My time here is nearing the three-month mark. Below are a dozen lessons Korea has taught me during the past twelve weeks.
1. Korea is a “go with the flow” society.
But not like this…
More like this…
2. Korea smokes too much.
Based on subjective olfactory experience, approximately 75% of males smoke in Seoul. One night in September, I had to sleep on my couch because smoke had permeated through the walls and into the sleeping loft of my apartment. Way to go, Korea. Please, for the sake of your lungs and my sanity, stop.
3. I am selfish.
The past few weeks have forced me to re-evaluate my motivation for many things, including why I moved here. I’m young. Growing up causes you to refine your goals and values. Some things get left behind or discarded. I’m learning to appreciate this sieving process, because I’ve realized that a lot of things I used to care about just don’t matter. Becoming aware of one’s selfish ignorance sure isn’t bliss, but I’ll take it any day over stagnation. And when grace comes into the picture, it changes everything.
4. Patience is re-defined when you live abroad.
For an expat, a simple task that took 10 minutes back home could take weeks to complete, if it gets done at all. Seoul is one of the most populous cities in the world, and Korea is one of the most homogeneous societies on earth. These two factors alone provide plenty of opportunities for stretching an outsider’s patience. Or going bald. For example, last night I had to [literally] fight my way out of the subway. There was no other way. Koreans aren’t trying to be rude, but sometimes they are. There are too many people here, and they push and shove each other. Confusion arises all the time, and misunderstandings are the norm with my co-workers. I doubt my way of thinking makes any more sense to Koreans than theirs does to me. Life goes on, regardless of how loudly you kick and scream.
5. Korean culture is tough.
The Korean school system resembles the military, even in elementary schools. There are big societal problems here, as there are anywhere else in the world. It’s tough for everybody, Korean or expat. Horrible stuff is swept under the rug. There’s corruption. Harassment. Hierarchies. History. A “hurry up!” (“balli balli!”) mentality coupled with an addiction to competition, often resulting in disaster. Lots of things I’ll never understand, and many things I’ll never agree with.
6. Koreans naturally build vertical relationships.
From an egalitarian Western perspective, this approach looks and feels unfair and uncomfortable. But it makes sense to Koreans. Even the language is structured on hierarchy, because you refer to people and end sentences according to a person’s respective ranking in comparison to you.
7. The obvious conclusion is probably the wrong one.
For all the times I’ve kept my mouth shut in response to something that seems ridiculous, I haven’t once regretted it. Sometimes more information will surface later on that clears up the apparent absurdity, but usually not. In Korea, I daily resist the temptation to ask my favorite question: “Why?” It gets me nowhere, so I’ve stopped asking myself this question during confusing interactions, and my stress level is better for it.
8. Calm down.
Sometimes I know of a better way to do things. It’s easy to get frustrated when I’m not able to share my opinions or methods because of language and cultural barriers. But it’s not worth getting angry over. I’m learning to smile and carry on, because at the end of the day, Korea is still Korea, and I’m still me.
9. Tourists don’t experience culture shock.
Culture shock is nasty, messy, and prolonged. It takes time to set in, and even more time to overcome. One expat blogger in Japan described it this way:
“At every peak and crest of the culture shock wave you’re jostled about. The train conductor won’t refund your ticket and you can’t understand why, your coworkers give you mutually exclusive instructions on what to do (and then tell you to do both), you go to the grocery store and have no idea where to find a sponge and you assume that’s why you feel like crying beside the bath soap.”(http://thisjapaneselife.org/2013/05/22/7-ideas-for-staying-sane-as-an-expat-in-japan/)
While this depiction may seem funny, it’s also spot on. I look forward to crawling completely out of the hostility hole over the next few months. The sooner the better.
10. Relationships matter.
I’m so grateful for my family and friends back home. Every time I receive a letter from one of them, it makes my day, and usually brings me to tears. I’m also incredibly thankful for the friends I’ve made here in Korea. Relationships are a lifeline. They’re a big part of what makes us human.
11. Don’t compare.
The moment I begin to compare my life in Korea to what it was in the U.S., it’s over. My contentment is shot to holes. So, by God’s grace, I’m learning to just say NO to this trap.
12. Enjoy each day. Or at least try to.
No experience is wasted if you learn from it. Life in Korea isn’t easy, but it is life. And life is a gift. I’d appreciate your prayers for wisdom as I learn to take it one day at a time. Thanks so much for reading, and please keep in touch!