Culture Shock?

The Story Behind the Story


In January 1999 I started to make monthly and bimonthly contributions to the Korea Times, the oldest (but sadly, not most read) English-language newspaper in Korea.


Although I had done a creative writing MA thesis in 1989 at Western Illinois University (Macomb, Illinois) I had only written a few essays before I started contributing to the Korea Times—an essay for the EFL Gazette about English Language teaching in Korea and two Op-Ed pieces for the Korea Herald (Korea’s other and more widely read English-Language newspaper). Not exactly what you would call a prolific writing career for someone who loved to write.


When I finally got around to writing in 1999, I wrote about what I knew best: my life in Korea and what it was like living and teaching here. A lot of expats end up doing this after they have been here for awhile. Some have something to say; others want to rant and rave about everything they despise about being overseas in the hope that someone will either rescue them or tell them to shut up.


In my case, it was time to start writing again. Sometimes you just need to experience a bit of life and get knocked around and down a few times to have something to write about.


People have often asked me, “don’t you regret having waited so long to write?” Sometimes I do because I should have spent all those years perfecting my craft by writing more. However, maybe I needed some time to find my voice. I thought I had found my voice in 1989; in 1999 I was still looking for it. I think I have found it now because I am comfortable with what I am writing. I’ve always been, to paraphrase one of my favorite writers Thomas Pynchon, “somewhat of a slow learner at times, whether it has been affairs of the heart or writing.”


The bottom line is that it has just taken me awhile to get things right. I am still learning and writing every day because I love writing and I love sharing what I write with other people. If I can touch at least one person’s life every day with something I have written I feel grateful for the gift The Lord has given me.


This essay first appeared in The Korea Times on April 10, 1999. It seems a bit dated in terms of my writing style now and what I would go on to write about, but it is interesting to look back at what I was writing about almost 10 years ago.


This was an essay for the Op-Ed page. In this Op-Ed piece I am reflecting about what it had been like living in Korea for almost 10 years. I would return to this same idea a few times writing about popular culture in Korea as well as some of the idiosyncrasies of Korean culture I had experienced over the years.



Culture Shock?


When you end up living in Korea for as long as I have, you are prone to notice more of the peculiarities and oddities of everyday life. At the same time, the longer I stay here, all of those anomalies, habits, and trappings and the like become more normal for me. What might have once been a case of “culture shock” has become the accepted norm for me in Korea.



Culture Shock. We’ve all experienced it in many forms and varieties at one time or another. For some, it poses no quandary and is easily dealt with; for others, it could have a negative impact and poison one’s experiences with a foreign culture.



Even though you can read up on as much as you can on a new culture, you’re still likely to be surprised when you are finally immersed in it. Whether you’re in a country for a short time or for much longer, the extent of one’s culture shock is proportionate to not only how much you do know and don’t know, but also how well you adapt.



Language barriers, food, shopping, and transportation might engender initial culture shock, but can easily be mastered with time. However, it’s the oddities and other anomalies of daily life, which might generate the most culture shock.



Despite Korea’s allure and charm, there were some things about living here that took me awhile to get accustomed to: the pushing and shoving, the ppali ppali (hurry, hurry) syndrome that pretty much pervades throughout the society, the “vomit landmines” on sidewalks and spitting in public.



Others, from the traditional way of pouring drinks, cutting food with scissors, to women covering their mouths when they laughed or the misuse of English on clothes and signs were peculiar, yes, but innocuous cultural underpinnings to say the least.



On the contrary, I have often wondered, “what Koreans might find odd or peculiar about America?”  I’m sure that many Koreans are just as astonished and perplexed with some of our customs, habits, and quirks. Perhaps such Americanisms like blowing one’s nose in public, “going Dutch,” tipping, kissing in public, and living together instead of getting married might evoke similar bewilderment. On a personal note, back in the States, smothering my scrambled eggs or omelets in ketchup may prompt some raised eyebrows.



Sometimes what might have been considered culture shock, can in the long run, impart some redeeming value. I’ve heard from Korean friends who have traveled or lived in the States that they missed some of the things they first thought was unusual—like saying “excuse me” in public if you bump into someone—when they’ve returned to Korea.



Unfortunately, not everyone views culture shock as something that is part of the overall experience of living in a new culture and learning to be tolerant and open-minded. Too often, it leaves the incorrigible with a skewed perception of their experience in a foreign country. Part ignorance, part ethnocentricity, the combination of the two makes for a dangerous concoction.



Sometimes this dangerous concoction rears its ugly head in the guise of letters to the editor, or essays in the English-language newspapers filled with bitter denunciations and diatribes from the disillusioned and the disenfranchised. Maybe it’s just letting off some steam, but more times than not it’s criticizing life in Korea for one thing or another, and ultimately, intimidating how Korea doesn’t size up to the writer’s preconceptions and expectations of what life should be like here.



Over the years there has been a plethora of these essays and letters to the editor. Some of my favorites include the one expatriate who complained about such things as not having enough hot water and threatened to write a book exposing all that is wrong with Korea. Then, there was the one disillusioned soul who complained that Korea was too Western. I guess the writer expected life in Korea to be way the way it was during the Choson Dynasty.

One Response to “Culture Shock?”

  1. catgem September 20, 2008 at 8:18 am # Reply

    the world continues to get smaller and smaller, my friend… and I, for one, am very glad, else I’d not have had the opportunity to meet you and so many other wonderful people who have become wonderful friends :-)

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