Culture Shock: It’s Not Just a Phrase

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Reading or hearing the phrase culture shock has a different connotation for all of us. I honestly used to believe that if one experienced culture shock they were weak and not born with the magic wanderlust. 

This post is about my experience with culture shock and how my experiences have changed my entire outlook on the phrase.

There are 4 phases of culture shock:
Honeymoon
Anxiety
Adjustment
Acceptance

Depending on the source the phases vary but are similar nonetheless.

I was 17 when I first left the country and oh believe me – I denied experiencing any form of culture shock. Soon after, I lived abroad for 3 months and ignored that the term even existed.

Now older and … much wiser, I realize the stages of culture shock exist because I am experiencing each one.

Honeymoon

When we first arrived in Korea — oh you have no idea how high I was on the honeymoon phase. I Loved it all! Everything was great! The food, whew, delicious. The people, so nice! The scenery, beautiful! You get the idea. I was on “cloud 9” as some may say. This lasted for a good few months.

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Anxiety 

Soon I started always feeling bitter. Constant thoughts of “Why! Why is it like that! It doesn’t make any sense to do it like that! Why? Why? Why!” It wasn’t until I searched “culture shock”, I understood where these feelings were coming from. 

It was a really frustrating time. I felt stuck. Stuck in a world I knew nothing about. It felt like being dropped in the middle of a maze, trying to navigate around people that couldn’t understand or help.

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There are few “Oh this one time!…” occurrences that developed this frustration. It was more of a build up of typical, day-to-day events that caused it.

Being stared at in the subway, talking while walking has caused people in front of us to jump and get so nervous they let us pass, (happens a lot), being asked why I have blue eyes, wear jewelry, or braid my hair, trying to order in Korean at a restaurant and not be understood, being given a fork just because we’re foreign. The list goes on.

It was the questioning, the staring, the giggling, that led to frustration and this does not even touch on the differences of teaching!

Adjustment 

Then finally after a few more months of living in Korea, I felt I reached the next stage, feeling familiar with the culture. Knowing everday tasks would need a different approach or more time to be completed. 

For example, we have about four different trash cans in our apartment to sort all our trash. Then it takes an additional ten minutes to sort everything into the correct compartments outside because everything is recycled.20151204_084111_HDRWe’ve learned correct phrases making it easier to order food.

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I realized (with gritted teeth) that the ajummas, (older women), are impatient, will push for a seat or push through the checkout line (sorry but I can’t move until the person in front of me moves and yes I’m going to count out my change so I can pay the exact amount). Everyday things became a struggle and easily taken for granted.  

Acceptance

Then, finally, I feel I’ve reached the last stage, acceptance. I can smile at the girl who is staring at me questioning her mother about the foreigner sitting in front of her, I can quickly bag my items and simultaneously pay at the checkout, and I can sort all my trash with realization of how much better it is than throwing all waste into one bag.

There are still definite days when I feel tired from battling culture differences and language barriers but I am now accepting I will never understand it all.

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” -Anthony Bourdain

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6 Comment

  1. You write very well and I always enjoy reading your posts. What a great book you are writing.

    1. Thanks you! I really have liked writing about our adventures and it’s great to know you enjoy reading about it!

  2. Virginia Pettit says: Reply

    Another beautiful insight on your
    experiences in South Korea. The
    pictures are beautiful. Is that James contribution?

    1. Thank you! Yes, James took the pictures. He’s so talented, right?

  3. Great Blog! I really like your analysis.
    What you said about the old ladies is so true.
    They are like american billionaires, do and take
    whatever they want.

    1. Thanks Tyler! I guess in their elderly age they “deserve” the right to push people around haha.

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