The real meaning of culture shock

October 3, 2007 Author: Beth Salerno

Me at Jonggak BellSomewhere in my preparations for Korea I read the odd statement that culture shock is not what happens when you arrive in a country, it is what happens six weeks later when you have not yet left.  Now I understand.  When I arrived, all the differences from home were part of the adventure.  There were difficulties, but I could deal with them because that was part of the excitement of living abroad.  I missed home, but there was so much to do that I did not have time or need for the familiar.

Now that I have been here longer, the pull of the familiar grows stronger.  I have seen and done an amazing number of things, so everything is not new and fascinating.  

SignpostIt is not that I am unhappy - I am still glad to be here and I will not be on a plane tomorrow.  It is just that the desire to hop on a plane has finally hit me.  The truth is I am not going home any time soon.  There simply is no way to make lasagna without mozzarella and an oven.  My language skills are not going to improve magically.  And despite my efforts to see the best in everything, there are a few pieces of Korean life I am having trouble accepting.

First the smells.  Korea smells different than anywhere I have lived before.  Maybe this is the famous fermenting kimchee smell that many American writers complain about.  I doubt it - I actually like the smell of most kimchee.  To me the odor is the smell of wet clay full of anaerobic bacteria and centuries of human waste used as fertilizer.  It is too many people in too little space with insufficient trash pickup and a huge amount of food waste sitting in open trash bins.  It is the smell of a culture that cares deeply and sensitively about its personal environment, but much less for public, common areas. 

Second, the poverty.  Koreans have achieved first world status in terms of average wealth, (and the wealth of luxury goods here shames Rodeo Drive) but the people living in the rice fields around me share more with rural Arkansas than urban Seoul - at least as far as I can tell from the outside of their houses. 

Third is the disregard of others.  People answer their cell phones in concert halls and have loud conversations; parents allow their small children to do just about anything; bus drivers regularly run red lights and drive up the wrong side of the road to make a schedule.

Seeing a little piece of KoreaLet me stress - none of these issues is unique to Korea.  I recognize America has exactly the same problems in one place or another.  And many Koreans are concerned about the same problems - this is the only place I have ever been where some people cover their mouths when they talk on cell phones in public places.  But it is not the specific issues that cause the culture shock.  It is that they come on top of the uncertainties and insecurities of living in another culture, not understanding the language, and never being quite sure I am acting appropriately.  When one is off balance or lonely, everything rankles more.  Importantly, unlike in America, I cannot really complain to the people involved.  I am a guest, and I am determined to be a good guest.  Even a polite comment to a mother about manners would be a major insult from a visiting American - as writing this blog entry may be.

But in the end this blog entry is about me, not Korea.  There are only two cures for this kind of culture shock:  going home or going on.  Since I’m not going home, I’m working on bringing home to me - Tod has plane tickets, I have more calling cards, and I’m headed to the USO canteen for lasagna.   I’m also working hard on making my own place in Korea.  I try to walk every day, past the sections that smell, past the poor houses, and out into the rice paddies.  I smile at my neighbors, I stop to inspect the gardens, I wander paths to see where they go.  I try hard not to isolate myself in my moments of frustration or become the kind of complaining, bitter American foreigners rightly dislike.  Koreans have reciprocated with warmth and enthusiasm, taking me places and showing me things I would never find on my own. 

Silworks are bottom centerThis week it was acorn “jelly” which is really more like acorn jello, but without the sugar.  And yes, it is brown and wiggly and made from acorns.  It tastes like….jello without sugar, mostly.   Also boiled silkworms, which despite the moisture of the broth taste positively dusty (bottom center in this picture of Chinese medicine ingredients).  And paper cups full of black and white spiral shells, out of which one sucks tasty little morsels of salty marine life.  One student called them Korean popcorn.  So the adventure continues.

Entry Filed under: Language, Food, Culture

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Paul Calzada  |  October 4, 2007 at 6:20 pm

    Again, you’re experiencing something I wish more Americans would. The people you find genuinely kind, not merely polite, will always be a treasure. I’ve always wondered if I could be so kind to a stranger from another country. But then, how could I not be?

  • 2. Anne Botteri  |  October 4, 2007 at 7:58 pm

    Hi Beth:

    I just had some time to catch up with you via this and all your blog entries. Not sure which I like more - the topics you choose or the mastery with which you put it all into words. Fascinating stuff - keep it coming. Hope the lasagna was worth the wait.

    We miss you!


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