Sunday, August 19, 2012

Survival Tip: Reverse Culture Shock

You did it! You made it through your first year teaching in Korea! Now you can reward yourself with a brief trek back to your home land and relax in the warm glow of kith and kin.

Oh... wait... it might not be as easy as all that.

This was true for me and many people I have talked to have reported having the same experience: returning to your own home country after a prolonged sojourn will be like visiting a completely new country. There are so many things that you got so used to seeing that they just didn't seem that unusual to you. But, believe me, now that it's been a while since you've been exposed to certain aspects of western life it's going to be a big shock to be thrown into the mix again. Here's a brief list of the things I was not prepared to see again in America:

The food, my GOD the CRAP!!!
om nom BARF!
I was puttering around LAX on my way back to New England when a gentle thirst overcame me. I popped into the nearest convenience store only to be completely overwhelmed by American junk food. I had completely forgotten that this many varieties of candy bars even existed! In Korea there are maybe 20 different types of candy bars in any given store. In America there are typically 50+. That's not even beginning to touch on all the other junk food laying about.
I'm not going to say that I didn't miss American foods: I stuffed my face like Homer Simpson in a donut factory while I was home. But, I forgot how HORRIBLE for me all the foods that I had been missing are. When I got back to Korea I was roughly 7 pounds heavier, my skin was breaking out, and I was bloated like crazy. And that was only after 11 days! I lost most of the weight pretty quickly because I'm pretty sure it was mostly due to the massive amounts of carbohydrates I had shoved into my food hole.
And this crazy amount of food leads me to my next point...

Americans are FAT and SICKLY!

Image not given because I think pictures of people
used just to make fun of them without their knowledge
or permission is INCREDIBLY mean.

For the most part, that is. Some Americans are a healthy weight and look just fine, but the majority I saw were... not. And these people weren't just overweight, these people were... strangely shaped. People can be overweight but carry it in the right places and with a pretty even distribution and I think this is a sign of slightly more healthy large person. However, I saw people in America with chicken legs and enormous guts, skinny everywhere except their thighs, and with, mysterious, arm and calf fat but little fat anywhere else. Many people also just plain looks sickly, with pale, blotchy skin and purple circles around their eyes. It was just shocking. Korea has one of the lowest obesity rates in the industrialized world and I was NOT ready to see that many fat people! It made me feel a bit better about myself, I'm like the Great White Whale to Koreans. :(

People in America SPEAK ENGLISH!
And by this I mean that I could go anywhere... at any time... and be completely understood in my native tongue. Living in a foreign country where you do not speak the native language is like constantly living with a certain level of stress. You are always worried that you're going to get into a situation where you will not be able to explain yourself properly. Of course, there are many ways to get around this (using interpreters, playing internet translator-tag, or just getting up off your lazy ass and learning the language, which I have presently opted out of doing), but, no matter what, there's going to be a situation where someone just wont understand you and vice-versa. In America, the simple act of going to the grocery store, something I am perpetually terrified of doing in Korea, was so simple that I actually got paranoid! I could read all the labels and recognize all the food! I could chit chat with the lady at the register without praying the entire time that she wouldn't ask me a question I wouldn't understand! It was all too easy... I must be missing... SOMETHING! It was actually a little shocking to me the first time a person in a restaurant spoke English to me. I didn't need to constantly be running through my Korean vocabulary in my head. The absence of stress was almost as stressful as the stress itself!

People are going to suddenly find you VERY INTERESTING!
We all went through it before we got here. When you decided to move to different country people were constantly intrigued and asking you questions but you, having never BEEN to you newly-adopted home nation, did not have many answers. Now you have a TON of answers and a lot of people are very interested in what you have to say. I got used to thinking that the fact that I was a waygookin in Korea wasn't a big deal, there's a lot of us about and no one thinks any of us are doing anything particularly remarkable just by being here. However, think back to before you got here; how many people did you know who did something remotely similar to this? I bet you can count them on one hand if you need to count them at all. It's a strange jump from no one wanting to ask you to describe your life in Korea to everyone wanting to know everything about it. However, you're never going to be able to really make them understand because, come on, how close was you expectation of Korea to reality?

You will finally be completely sure of the answer to the question "should I move home?"
You may have thought you were ready to stay another year, but seeing family, friends, and being completely comfortable among your own people may just be too beautiful to give up. On the other hand you may love your family and friends very deeply (as I do), but finally completely understand that your life is in your adopted country, not you home country. This may be a big shock to those close to you. Wanting to stay in Korea is not saying that you don't miss those you love as much as you leaving didn't say that you don't love them. My family is... mixed in reaction to how they feel about my staying. Some understand the decision and some really wish I'd reconsider. In the end, you just need to go with what feels right to you and hope people will respect your decision.

Things will NOT be the same, but some things never change
It's been a year and life has gone on without you. You have grown in ways you never imagined and are now having to, for the first time, truly reconcile who you were with who you have become. While I was home my mom gave me the task of tidying my bedroom in their house and getting rid of things I don't want to hold on to anymore. I went through most of my room and it was, to say the least, surreal. Finding things that used to mean the world to me in college, in high school, in grade school, and being able to say "I don't need this now" and tossing it in the trash. I found gifts, mementos, and love letters that I used to cherish and had moments of intense retrospection. Who was the person these things belonged to and why does she feel so familiar? The items haven't changed, but I sure as hell have. It was a real challenge, but by resigning myself to my own personal growth I was able to find comfort in the shadows of the past.

Visiting home is going to be a huge, strange, wacky experience. There are some things you can't prepare yourself for and some things that will shock you. As always, it's just a matter of perspective, but it's worth it.

1 comment:

  1. A sister needs to read "A la recherche pour temps perdu" up in this piece.