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JSMP : 6 ways expats experience culture shock in Korea

plastic surgery in korea
6 Ways Expats experience culture shock in Korea      Photo:

It’s another new installment of my Just Show Me Pictures! series.

It’s month five and I guess I can’t really call myself a “newbie” expat any longer.

This doesn’t mean I don’t experience moments, when I feel like I’m still a beginner to life here.

Although I’ve had a proper acclimation period, these days I  find myself ridiculously tired. I feel like I’m one of those Korean teens, whom I see falling asleep on the subway after school exams.  They in turn, remind me of my ambitious life in New York, when I averaged three hours of sleep a night and used to steal winks on the subway. After five years of living on a non-stop treadmill,  my insides began feeling run-down and haggard.

Ironically, when I first arrived in Korea, I used to think those teens looked like me.

And now, I feel like I look like them.

I have a mysterious expat illness

Oddly, living in Daegu my daily sleep routine averages anywhere from five to seven hours a day. It’s more sleep than I’ve ever gotten and I’m still tired!  How is this possible? Life in Daegu is less demanding, slower, less stressful.  Sometimes, it’s downright boring.

Does teaching elementary really take that much energy from you? Does all that fermented, spicy and mystery Korean food grow a tapeworm inside of you?  Seriously.

Mental fatigue. Is this one of the struggles that expat life and adapting to a foreign environment is all about?

6 Ways Expats experience culture shock in Korea

Move over Yellow Dust and Korean Crud… There’s an expat illness and it isn’t about battling a Korean germ or dust storm in China. It’s about battling a fatigue, that comes from an overwhelmed brain, trying to translate and make sense of its foreign surroundings.  Here’s  examples of ways expats can get lost in Korea:


1.  Everywhere you look, there’s Korean signs you won’t be able to read or translate.

In the back of your brain, there’s a tiny alarm imagining that one of these signs, might be communicating something very important .  What if you’re missing an important message?

2.  There’s mysterious foods,  you won’t fathom in the Korean diet.

Although I know Korean food can be delicious and healthy, I’m still trying to build a bridge to trust it.

Why? In Korea, there is a thing such as “too much information”.  Walking around marketplaces and street fairs, you hit the shock of too much information.  That information could scare you.

Read Fear Factor Korea: Foods that may make you cringe.

Read Fear Factor Korea : Fresh foods! (Part II)

strange bizarre asian foods, korean fear factor foods

3.  Eating out is a workout, if  you’re vegetarian.

You’ll want a Korean friend to introduce you to Korean food, because unless you get some help, you won’t know what you can eat.  School lunches expose you to a lot and there’s always students and fellow colleagues to help you understand and cajole you into trying the food on your plate. But otherwise, you’re on your own.

Dining out, you’ll spend chunks of time searching for picture menus and something familiar.  Most restaurant menus are written in Korean and even if you and your expat friends could read it, you still might not have a clue as to what you’re ordering.  If you’re a vegetarian, you might return home empty-handed and staring at a refrigerator, which continues to be stocked only with the food items you can understand.

kimchi dietThis is my Kimchi diet (with yogurt & tofu); Kimchi does have fish/oyster sauce in it.

4.  You’ll find parts of Korean culture either, backwards or extreme.

There are times you want to squeal with delight “Look, look… they don’t have this in the U.S.!”  Then there are others times, you stand stunned or shocked, thinking the same thing.  We don’t have squat toilets with vanity mirrors in front of them or  plastic surgery mural ads in every main subway.

squat toiletSquat toilet with vanity mirror in a Korean Bus Station

plastic surgery in KoreaPlastic surgery ads are in many subways and in magazines.  Photo credit:

5.  You’ll attempt to respect the culture, even if you don’t understand it.

… What’s up with couples wearing matching outfits?

…What makes Korean guys okay with dressing like this; whereas, the only time American guys will dress like this is for a sports game or Halloween?

…  Why are Koreans adore wearing English words on their clothes or listening to English songs when they don’t know what it means?

That last line sound okay to you?… Well to put it into better perspective, I’ve heard rap music with blatant F-bomb curses, played in a sophisticated cafe with small children. I’ve also seen elementary school kids in t-shirts with sexual innuendos like “Suck my balls!“.  WTF, Korea?

Read 10 Funny Quirks you didn’t know about Koreans

korean matching couple outfits, korean quirks

engrish tshirts in korea

6.  You’ll always hear your name spoken in front of you in Korean conversation and it’ll get *really* annoying. 

… So what was up with that ten minute speech my Korean co-teacher gave our class, where she mentioned my name a handful of times ? And why then, did the class do exactly opposite of what I just told them?

… Why is my co-teachers using my name in a frustrated tone to others?

… Am I imagining things or am I being talked about… badly?

You’ll grow annoyed in time, when you hear your name in Korean conversation. Korean words will fly over and around you while punctuating it’s speech with your name. It’s as if you’re not there. And no one bothers to translate it for you.  You’ve been raised to consider this form of talking about people as rude. Well you know what… it’s not in Korea.

Many things you’ll just chalk up as being lost in translation. 

At some point, you get tired of people translating things for you; and then, you get tired of them not.

My inquisitive nature had a lot of energy, when it first arrived in this country.  But over time, I found that asking questions took just as much brain consumption, as trying to translate the answer I was given …if I received an answer at all.

The mysteries of a foreign country are endless and answers are simply in the form of more questions.  Even my subconscious works on the Korean jigsaw puzzle as I sleep…

It’s not that I don’t want to learn about Korean culture. I’ve just momentarily lost some of my enthusiasm to actively pursue answers for all the questions that I have. I’m tired of translating things, damnit!  I’m tired of trying to find the answers to end my ongoing curiosity.

Instead, maybe for the moment, it’s just easier to be lost in Korea.

 Have you ever felt lost in translation… or in Korea? What are some ways you as a traveler or expat got Lost in Korea ?


  1. DomHyo says:

    Good post. I’m always tired as well, and can’t figure it out either. The shirt thing also gets to me as well. And yesterday I heard Jay Z’ “Ni@@s in Paris” played uncensored in a clothing shop. Good times Korea..good times.

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @DomHyo: LMAO. At least you have a translator to lighten the mystery load. 😉

  2. cleinmari says:

    I feel exactly the same way. I am always tired! Ok, to be honest, at the moment, most of the time I am keeping busy here, in order to hopefully find some friends who make life liveable (I hate going everywhere on my own), but I did that back home too with hobbies and stuff like that. But here, at the end of the day, I feel like my brain was sucked out ouf my head and I just stumble dumbly in front of my laptop and then into bed.
    And I don’t know if it is a cultural aspect or not but I always feel like it is kind of rude that all the koreans like co-workers and roommates just keep on talking in korean, whether you are in the room or not. The only times somebody i actually talking to me in english is when they want to ask me something. And then in the next moment I am asking myself: “Am I just being to sensitive and need to grow a thicker hide?” Sorry if I am rambling, but that just makes me feel so frustrated at times, because it always makes me feel left out and unable to participate.
    Hope it is going better for you

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @cleinmari: I’m glad these posts help ease the loneliness a bit. You’d be surprised how a lot of Korean expats go through the same thing. I made a bunch of expat contacts turned friends through my EPIK program and during work, my Facebook news feed was a minefield of expat teachers ranting frustration. “Why can’t my co-teacher…?” yadda yadda. A common rant is hearing your name (or the slang: “waygook”) spoken in front of you in Korean. Drives a lot of us bzonkers!

      I think Koreans just find it easier to speak to each other in Korean (because translating it in English is a chore) and I’m assuming, what they’re saying is incidental. Still doesn’t help with paranoia that you could be spoken about badly. 😉 You’ll learn to grow both, numb and frustrated by this. You could always ask why you keep hearing your name.

  3. Laura Cancun says:

    I can relate a lot to what you said about just letting “lost translations” slide. I would get so tired and embarrassed asking the sam question 3 times without understanding the answer, that I would just kind of smile and nod haha. I missed a lot of important info this way!!

    Matching outfits? Crazy.

    • @Gray– Thanks, for the concern. I’ll try my best. Been pulling a lot of those get home from work & think I’ll just take a nap routines… only to find myself getting up the next day in time for work! I’m sure during those times I get my 8+ hours. It’s insane how tired I feel sometimes and I think my response lag to the comments are proof. Yes, the translating and interpreting part is exhausting though… it’s ongoing.
      @Laura– yes, you totally know exactly how it feels. Sometimes its also asking a question, only to end up feeling like you’re teaching an English vocab or cultural lesson or if I ask my ct I get 1/3 of an answer before she drifts off into “i don’t know”. Its frustrating. & you learn to slide a lot.

  4. Gray says:

    I think you’re absolutely right about why you feel tired all the time. Having to constantly translate everything in your head and negotiated a completely different culture has got to be exhausting, especially on a long-term basis. And actually, 5-7 hours is less sleep than you should be getting at night anyway. Shoot for 8. Take care of yourself, Christine.

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