Monday, October 15, 2012

Survival Tip: Short Term Solutions to Culture Shock

So you've moved to a new country. Chances are you have reacted to said enormous, life-altering, self-uprooting event in one of two ways:

1) You are excited and running around like a child who has just learned how to walk and explore

2) You are so deep in culture shock and missing your life back home that you can barely move and spend about 90% of your life either Skyping people back home or as such...

Have no fear, someone who has totally been in both positions is here!

Yeah, if you are in either position you actually have some problems. Let's start with group 2, because the people in group 1 have run off to try that kimbop store next to their apartment building but totally swear they're going to read this later.

Hold onto your sad-sack, and that is to say, hold onto yourself, because it's gonna get listy up in here!

4 Short-Term Solutions to Negative Culture Shock

NOTICE! These are short-term solutions meant to put a band-aid on something that actually needs stitches. For long-term solutions, please see my entry on surviving culture shock here.

1) Facebook

Chances are you've already discovered this, but it's worth pointing out. The vast majority of Korean expats, especially teachers, are constantly on Facebook checking up with not just the people back home, but with the others in Korea. This is a nice outlet for your culture shock because it can take care of your nostalgia for home while also giving your some great ideas for things to do in your new country. I can't tell you how many of my adventures have started with my friends posting a picture of something and me saying "that looks awesome, I want to go to there!"And, let me tell you, "I want to go to there" is the most IMPORTANT sentence you can utter when trying to get rid of those cultrure shock blues, but more on that later.

2) Foreigner Areas

Every foreigner in Seoul, and possibly most of those throughout Korea, knows about Itaewon. If you are experiencing negative culture shock and don't know about Itaewon, well... you're welcome, because I'm gonna turn that frown upside down!

Itaewon is, as I am pretty sure I have said before, the district where the foreigner community has take over. You can find anything from a British owned and operated pub, to a totally legit Iranian curry place. The bars are all western style, which means no having to order food to drink and they sell more than just beer, makgeolli, and soju! There are some awesome brunch places, and every nationality can find a bar that caters towards their needs. My Kiwi friends have a New Zealand rugby bar, my South African friends have a few places scattered about, the Canadians have a hockey-tastic all-wood place where they can hang, and, well, Americans are spoiled for choice.

The reaction of most Americans when they see the Taco Bell in Itaewon

Itaewon isn't the only area that strives to make a foreigner feel at home, though. There's a pretty huge Russian and Indian population in Dongdaemun and any foreigner with money can pay to make Gangnam feel like a second home. Most of the draw for these areas have one very specific thing luring foreigners there: they speak the same language as you! Almost every street vendor in Itaewon speaks at least basic English and everyone in Gangnam has had intense English classes since they were 5. So hole up for a while until you feel ready to emerge like the glorious expat butterfly you are!

3) Foreigner Friends

Seriously, you anti-social thing, make some friends! No one back home knows what you're truly going through, no matter how hard you try to explain it. Think about it. Think about what you pictured Korea would be before you came here:

Chances are the pictures of the Korean War from your high school textbook and "Gangnam Style" are the only things you had seen of the Korean landscape.
And then realize what you have found to be the truth:
THE most technologically advanced city in the world.
DELICIOUS Korean food!
A beautiful and rich history
So, really, you're kidding yourself if you every think "my friends back home are the only people who truly understand me," because it is absolutely no longer true. They have not experienced what is now defined as one of the biggest and most difficult decisions and times of your life. You know who REALLY understands you like no other? OTHER EXPATS! You know who is just as anxious to find new friends as you? OTHER EXPATS!

Just get yourself out there. Go to a bar, go to a museum, go to a clubby area, join a group, find a hobby and a group of people interested in siad hobby. PUT.YOUR.SELF.OUT.THERE. I've said it so many times, I'm really hurt that you haven't been listening!

The best part about expat friends is complaining. Dear GOD does it feel good to commiserate with a group of expats when life abroad is really getting you down. Gripe about your coteachers, gipe about the cost of western-style food, gripe about the exchange rate, gripe about Korean ANYTHING (especially ajummas, ajusshis, and those who have some deep fascination with the fact that you, as a non-Korean, exist) and most expats will not only listen to you until the cows come home, but will have their own horror stories that will make your head spin. Don't get it twisted, I LOVE my life in Korea, but from time to time I just need to vent, just for a moment, about how Korea is NOT AMERICA and that's when my expat friends are there with a double Jameson on the rocks and a sympathetic ear.

Well hello, old friend.
4) One Word: Headphones

I have, after days of contemplation, come to the conclusion that roughly 60% of culture shock can be traced back to one source: you don't speak the language. The vast majority of expats who come to Korea know only the basic phrases or less. Most don't even know the alphabet. So your brain is just being assaulted at all hours of the day, in every corner of your life, with a constant feeling of "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING TO ME, WHY DID YOU BRING ME TO AN ALIEN PLANET WHERE I CAN'T EVEN READ THE MCDONALD'S MENU?!?!?" It gets to the point where you are so confused and so irritated that just leaving the house is a major ordeal because you are so terrified of just what amount of Korean might be standing between you and a delicious plate of dak galbi.

Dak Galbi with Ramen and Cheese: Destroying my diet willpower on an hourly basis
Or even worse... between you and paying your bills... *shudder*

How do you manage to put a bit of a buffer zone between you and all of this? Headphones, my friend, headphones.

By wearing headphones you are reminding yourself that there are people out there who speak the same language as you, easily, and who are happy to fill your ears with something that you actually understand. I find that this comes in the most handy at the supermarket. Why, you ask? Because this is what your typical Korean supermarket is doing 24 hours a day:

While you...

For some... unknown, illogical, stupid reason Koreans have decided that the #1 way to get anyone interested in the shit you're selling is to scream about what you're selling through a loudspeaker that is also blaring KPop tunes. They do this on the street as well but put about 20+ sales people in one enclosed, crowded smell buffet all screaming to buy some kind of... is that a beak?... will make you hate Korea's everything. This is still my biggest source of culture shock. It's so bad that I absolutely loathe going to the grocery store to this very day. The only way I can get through it? Headphones. The only way I can deal with the crowds on the buses and subways? Headphones. The only way I can handle sitting in a Korean waiting room for... anything? Headphones. Also, if you don't like KPop headphones will help you ignore it to a complete extent, otherwise you'll have a small knowledge of "oh yeah, that's the song that keeps blasting out of cell phone stores."

Ok, now that the sad people are feeling a little bit better about themselves, lets move on to the happy people.

3 Ways to Maintain Expat Joy

You don't know it yet, but this insane happy-train you've been riding on for the last month or so is going to eventually slow down from it's break-neck speed of mirth. As I've mentioned before, for my first approximately 6 months in Korea I was in a state of ecstasy. I had amazing friends and was having an amazing time doing amazing things.

Seriously, I'd just think about my life and I'd be all...

But sadly, culture shock hit me... it hit me like a ton of bricks with a 5kgs assed to my ass kicker.

Illustrated Above: Me every night of the week after I realized that, after 3 tries, I could normally get someone at the McDonald's delivery service who spoke enough English to bring me food.
Here are some things to help you put off the culture shock monster:

1) Keep Your Experiences Varied

I know, I know, for right now it seems like partying in Itaewon on Friday nights and Hongdae on Saturday nights is NEVER going to get old but... it does... it really does. You can always tell how long expats have been in Seoul by how they look in Hongdae Park. If they have been there for hours and still look like they are having the greatest time of their lives they've been here for 2 months, max. If they hang out for a while and then peace out to find something else to do: 4-6 months. If they stand around looking like they're having a shitty time but still not leaving: 8 months-1 year. If they come for a few minutes, have one drink, and leave: 1 year and upward. Seriously, bro, branch out!

Have nights where you visit the areas of the city where your friends live. Drink in a friend's apartment. Drink in a different park. Drink only in a restaurant for one night, that's what Koreans do and they get friendlier and friendlier as the night goes on (free booze and food!).

Just don't get stuck in a routine because, when you do, you'll eventually realize that your routine kinda sucks. That's what happened with me and trivia night... oh how I miss how much fun that used to be...

2) Explore More of the Country

GET OUT OF SEOUL! I know it's the greatest city in the world but GET OUT. Renting a hotel room or, if you really wanna do it right, a pension (like renting a condo), is the best way to snap yourself out of a rut before you've even realized it's started. You might not know this now but, outside of the big cities in Korea, many Koreans haven't seen a lot of foreigners. They will LOVE seeing you, it's like the circus coming to town. As long as you can embrace the fact that you are a unique presence you are guaranteed a good time. Also, seeing another area of the country can help you appreciate it from a new angle.

3) Choose Your Friends CAREFULLY!!!

Right now they seem perfect. You can all bitch about the same stuff and you've all had similar experiences. You can even teach each other some new things. However, you are looking at them through rose colored shades, and soon you will see the things about their personalities that really bother you. Whether it's the fact that she is kinda snobby because she's travelled more places than you, or that he's a bit of a dick because he has a higher education than you do, or that you will straight-up punch her if she complains about not wanting Korean food one more freaking time (YOU SERIOUSLY CANNOT HATE ALL OF IT!). You're going to realize it and the glass is going to shatter on your perception and ruin your relationship with that person and possibly with your mutual friends as well.

So yeah, if you start getting annoyed with someone just distance yourself from them. No one says you HAVE to talk to them if you're both out with a group of people. Also, please try to choose friends with at least slightly similar interests, or you'll wind up being dragged around on a bunch of "adventures" that you were never interested in having in the first place but will go on because you're afraid of losing one of the few people here that you actually talk to.

Anyway, sorry to burst your bubble, happy people, and I hope you feel better, depressed people. Just remember: find your bliss, but don't stay there too long!