On Culture Shock & Being a Megaphone

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 3.02.21 PMI’d been living in South Korea for a month and five days when I found out Korean school kids learn that pregnancies last for 10 months. They’re not wrong, either.

That was my first real experience with culture shock. My mind was blown.

It had been easier to adapt to Korea than I’d expected. On the surface, it’s not so different from home, especially since I lived near the capital, Seoul. Mine was a neighborhood of tall buildings and apartment complexes; tidy parks rife with azaleas, tulips, and roses; artsy cafes; supermarkets and shopping strips. Familiar things. There were two Starbucks within walking distance of my apartment. Sure, I missed being able to read signs, and I especially missed the diversity of the USA. But those things I’d expected, had mentally prepared for, and wasn’t bothered by. This place wasn’t so foreign after all, I told myself.

But it’s when you get under the surface that you start to see, and appreciate, the differences.

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 2.49.37 PMIt’s when you learn that the idea of a 9-month pregnancy isn’t universal. When you learn that certain gestures, completely innocuous back home, can be seen as the height of disrespect to the elders of another culture. When you try their food and discover combinations of ingredients and flavors you’d never encountered before, or when you see unfamiliar approaches to familiar holidays.

The more I learned and observed, the more invisible differences I found. Attitudes about dating. Opinions on everything from pop culture to beauty to politics to plastic surgery. Superstitions, both good and bad. Society’s view of teachers. The most popular apps and websites. Drinking culture; cafe culture.

I spent a year in Korea, teaching at an English hagwon (an after-school academy devoted to one subject). I know the travel blog world is full to bursting with accounts from foreigners who taught in Korea, so I won’t be posting too heavily on that topic. This was my first real experience traveling, though – for an extended amount of time, and on my own, and in a non-English speaking country. Posts on my year there will pop up every now and then.

The most valuable thing I took away is that it’s easy to find the similarities between your culture and another – but it’s worthwhile to dig deeper and discover where the differences lie. Do this not only so that you can learn and “broaden your horizons,” but so that you can approach people with understanding and respect.

I’ll end this post with two reading recommendations. I mentioned earlier that there are literal mounds of travel bloggers writing on Korea from the perspective of expats – so I want to point people toward two articles on Korea, written by Korean people.

1. How Learning to Cook Korean Food Helped Me Grieve (and Heal) – There’s a lot to love about Korean food, but what I love most is its extremes. If a dish is supposed to be served hot, it’s scalding. If it’s meant to be served fresh, it’s still moving. Stews are served in heavy stone pots that hold the heat; crack an egg on top, and it will poach before your eyes. Cold noodle soups are served in bowls made of actual ice.”

2. The Reluctant Memoirist – “There are only two kinds of books on North Korea: those by white journalists who visited the country under the regime’s supervision, and ‘as told to’ memoirs by defectors. The intellectual hierarchy is clear—authority belongs to the white gaze. Orientalism reigns.” (Context: this article is written by the author of “Without You, There Is No Us,” but you don’t have to read the book to understand it.)

One of the best ways of showing we respect those different from us is to amplify their voices when they speak about their experiences. This reading list is embarrassingly short, and both articles only came to my attention because they happened to turn up on my social media feeds. Anyone with more recommendations – feel free to chime in and post a link!


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