Experiencing Culture Shock in Korea

Last Updated on August 24, 2017 by Christine Kaaloa


Culture Shock in Korea

So you live in a new country, you’ve got a new job, you’re working out the variables of navigating new food, new work relationships, cultural and communication barriers… so why are you depressed?  Welcome to culture shock.

Nothing you do can prepare you for what you think you will or won’t experience when you move abroad.  As a traveler who thrives on experiencing cultural lifestyles, my experience of culture shock feels… surprising. I’ve lived in 4 different cities, I’ve often either traveled or lived remotely for work and I’m finally experiencing my dream of living abroad!  So why the hell am I in the 2 month zone and am still undergoing the culture shock I experienced a week after my move?

“Pass the Paper” is one of the many games circulating for effective EFL teaching (my current expat job) . Game objectives: The teacher asks a question, then students pass a crumpled paper (ball or any object) around as the music plays. When the music stops, the person left holding the paper/ball answers the question that’s been posed.

For this post, I’ll call it the…

“Pass the Paper: Blame Game”

So let’s begin (you’ll have to imagine the music)…

Why am I still experiencing culture shock in Korea?

Well, I can blame it on…

1.   The Weather

While we’ve officially moved into spring, Ms Korea’s winter weather lingers and seems, shall we say- depressed?  Most of my day is spent freezing. It’s been ice-cold gray everyday and the bite on my ass, each time I go to the school bathroom makes my wonder why there’s no heat in public restrooms. This makes me miss the U.S. and the fact that most public buildings are heated.  Then there’s the ice-cold tap water in the sink faucets of my workplace only inspire “fingertip washing”; and being bundled in the same green coat daily, despite my wardrobe change, acknowledges the idea that an effort to change makes no difference .

2.   Yellow Dust

Yellow Dust season. What is it? It’s pollution that blows in from China‘s yellow dust storms. It’s an itch you can’t scratch but you’ll cough yourself raw if you’re not careful.

I just got back from the hospital because my violent fits of cough gradually blossomed into a cold.

Advice: always carry a ‘face mask’ in your purse.

3.  Feelings as though you’re “enduring” your lifestyle.

Traveling and vacationing in a foreign country is different from living in it. When you’re living in a foreign country, each day not only requires effort, but also translation.  It’s like struggling in quicksand. For every one step of progress , I feel like I”ve taken three steps back.

Now, …like it, love it or hate it, I’m married to my apartment, co-workers, work environment and everything attached in cultural difficulties, weather climate, strange foods, etc..

My “one year work visa”  can sound the ring of “a prisoner’s bell” if just one or a couple of these things are hitting rocky roads.

4.  Not feeling like I have a support group to rally me

You feel like you’re floating a bit in a void.  Your family, your friends, your normal life patterns- these things that naturally ground you in your daily life are no longer. Comfort foods, regular workouts and hobbies which help leverage a balance, when you’re shaky must find substitutes.

5.   Feeling displaced and removed from “the familiar” 

Feeling displaced and removed from anything familiar can make you feel like you’re in a vacuum and you went from whole to hollow in an instant. This can ultimately create feelings of:

a.  Identity crisis

My identity wants to cling onto something familiar, because it feels the earth under its feet crumbling. I can’t eat the things I used to love to eat. The activities I used to love no longer give me fulfillment. Everything around me is so confusing and different… Who am I?

b.   A lack of belonging

Where is my community, now that I’ve abandoned my world? We all need to experience belonging, whether we strive to fit in or not.  Despite whether I feel a strong patriotism to my country or  whether I’m American, Canadian, South African, English, etc.., I know I belong to a world of my own. It’s a world of tradition, social values, traditions, philosophies,… and I am connected to its community.

c.  Feelings of helplessness, loneliness and isolation

I feel alone. Despite the friends I have here or the effort I make to get out and explore the country, I can’t remove these feelings of vulnerability. I’m struggling inside.

The world is too big and it’s too small and I keep running into doors.  I have only myself for sanctuary. I’m living far outside my comfort zone and in a land I don’t know,… that holds strange mysteries, …whose food I can’t always eat… and where I can’t truly belong, … Who will be my sanctuary? Please let it be someone other than me.

6.   Experiencing language barriers

I get tired of having to ” speak slow – ly all the –  time  – as if  – I’m pau – sing between  –   each three words  –  or sy – llables. ”

After uttering a sentence like that, who wants to have a whole conversation? In language, I feel severed from my English roots and severed from my tongue.

Navigating language barriers on an ongoing 24 hour basis, is too much overwhelm and effort. Not enough ease and comfort.

Now I watch my expressions, when speaking to Koreans, so as not to tempt a long-winded cultural explanation, as to why we, westerners, say things like this or that.

I’ve learned to just stick to easy topics and short elementary sentences. I pull back a desire to say “Hey, how’s it going?”…  Instead, I stick to the textbook: “Hello, how are you?”

7)     Having a  bad co-teacher or living situation

So I didn’t get the warm welcome I was expecting. So, it’s hard to know that others are treated like royalty at their schools or have an awesome friendship with their co-teacher. While I am happy for people with fortunate circumstances, a part of me secretly whispers, “Why not me?”  Nope, I didn’t receive help setting up my apartment, getting a phone. I didn’t even get a tour of my own school, let alone exotic classroom field trips. Not a penny was spent on my behalf on dinner, drinks or after-work hours play. Instead, I’m must  do everything on my own.

They say a person’s co-teacher is their lifeline to Korean culture and they can make or break your experience. I believe it.  I’m fighting feeling broken. Without a decent co-teacher/host to the country, I feel like an abandoned baby… left on the doorstep of someone who refuses to open their door.

On the other hand, it helps to know I’m not alone. It’s not that misery loves company, but  I know others are battling similar issues like mine. Some  are dealing with unacceptable living conditions or bad teaching experiences.  In many aspects, I could be considered lucky.

8)    Cultural differences or seeing strange and off-putting foods.

I should’ve never tried that silkworm larvae bug snack so early in my arrival.  It’s made me acutely suspicious of foreign scents since. Every time I catch a whiff of that scent, I lose my appetite for all food. Either that, or all food feels like it tastes like it.

Obviously, the hardest cultural differences I’ve had to deal with is my vegetarian lifestyle and the food trust issues I’ve battled…

It’s said that at some point, every expat finds him/herself undergoing this process of culture shock and depression.

It doesn’t matter how open-minded and travel-ready you feel yourself to be.  These feelings of culture shock still arise.

Could I have researched the country? Learned the language? Had a clue of what I’d be encountering as a vegetarian or expat?  To all  these questions, I adamantly shout,“Yes!”

I could have and did research my move on some level of preparation. But not everything is in a guidebook, in a language lesson  or in online travel forums…  some things have to be lived.

Do I whine?

… Yup.

Do I bitch & moan?

… Wouldn’t be human if I didn’t.

Do I try to get back on that horse if I’ve fallen off?

… All the time.

Will I try many solutions before I give up on something?

… Expect it.

Is it easy? …

Definitely no.

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  • […] Pass the Paper: Experiencing Culture Shock in Korea | GRRRL TRAVELER says: March 2, 2012 at 12:10 am […]

  • Thanks for this post. Culture shock will always suck. You’re right about being aware that it’s going to happen, whether or not you’d rather it not. Putting this in my favorites so I can look at it again when I get over to Korea myself.

  • Great post.

  • Lady — your blog almost made me cry.
    I guess I’ve been denying it for a while, probably as a survival technique. Life here is hard. It is not easy.
    I’m so sorry about your co-teacher situation. I am one of those fortunate ones and I still feel isolated, so I can’t imagine how you must be feeling!

    If you ever need to vent/need conversation/get out of the apt/anything, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’m always itching to have normal-speed English conversations!

    Keep your head up girlie! All we have is each other!

    • @Amanda: Thanks grrrlwonder! I think you’re doing brilliantly and bravely- you’ve been taking some hits yourself, esp w/ the doc trips. Denial is a good survival tactic to have sometimes; I wish I were better at it. ha ha. But I also read your Confession blog and thanks for commenting on my post- your story totally touched me. It’s comforting to know we have each other. I didn’t realize how much our EPIK group is like a support family. Thanks for the offer to hit you up for some sanity- I’ll do that!
      @ Joel: Could you “roar” that one for me? LOL.

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