Thursday, June 7, 2012

Survival Tip #3: Culture Shock

Everyone told me I'd get it, but four or five months went by and I was still as happy as a child who has just been given the keys to the Cake, Candy, and Adorable Baby Animals Wonder Emporium.
Again, a post best illustrated by Lisa Frank
I had moved to a different culture before (granted, it was just moving from northeast US to southeast US, but it was still a change) and had been raised by very open-minded and worldly parents. But, here's the big lesson:
"Culture Shock" does not mean the same thing for everyone.
It doesn't necessarily mean hating the culture of your adopted or temporary new home. It doesn't mean being terrified of having new experience. It doesn't even mean being homesick. However, I have found that, with most people, culture shock manifests in one, if not four specific ways: not wanting to leave the house and feeling depressed/anxious/short tempered.

So, as I was saying, I was about five months in. I had just gone on trips to Thailand and Japan. I enjoyed my time in these places a lot, but always found myself missing Korea after a few days. After my trip to Japan I got back to Seoul to an intense winter. It might just be that I've never lived in a city during the winter, but this one was tough. It was damned cold and that made it so no one in the city really wanted to go anywhere. This meant I was spending too much time in my apartment, which meant that I was spending too much time with my own thoughts, doing this inevitably leads to me looking like a stock photo used in depression ads.
Except with more pizza boxes
I was depressed, I was anxious, I started feeling unable to do even the simplest of tasks (you mean I SHOULDN'T eat ramen for dinner every night?) and all of this led to me just feeling more and more isolated. In my mind, isolating yourself is the #1 way to ensure you will not have a good time living in a foreign county (excluding racism and xenophobia, of course). At the same time I was also dealing with the crumbling status of my long-distance relationship, and that just made things worse.

So how did I escape this big ole sad sack? Take a tip from Macy Gray:
Get up, get out, and do something.

Seriously, I really believe that becoming more active outside of my group of friends has lead to me getting over the first wave of culture shock. Get lost in your hobbies (I have friends who do anything from Tae Kwon Do to knitting circles), meet new people, explore new parts of the city, go full-on tourist up in this piece, just do SOMETHING to get you active and get your mind off of things.

I talked a bit about this before and it's still very true. One good group for finding activities and volunteering opportunities in Seoul, I have found, is Mannam. Mannam is a non-profit organization that does cultural activities as well as various volunteering outings. They also run a free language class every semester. I attended one for a while but had to stop when I started singing with the choir, they were very good classes, though, and I recommend them. An excellent website for finding groups that are interested in, well, anything, is MeetUp (here's the link specifically for MeetUp groups in Seoul). One of the best ways to find out about new and interesting things to do, however, is to meet new and interesting people. Language Exchanges, I have found, are THE best way to meet new people who might be able to point you in the direction of something to expand your mind. The MeetUp website is a good resource for finding LangXChanges in any area of the city.

The second big tip for getting over culture shock is deceptively simple:
Make Korean Friends

Those of you who do not live in Korea might not understand why this actually needs to be said. It is WAY too easy for westerners in Korea to only have western friends. Sure, you'll have that one western friend whose dating a Korean, you're friends with that Korean, but are you really just friends with any Koreans that you have met on your own? I can say, without shame as always, that when I first moved here becoming friends with Koreans seemed a little daunting. You never know how good their English is, they wont understand all the references to western culture you have firmly integrated into your daily language, and you feel like a bull in the China shop that is their culture (no matter how hard you work at it, your chopstick skills will never be as crazy as theirs). It doesn't help that most Koreans, even when close to fluent in English, get very nervous when speaking to native English speakers.

I have to say, the thing that made becoming friends with Koreans easier was dating one. Before I started dating SeungHyun I was "dating" another Korean guy. His English was really not that good but our mutual language instruction took away a lot of the reservations I had been harboring.

Becoming friends with Koreans will open up a side to Seoul otherwise closed to westerners. No matter how good your Korean language skillz (that's right, with a z) are, you will never know Seoul like a true Seoullite does. It puts you more at ease when you're under the caring hand of someone who is a duck in water (where you, my friend, are a brick) moving through the Seoul streets. Just make sure you don't become too dependent on them and return the favor with introducing them to areas they might have not explored (your neighborhood, extremely western areas and western events, and parts or your culture). Friendships with Koreans can have a tendency to become based on dependence, and no one appreciates that.

So there you go, now, get out of here and go from this: 
So very forever alone.
To this:

One last thing, I saw this when doing a gif search for "Korea" and lol'ed
North Korean Rocket Launch


  1. I love this, Margaret! You actually helped me put some things going on in my head into perspective. <3

    1. I'm thinking about linking this page from my blog page, is that ok? I'm going to make a similar post, and I wanted to give proper inspirational credit to the lovely brain behind it. Also, your page will probs get more traffic, because I shamelessly self promote on a LOT of websites.