Coping with culture shock in Korea

Last Updated on August 24, 2017 by Christine Kaaloa

broken, heart, Read Dealing with Language Barriers Abroad, coping with culture shock in Korea, culture shock in korea, angry expats in korea, expats in korea, expat community in korea
coping with culture shock in Korea


When I heard of  Native English teachers pulling “midnight runs” (tips here on AsktheExpat) or breaking contract after just six months into it, it wasn’t hard for me to believe. As Brian of Jeollanam-do says, the statistics are there and ESL forums are littered with disgruntled and fed up native English teachers.

I’m on my seventh month in Korea and my Facebook updates are splashed daily with the spouts of strained native English teachers crying: “Enough is enough!

As one fellow EPIKer said– “Honeymoon Finishee!

Why Korea… why does the honeymoon fade?

Coping with culture shock in Korea about learning Korean perspective.

Adapting to life and work in a foreign country that isn’t your home, isn’t as easy as most think.  Even if your school, apartment and colleague support is a dream, the odds are still against you.

Moving to a foreign country for the first time, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed with the daily onslaught of cultural differences, rough employers, bad housing. Sometimes, all these bottled feelings can unknowingly hit below the belt. You may not even know you’re battling depression.

A “honeymoon phase” can last anywhere from a week to several months.

Inevitably however, bouts of homesickness enter, you feel disconnected from the culture, or maybe you live in a remote town and don’t feel like you have a strong support group to ground you  or help you through rough times. You can feel like a bouy thousands of miles out in the ocean, withstanding the throws of violent rainstorms and tides. You want to speak out, but no one understands you, or cares. You want to be angry, but you have nowhere to channel your rage.

It’s then that the war with romance begins. Living in a bad marriage for a year or longer, is a different mindset from living in a bad romantic relationship for 3 weeks to 6 months.

Divorce is not an easy answer. So how do you keep yourself from letting the feelings get too extreme?

It’s having the mindset that despite struggles, you’re going to make things work.

The three expat phases from ‘honeymoon’ to ‘divorce‘:

So what are the highs, that make us feel the love of being in a new country and the lows, which drop on down? The secret — it’s all perspective.

1.  Honeymoon Phase:  All newness and novelty

Romance is in the air! Rose-tinted glasses on, living in a foreign country feels more exciting than you imagined. New discoveries abound and everything is cool, exotic, dazzling and something you’d gladly spend your freedom to explore. You’re discovering the “perks” of trading your old life, for this new one.

State-of-the-art technology and electronic gadgetry, a cheaper cost of living, exotic fashions, endless spicy fixings which tempt tastebuds, cool K-pop music with bands, large enough to make a sports team and then of course, there’s a society built around beauty and well-dressed people. The list can go on from a new Korean styled haircut to discovering a really good skin cream.

When I discovered Korea’s incentive shopping plans, I was hooked. Promotion girls in high platform shoes greeting me at the entrances of doors or store aisles, waving free coffee drinks, face masks, bottles of soju, etc… Did someone say “free”? That’s Korea’s way of giving you an ‘incentive’ to shop.

Then there’s Korea’s cool state of the art technology. The ATM lets me make transactions with my bank book, while automatically updating my registry, with all my latest account transactions.  When a booklet  page is full, it flips the page on its own, to continue. Too cool.

How much do I pay in utilities bill for my apartment ? Ask me… it’s under $10.

These things alone make me think, life in Korea is perfect!

SAM 23182Promotional girls stand by their aisles at Emart and solicit buyers with samples..

SAM 22442If you buy a box of detergent, you get a free waste basket (for perishable products)

incent 24962My free extras from buying skin products: lollipop, collagen product samples, sunscreen packets and a box of makeup removal wipes.

2.  Reality Phase:  Adapting to inconvenient and annoying work-arounds.

A new lifestyle in a foreign country doesn’t automatically fit. Adapting to your environment requires tweaks and changes, so you can fit its pattern better.  You must change the way you do things or know to do things. Fit yourself to the culture. But much of the frustration comes when we find we can’t change or adapt quickly enough. There’s a sense of urgency to change because you know it will improve the quality of your life.

Let’s say I’m running late for work. I turn on my bathroom sink to wash my hands, only to get a cold shot in the face from my shower head. In Korea, bathrooms have sink-shower switches:  I knob up to use the shower and knob down for the sink. While this isn’t a deal-breaker with Korean culture, it’s a cultural change I need to work harder to remember to change… for obvious reasons.

In fact, the luxury of having a small bathroom with no divisions, but a drain in the middle of the floor, makes brushing my teeth, bathroom cleaning and bathing, actually more efficient and convenient.  I can multitask.  I scrub my bathroom tiles, while i’m bathing and I can brush my teeth and spit on the floor when I shower!  A dual luxury.

But I must remember to turn the lever back to sink use… to avoid spraying myself , when I get ready for work.

culture shock in Korea
Luke Martin cartoon from of my most annoying things as of date! It hits the nail on the head.

But the greatest grievance is my computer at work and the fact, it does not speak full English.

How am I supposed to work efficiently if I don’t know how to use the Korean version of Powerpoint or Microsoft Word?  Instead, I’ve been memorizing the Powerpoint application on my Mac laptop at home so I have a visual map of where everything is. …Or I  play guesswork with the drop-down menus, buttons and commands. But again, there’s a feeling of urgency to learn this, so that I can make my class deadlines. Work-arounds. They obviously take time.

Advice: Give yourself time. Go slow and be patient with yourself. Don’t expect yourself to change all at once and be able to handle everything.


3.  Divorce Phase:  Experiencing loneliness, helplessness and continual challenges.

The first year abroad is the most demanding. Everything is new and each day is filled with hundreds of surprises thrown your way. You must adjust, dodge or withstand the hit.    When the little and big things of daily life creates continual struggle and frays your patience, frustrations can turn inward to create loneliness and depression . Your new lifestyle probably mirrors 1/3 of the lifestyle you have in your home country and this can feel unstable.

Would it be any different if I had a partner to help me cope with things or come to my rescue when I struggled? Often, I look at expat couples and think, Yes, it would. It’s not easy to go through these feelings and struggles alone.

When I had to set up my phone and phone plan with no help or knowledge of the Korean, it was a grand achievement for me! But only after getting through the upset I felt of having to do it alone.  I had set up mobile plans before, but going from mobile store to mobile store in Banwoldang, getting turned away, not having retailers understand my needs or the proper translation, exasperated me. Seeing other co-teachers taking their foreign English teachers to set up cellphone plans only intensified my feelings of neglect, rejection and anger.

It’s hard not to feel isolated, helpless and alone.

Advice: Reach out to a community and try to get help. Ask other Koreans for help or make friends with expats who can commiserate or whom you can go out and unwind with.  It’s not that misery loves company but the fact that misery needs community. Also look for ways to change your perspective. Find delight in the challenge and revel in the achievement. It took a lot of work to get where you’re at. Congratulate yourself!

SAM 2577
getting a cellphone contract without knowing the language.

Your lifestyle change can feel drastic

Day-in day-out, conforming to a new diet and lifestyle, navigating a language barrier, handling challenging colleagues and fluctuating work schedules, … All of this isn’t easy. Misunderstandings, anger,  helplessness, all ensue.  Daily conformity can breed contempt and builds, until you finally want to say, Fuck it.

Honeymoons come and go. The perspectives we see and work through our lives, will be a test of whether our relationship with any lasts.

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