Tag Archives: my ignorance

. . . in which I somehow avoid making “shocking” puns

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.

the honeymoon phase

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.

Before learning Korean

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.

After learning some Korean. (Also, it is my goal to speak and understand Korean well enough to order food delivery.)

*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.)


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Life is moving along here. I have nothing especially momentous or noteworthy to share this week. Of course, at least once a day I have a personal victory of some sort, but you  (and I) would be bored to tears if I blogged about finding garbage bags at the grocery store.

Today I went into Ilsan. It’s the more affluent part of my city and everything there is new. It was built in the last fifteen years to help ease Seoul’s crowded housing situation.  One of  Ilsan’s big draws is Lake Park, which is exactly as it sounds: a giant man-made lake with parklands surrounding it. While it’s certainly is no Tofino or David Lake, it is a nice area.

The frozen lake

Buildings line Lake Park

Here’s a fun fact: Seoul has a law that states that all high-rise buildings must have a sculpture out front. The result is a city filled with interesting creations by artists from all over the world. I have no idea if Goyang has a similar policy but sculptures seem to popluar. Lake Park is peppered with statues and artworks with plaques explaining them. Luckily, the plaques are written in Hangul, so we get to use our imaginations to figure out what the sculptures are all about. (Some are more obvious than others.)

My guess: a seal chasing it's tail.

My guess: a seal chasing its tale.

To the layperson this might look like a representation of bamboo. To my highly trained eye, however, it is clearly . . . yeah, I've got nothing. It's bamboo.

This one's my favourite: We bow down to television like we used to worship God?

And thus concludes my (potentially) gross misunderstandings of art, for today. Stay tuned. Perhaps next week I shall unveil the mystery of mime.

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얄 쇠 룰 방 에 두 고 나 와 바 럈 아 요 ?

When I was in Paris last March I rented a small apartment for a week because it was cheaper and more comfortable than a hostel. I spent my days and nights exploring the city and just generally marvelling at the fact that I was in Paris. I kept meaning to pop into a store to buy a cell phone, but there was always something shiny to distract me. (You know, like the Eiffel Tower, no big deal.) I arrived back at the apartment the second night, stuffed with pastries and baguette and apricot jam and ready to sleep away the remaining jet lag.  However, when I put the key in the door an turned it, nothing happened. I turned it left and right and then around and around. It just kept spinning and not opening.  I had already suffered a bit of embarrassment with this door, so I was sure that there must just be some trick to opening the door. I jiggled it and wiggled it and in the end I must have done the entire hokey pokey with that lock, which still refused to cooperate.  I didn’t have a cell phone yet, and I was alone. In Paris.  I was alone in Paris and locked out of my apartment.

After about five seconds of panic, I decided that there was not much I could do until the next morning. I thought I would sleep in the hallway in front of the door (yes, a little like a hobo) and then wake up early the next morning and deal with the door situation. Unfortunately, after about half an hour of trying to get somewhat comfortable, I realised that the reason I was chilled was that I had left the window in the apartment open and that there would be a draft coming from under the door all night.  I thought that perhaps a walk would clear my head. So I wandered around the neighborhood and eventually I found a cheap motel. (“Cheap” is, of course, a relative term when in Paris.)  The concierge didn’t know what to make of this single Canadienne who didn’t even have a backpack. But he gave me a room and I had a warm bed to sleep in for the night.

The labyrinth lock from the inside

The next morning I spent more money than I had intended on a cell phone and I called the apartment rental company. After a while I spoke with someone who assured me he was on his way to help find out what was going on.  Excellent. I slumped against the door and waited. Before anyone from the rental agency arrived, one of the neighbours came out of his door and asked me if I was having trouble with the lock. He explained that it was because of the old locks in the building, that they always cause havoc.  He got a paper clip from his apartment and showed me how to use the paper clip and my key to open the lock when it was causing grief. Poof. Just like that, a little poke with a paper clip, and a hard push with the key before I turned it and the door popped right open. I was so grateful to this neighbour, and I felt so vindicated. It wasn’t only me! So I called the rental agency and explained the situation, including how to fix it, in case they have similar calls in the future. And that was that. I went inside, changed my clothes, and carried on with my adventure.

I didn’t tell the full door story to many people. At the time I thought that the experience had been not only nerve wracking, but also embarrassing.  I hadn’t wanted to provide any fodder to the unambiguously judgemental people who had told me that travelling alone was dangerous. Looking back on it though, it’s one of the funnier untold stories of the trip. (Seeing a couple break up at the top of the Eiffel Tower still tops the list. I’ll have to share that story sometime.)

I’m also telling the story now because I have just accepted a teaching position in Korea. If things go at least remotely as planned, then I should be moving to the Goyang area in January.  I’ll be in the neighbourhood (dong) of Hwajeon, a few subway stops away from Ilsan. I’m told that I will be about 30 minutes from Seoul by subway.  I would by lying if I said that I wasn’t nervous. I’m moving to the other side of the world, to start a new job in a country where I do not speak a word of the language. There are some pretty significant challenges and obstacles ahead of me, I’m certain.  For the moment, however, I am more curious than I am afraid. The reality is that, despite having done a lot of research, I still know very little about Korea. Sure, I could tell you little about the country’s history and perhaps its socioeconomic construction, but the stuff that really matters — like how the doors work — is still a complete mystery to me.  Still, I have confidence that it will all work out for the best. And, if things do take an unfortunate turn, I have my phrasebook.

얄 쇠 룰 방 에 두 고 나 와 바 럈 아 요

I’m locked out of my room.

Edit:  Ha! I just typed the Hangul text into bablefish to see what it turned up. Apparenlty it translates into “[yal] In the iron rule room two comes [lyass] Oh.”  Oh, indeed.  Crikey, this will be an adventure!

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I’m not a smart man

My time in Paris is almost over. I saw the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Versailles, and the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Other than that, I walked around the city like it was my job. Actually, since I’m unemployed walking could very well be my job. I could be like the walking version of Forest Gump. It’s a fitting description, since I have a tendency to stumble onto things around which other people would plan their day.  For instance, my first night in the city I decided to check out the Eiffel Tower, since every one raves about it. So I hopped on the metro and hopped off at Trocadero. I hadn’t planned it out much more than that so when I was back up at ground level I just started walking. (And for those of you who are concerned, yes it was dark so I decided to play it safe and hitch-hike down some poorly-lit alleys and collect strange looking needles while I was there.  Calm down!) I had just started to get a sinking feeling that I was getting farther and farther away from the tower when I turned a corner and BAM! There it was, the top of the tower looming above another building.  Things like the Eiffel Tower are infinitely more exciting when you aren’t expecting them.

I stumbled across the Louvre in a similar fashion. In fact, I felt a little bit like Forest Gump the whole time that I was at the Louvre; I was in the presence of greatness and yet I had no clue what was going on.  Now, I’m not completely uncultured, but it’s safe to say that I have little understanding of good art. For instance, there was one large Italian paining that had a small crowd in front of it. It was a nice painting, but I didn’t understand it at all. From what I understood, it was a portrait of babies holding a disco ball. Now, I’m fairly certain that the babies were, in fact, cherubs but I remain quite unsure of what the disco ball was.

While I’m on the topic of great art, let me pause for a moment to reflect upon La Joconde. While I understand that much of the intrigue surrounding her is based on the ambiguity of the subject, I don’t understand what it was that makes herds of people wait in line to get a front-row view of her.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the museum is playing a joke on the public with the juxtaposition of the tiny  Mona Lisa with The giant Wedding at Cana on the opposite wall. Perhaps this is why DaVinci’s girl smirks: the thousands of people every year who flock towards  her and likely miss out on other worthy pieces. However, before I sound too pretentious, let me be the first to remind you that when I look at great art I see babies shakin’ their tail feathers with a disco ball.

While I’ve enjoyed the city and appreciated (though not always understood) it’s cultural offerings, it’s time for a change of pace. Tomorrow I leave Paris and head to St-Malo for a few days.


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Don’t they have doors like this in Canada?

UPDATE: I have posted a picture of the lock in question at the bottom.  Judge for yourself.

So i’m here. I’m not going to lie though, Paris and I had a rough start. The flight went as smoothly as possible. I slept through both meals, which meant that I probably got in at least a few hours of sleep for the night. When I landed, after pikcing up my luggage and going through customs (and by “going through customs” I mean that a police officer gave me a glance, my passport a quicker glance and then stamped me and sent me on through), I had to figure out how to get to the city from the airport. Now, I had done my research. I knew to take the RER and then take the 4 to the stop nearest the appartment. What I didn’t know what how to buy a ticket. It’s ok though because I made friends. While I was walking down the hallway towards the train station I saw three people starring, dumbfounded, at the ticket machine. Two of them were Canadians who had been on my flight. The other was the Texan (I knew she was Texan because it was the first thing she told me. “Hi I’m Kelly and I’m a Texan.”) Anyhow, the four of us tried desperately to figure out how to get this machine to take our money and give us tickets in return. It only took coins — which none of us had, or credit cards — which we could not figure out how to use in the machine. So we ended up waiting for a half hour in the line to buy tickets.

Anyhow, I ended up at the apartment that I’m renting a little late but I still made it. A man name Jeremy met me to exchange the keys for money. Done, great. I was just getting settled in when Jeremy came back and knocked on the door. No problem, I can answer a door, right? Wrong.   The doors in France are like no other doors I have ever seen.  I’ll attach a photo at some point but for now just trust me that they are completely counter intuitive.  So there I stood, not only unable to answer the door, but effectively locked inside the apartment. Jeremy, a very kind man, and I participated in an exchange where he tried to explain it in broken English through the door while I tried to figure out what he was talking about.  Eventually I figured out that by “yellow” he meant silver and by “push” he meant pull. I then insisted it was OK for him to explain in French. This was not because I was keen to practise my French, I was just keen to get out of the room at some point.  Anyhow, after I got the door open and Jeremy gave me the pillow case he was walking out the door and he turned to me “don’t they have doors like this in Canada?” he asked.  Apparently Jeremy thought that this must be what I go through every time I encounter a door.

Anyhow, despite a few minor glitches (we won’t get into the wine-cork incident)  the day overall has been a success. I didn’t go to sleep so I will be able to sleep tonight and (hopefully) wake up fully accustomed to the time change. (side note: France doesn’t do daylight savings until a few weeks from now, so it’s currently only a five hour difference).  That’s all for now . i’m not sure why this paragraph is in bold by my Internet time is quickly running out so I’m rolling with it.



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