Warning: this post is long, unfunny, and completely uninteresting unless you have lived or plan on living abroad (and even then, “interesting” might be a stretch.) If you just want to read some pirate jokes, go here. Or, if you would prefer to look at cute animals, you can go here. It’s ok, really, I won’t be offended.
Not long ago, when I was first considering moving to Asia, I had no clue what culture shock was. As far as I knew — and this is embarrassing — it was akin to moving to a new country and being surprised that the people don’t speak English. I cannot claim to be an expert on the topic now, but I can tell you a bit about what I have learned based on my own experiences and a bit of research.
Basically, culture shock refers to the disorientation experienced by travellers and people living in new cultures. When we’re at home, we never really have to think about culture. In fact, that’s kind of the point. As the Centre for Intercultural Learning explains, “culture is vital because it enables its members to function with one another without the need to negotiate meaning at every moment.” When we exist within our own culture we have a set of (often) unspoken rules; we don’t have to think about what is or is not normal because we just know. In Canada if I bump into someone in the street then I stop and say sorry. That’s just how it’s done. But what happens if I bump into someone on the sidewalk in Korea? Even in a perfect world, a world where I speak flawless Korean, I still don’t quite know what is appropriate. Based on my observations, it seems that I should just keep walking, but that just doesn’t feel right. This is where culture shock kicks in. There is a discrepancy between what I know, what I think, and what I feel. Suddenly I have to think about each and every social interaction. Even after carefully calculating my movements, I’m never quite sure that I did the right thing.
Culture shock has different stages, which are defined a bit differently depending on what you read. The first stage, though, is almost always referred to as the honeymoon period. In the honeymoon phase, everything is exciting and new; it’s all a great adventure. The second phase goes by various names, but I think of it as the ugly phase. This is the time when you might start to feel physically ill. You might have feelings of resentment towards your host culture or overwhelming homesickness. Your eating or sleeping patterns might change or you might have unexplained anger or irritability. There are tens (hundreds?) of symptoms of the culture shock “uglies” and, as with most psychological phenomena, they can vary from person to person.
I am really lucky because my dad has travelled and worked abroad quite a bit and therefore has had a lot of experiences in dealing with culture shock. He explained to me that there is essentially an equation to calculate when an individual will hit the ugly phase of culture shock: divide your total expected stay in half, and then divide that number by three. For example, my equation looks like this:
(12 months/2) ÷ 3 = 2 months
And you know what? That’s pretty much exactly how it went. I arrived in Korea at the very end of December. I was scared and lonely, but I was also running on adrenaline. In the interest of survival, I shoved Scared and Lonely Meagan to the back of my brain and dove headfirst into the adventure. Everything, from the fashion to the food to the bright lights, was new and exciting. However, by the end of February the excitement had faded and I found myself face-to-face with Scared and Lonely Meagan, except that she had morphed into Lonely, Angry, and Confused Meagan.
I started getting headaches for the first time since leaving Canada. I craved McDonalds. I wanted to throw a hissy fit in the middle of E-mart when I saw a single avocado priced at 750 000 won (that’s roughly 7 CDN dollars). Ugly thoughts like “Everything here smells AWEFUL!” seeped into my conscience. When I had trouble with my electricity bill, I thought to myself “this would NOT have happened in Canada!” Of course, rational Meagan knew that these thoughts didn’t make sense. A lot of Korean food smells great (and, for that matter, a lot of Canadian food smells awful) and I only needed to think about my months working at the call centre to understand that Canadians make mistakes with bills too.
Unfortunately, culture shock is not a rational thing. There was a disconnect between the rational brain that knew I was experiencing a psychological phenomenon and my emotional brain, who only wanted to hide under my covers and eat peanut butter and jam sandwiches. Unfortunately, as tempting as it is, being a hermit doesn’t do much to counter the effects of culture shock. So, instead of completely indulging my troglodytic tendencies I started taking Korean lessons. This helped immeasurably in making my surroundings a bit more recognizable. I can actually read the signs on the streets and even if I don’t know what they mean, at least I no longer see them as combinations of “O,” “T,” “sideways-T,” “T-with-two-sticks,” “backwards-S,” and “three-sided-square.”
So, things are looking up. I’ve started to make a small network of friends, both foreign and Korean. I’m starting to understand why some things are done so differently than what I’m used to. And, perhaps most importantly, I’m getting excited about being in Korea and exploring my new surroundings again. Of course, I’m not out of the woods in terms of culture shock. There will always be moments when I have no idea if I’m doing the right thing or when I don’t understand what people around me are doing. There are things about Korea that, even if I understand them intellectually, will likely always baffle me (the idea of fan death, for example.) Just like in Canada, I will continue to have good days and bad days. But I do feel like I’m beginning to leave the uglies behind.
*The images in this post are all from http://roketship.tumblr.com, a comic strip that captures the disorientation experienced by westerners living in Korea. I think it’s pretty hilarious and accurate (most of the time.)