Culture shock. It’s that feeling of being out of your element. You’ve lost your normal points of reference. Everything is new, exciting, challenging and sometimes just frustrating.
It feels like even though all of your senses are on a high alert, ready to absorb all stimuli, you are trapped in a bubble where everything is muffled and incomprehensible. It sounds like confusion and chaos. It feels like you might never fit, like nothing will be ‘normal’. So how do you deal with it? Here are 5 tips on handling culture shock in Korea.
1. Become a keen observer. It’s almost certain that all of your senses will be completely overwhelmed. You’ll most likely be dealing with a new language, city, job, taste palate. This is probably the best time to sit back and watch. Watch how people greet each other, hand things to each other, accept drink and food, how they tackle a meal. See how people your own age dress at work, notice how people behave at the checkout counter in a supermarket, recognize how people interact with others around them. And then try to copy them. Most Korean people will pick up on the fact that you are keen to learn and fit in and will then go to great lengths to help you do just that.
2. Don’t be afraid of trying new things. Many things might alarm you at first. Maybe you don’t like the often pungent smell of the fermented king of Korean cuisine, kimchi. Or the thought of stabbing your chopsticks into the whole fish, eyes and all, leaves you feeling squeamish. It could be that the thought of heading to a restaurant without a clue as to what’s on offer, let alone how to order it, makes you stay home instead. Or the idea of going shopping and seeing tanks of live crabs next to 20kg bags of rice in every shape and colour, while not being able to locate a loaf of bread leaves you eating ramyan for days. The best way to deal with this is to just dive right in, give it a go and see where it takes you and how you like it. You might be surprised.
3. Learn hangul. It may seem like a distant dream to be able to make sense of all those lines and circles and you’ll probably feel like you’ll never get the hang of it, but once you have, oh the places you’ll go! Once you are able to sound out words you will be able to look up bus times, see what’s on the menu and read your students’ names. It will give you a great confidence booster (especially when you sound out English words written in hangul, proving you can read AND understand!) and make your life just that little bit easier.
4. Try not to be too judgmental. It becomes easy and comfortable to make comparisons because it gives you a point of reference. But don’t let these comparisons become overly critical of Korean cultural and social norms. Don’t give in to the ‘us vs. them’ outlook. Just try to be open-minded and remind yourself (in case you have forgotten!) that you are living and working in an environment that has been like this for years. That you are a guest in their country. Just because you think something could be done differently, will most likely mean nothing and get you nowhere. You might get a few sympathetic smiles, if you’re lucky.
5. Be patient and understanding. Although the pace of life in Korea is often fast and frantic the complete opposite is equally true. Many times you will be told of important things at the last moment or sometimes not even at all. You will be called to teach a class that you never knew existed, you will be rushed to a work function that you weren’t expecting, you will be told to ‘go now!’ ‘Go where?’ you might wonder. Just go! And then you will wait weeks to hear if your holiday has been approved, if there is a budget for teaching supplies or you can get an English version of Microsoft. Get used to hearing ‘Yes, maybe.’ At times like these just remember to stay calm and keep on smiling.
Just take a deep breath and dive in. I’m sure you’ll love it. Well, at least most of the time.