This blog has been conspicuously uninhabited lately; logging in today feels like walking down a dark and dusty corridor, brushing off the cobwebs and trying to find the light switch. Usually, my excuse for absence is a lack of time. It’s true that my life lately has been operating at lightning speed with hardly a pause for breath; but this time the explanation for abandoning my beloved little blog is not because I haven’t found the time, but rather because I haven’t found the words.
A friend asked me once, “How do you write? I would have no idea how to write what I’m thinking in a way that made sense.” The truth is, I’m not really sure; I think it was just an ability I was born with. Words are always pouring from my brain and, strange as it may sound, I’m usually narrating my life in my head, evaluating a situation in terms of how I might tell it as a story. Sometimes I feel like that scene from A Beautiful Mind where Russell Crowe is cracking a code and sees all the numbers lighting up and hears numbers echoing in his head– only for me, it’s words. You all knew I was crazy, right?
But lately my mind has been muddled, and there has been no stirring of words. I’ve been frustrated, confused, irritated, and daydreaming of a return to the ease of wine dates on sunny beach side terraces and the laid-back Santa Barbara lifestyle.
As much as I hate to admit it, I think I’m in the midst of “culture shock”.
I don’t like the term “culture shock”, though. To me, it conjures images of a person who ceases to function because they’re amongst cultural differences. Like, Oh god, kimchi and temples!–FAINT. But it’s not like that. (Even if the pungent smell of kimchee does occasionally make me want to pass out.)
Culture shock is a much more complex series of emotions. When I first arrived, a friend who had been here for a year warned me, “In a few months, you’re going to hate this place. Trust me, you will.” I laughed then, thinking to myself, No way, not me. I’m mentally prepared for this; the unexpected doesn’t bother me; I’m not like those other people who can’t hang–culture shock is for the weak.
Like a child thinks they’re invincible, I thought I was immune to culture shock. I was too smart, too prepared, too “worldly”. But at that time, I was also in the phase known as “the honeymoon period.” Everything was new and exciting and wonderful, and I couldn’t fathom any kind of negativity.
But my friend was right: three months in, I hated this place.
Well, hate is a strong word. I became frustrated with Korea. So many things they do here just didn’t seem to make sense! Like, why are they so obsessed with pink floral wallpaper? Why do they say “maybe” when they clearly do NOT mean “maybe”? Why do they always ask me if my country has seasons, as if Korea is the only country in the world that enjoys the novelty of four seasons?
Why do they drink such crappy beer? Why do they insist on commenting every day on how much rice I put on my plate? Why is their banking system so complicated that I can’t even book flights with my local debit card?
Why are they so conservative in their dress code, yet completely comfortable with group (gender segregated) nudity? And why do old naked ladies insist on showing me how to wash my lady bits in big group demonstrations?
Why do I have to buy my produce in bulk at the markets–what on earth am I supposed to do with 7 onions and 12 apples? Why do they insist all the time on pointing out that I look tired? Why do they make the kids stay at school until 11pm, but let them sleep in class?
Why don’t they use trash cans instead of throwing piles of garbage on street corners every night? Why do they dye their little white dogs pink? Why are there always so many squid tentacles in my school lunch? Why do men carry women’s purses? Why can’t I just find a decent salad????
The list could go on… But the point is that the myriad differences have been getting to me. Combined with a particularly challenging work environment of students who have no respect or motivation for me or my class, I’ve not been the chipper person I usually am.
The truth about culture shock is that it’s real, and it’s unavoidable. Every person who moves to a new country will experience it to some extent, some more acutely than others. If you try to tell me otherwise, I will either ask you for your secret or, more likely, accuse you of lacking a soul.
Culture shock is a test; if you can work through it, you will eventually adapt to your new surroundings and learn to cope with even those things that seem outlandishly strange. Some might not see it through but, like a game of survival, it makes the gratification that much sweeter for those who do. I can only write this now because I think (hope) I’m coming to the close of my battle with culture shock.
I’m learning to accept the “maybes” and the naked ladies and the rice and the squid tentacles. I’m settling into a routine and starting to find my stride. I miss my friends and family more than a fat kid on a diet misses stuffing his face with double chocolate chip cookies, but we’ve all got to watch our weight a little now and then; it’s not easy, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.
For now, I’ve got my arms wide open and my “bring-it-on-Korea” face on. Although one thing I will never understand is their allegiance to the squatttie pottie…