?” Maybe we’ll say, “I hate this place. I can’t wait to get out of here.” For now, I’m trying to live one day at a time.
So what does culture shock look like? For me, it started with depression. It comes and goes, but there are times when I need to be alone and not see anyone. Sometimes I get emotional for no reason or have mood swings like I never did before. I might be fine one minute and want to cry the next. This, I know, is normal, but that doesn’t make it any easier to go through it, especially if there are other things happening in your life at the same time. I still remember when I received a card in the mail that was signed by about 15 friends in Chicago, and I sobbed uncontrollably for an hour. That moment is pretty much the best way I can describe culture shock – an extreme reaction to a beautiful (and sometimes not so beautiful) gesture.
Since I’ve been here, I haven’t been homesick exactly. I’ve never said, “I want to go home now!” I have missed people (and sometimes food.) I’m going to be an aunt next month, and I hate that I won’t get to see my niece until 2016. Things like that make me wish I could be in two places at once but only for that, not because of “home.” Two symptoms of culture shock can include idealizing your own country/culture or obsessing about your new one. I don’t think I’ve really done either of those. I’ve avoided Korean entertainment, but I also don’t appreciate America more. I just appreciate the people in my life – here and there – more.
Another symptom of culture shock is anger. When you’re experiencing culture shock, sometimes all it takes is a person looking at you the wrong way to drive you insane. I’ve mentioned Korean surprises before, and what I once saw as a challenge has become an annoyance and source of stress. Granted, there are good Korean surprises sometimes, but they don’t happen as often as the bad ones. I’ve become annoyed and stressed when I’m told to do something at the last minute and expected to do it perfectly in no time at all. I know I need to adjust to the Korean way of thinking, but it gets tiring when you are expected to bend all the time but aren’t afforded the same consideration.
There are other norms that I’m still not used to, no matter how hard I try. I know it’s selfish, but sometimes I just want to eat my Dr. You bar without hiding in the bathroom because I don’t want to share. I also don’t understand the appeal of eating the same food every meal every day, and that’s not an exaggeration. I had a “traditional Korean breakfast” the other day. Spoiler alert: It’s the same as lunch and dinner. My school has been sweet and accommodating about my vegetarian needs, even if they don’t really understand them. I even had a teacher buy me a ton of seaweed because he was worried about my diet. Still, I’m getting sick of rice and kimchi, and my response when friends ask what kind of restaurant I want to go to is pretty much “not Korean.” I can’t say how many times I’ve been told to just pick the meat out of something or they haven’t understood why I don’t eat the soup. I’ve also gotten the “You don’t need to lose weight” thing a lot. I’ve never dieted a day in my life, but the assumption is always that I’m a vegetarian to lose weight because so many women here are obsessed with weight.
Along those lines, it can be difficult to be an individual here. I’ve been told, “We don’t want to be too creative. It’s easier to be told what to do.” Korea is a culture of sameness to the point that couples often dress the same. I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum, so it’s difficult for me to wrap my head around some things. There’s definitely a very high value placed on appearances. Plastic surgery extends beyond Seoul, and people get it as young as middle or high school. It’s sometimes more difficult to find women who haven’t had plastic surgery than women who have. There are some ways I’ve had to conform (I always cover my tattoos and shoulders, unless I’m in a big city), but the pressure on them to always look good and be perfect makes me sad for them.
So those are the ways I’ve been experiencing culture shock… What am I doing about it?
The first thing includes this blog. A few weeks ago, I realized that I missed having a real creative outlet. I can’t paint in my tiny apartment, so I had to find another release. In addition to this blog, I started a music blog called A Melody, The Memory started writing handwritten journals. I highly recommend a creative outlet for anyone going through culture shock. I can’t express the cartharsis I feel when I write, even if no one ever reads it. Writing isn’t a release for everyone, but if you’re going through culture shock, find your therapy.
Another thing I’ve been doing is getting out and trying new things as much as possible. I had a bloody (quite literally) blast this past weekend when I went ziplining, and I’m going to the Boryeong Mud Festival in a couple weeks. I’m also planning a trip to Japan next month, which has given me something else to focus on for a bit. It’s so important to always have something to look forward to, and it doesn’t even have to be anything big. I live for the weekends. That said, this might sound like a contradiction, but I also make sure I have at least one weekend a month to stay home and do absolutely nothing. It’s easy to get caught up with the trips and parties, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to take time to decompress.
The most important thing I’ve done is build real relationships. Many of us are in the same boat right now, and we need to lean on each other. When I first got here, I wanted to be friends with everyone. A lot of foreigners who have been here longer than I are extremely bitter, at times hateful, and some would not even acknowledge me when I smiled at them. Others I liked at first but then realized they were obnoxious or pretentious. Life is too short to waste on people with negative energy. I have one dear friend in my town, and we have weekly dinner dates where we talk about everything under the sun. We can have real discussions or talk about celebrities without missing a beat and without judgment. I’ve never needed a lot of friends, but I am so grateful to have her in my life. Wherever you live, I recommend a weekly dinner date with a close friend.
I’ve always been a believer in fate, destiny, and serendipity. As an introvert with (I think) amazing instincts, I don’t always connect easily with a lot of people. I’ve had some close friends in my life, but I also feel like I had to come across the world to find my people, though I like to think we found each other. For someone like me, it’s rare to find someone I am comfortable with, have a lot in common with, and who I can also have real, deep, intellectual conversations (or nonsense conversations) with. I sensed a connection with a couple people here the first time we met. I couldn’t explain it, but something made me immediately say, “This person is meant to be in your life.” That kind of connection is rare and has only happened a few times in my life. I honestly hope I can say I’ve made some lifelong friends here.
Yes! Things are hard for a lot of us right now. Yes! I did vent a lot in this post, but that’s part of the process. Yes! I am a long way from home. Things are not all good or all bad, just different. It will take time to adjust, but I will adjust. There will be good days and bad days, just as there are anywhere. I will not let culture shock get me down or make me bitter. I will have amazing times with beautiful people, and I will have days where all I want to do is Skype my mom and cry. But I will be okay. I will come out of this on top. I will laugh hard, cry hard, and love hard. I will continue to make memories that I will remember for the rest of my life. Like one of my favorite Jason Mraz songs says, “It’s when you cry just a little but you laugh in the middle that you’ve made it.” I will live by that, and I will make it.