Monday, October 18, 2010

Mountain Hiking and a Word (or Several) on Culture Shock

So, for the past couple of weekends, the other FTs (Foreign Teachers) and I have been talking about hiking one of the many nearby mountains in the area. This seemed like a good, cheap form of exercise and weekend entertainment, which didn't involve drinking in smoky bars, so I was all for it. Especially as it meant I got to bust out my shiny new camera (thanks again, Ramon!). I tested it out on my apartment, first.

(I also tested it on Julia and Sam.)

Of course, I come from the Midwestern United States, which aside from a few hills and bluffs is pretty flat. The last time I was anywhere near a proper mountain, I was five years old, and in a car seat. I'd envisioned a nice, zig-zagging trail up the mountain side at an easy slope, with open areas for picnicking along the way, and convenient bushes for potty breaks.

Naturally, my expectations were shattered as soon as we started up the mountain proper. There was a cool temple or shrine at the base of the mountain, and a pretty park-like area with a mostly dry stream bed and a few little restaurants. I also got a photo of this awesome praying mantis on a sign telling us to stretch before climbing.

Pro Tip: mountains are STEEP. Also, the trails are not necessarily even, often full of rocks and tree roots, and you have to watch every step you take to avoid twisting an ankle or falling on your tuckus (as Melissa and I discovered the hard way). There were some wider areas, usually on relatively flat rocks with really nice views, so we did have opportunities to take water and rest breaks. It was kind of fun and exhilarating at first; however, I was already gasping for air, muscles burning, by the time we were less than halfway through our ascending hike. Climbing those hilly streets in Uiwang and all those staircases did bupkiss to prepare me for this!

Picspam ahead:

The more we climbed, the more I hurt, and the crankier I got. I'm not proud to admit that I was pretty snippy with my fellow FTs by the time we finally decided to turn around to go back. First, though, we stopped for a bit of lunch, and this really nice guy and his wife sat with us and shared their amazing kim bahp tuna rolls, as well as some cloudy rice wine. I shared half of my peanut butter sandwich in return, lacking anything else to give them.

Despite my grouchiness, I had to admit that the weather was gorgeous, and the view was spectacular. We could see in the distance the little red temple at the top of the mountain, where we'd wanted to go, but there didn't seem to be any way we could make it there and back that day. We vowed to try again another weekend, starting earlier in the day and packing more food and water for the journey. It seemed it would be at least a 6 hour hike to get there and back.

On the way down, I managed to turn my ankle during an unexpected, uncontrolled sprint down a very steep slope, but thankfully it wasn't a serious sprain or anything. I wasn't even limping very badly, though it twinged something awful for a few hours, adding to my already bitchy mood.

Anyway, despite the fact that strenuous exercise obviously does not agree with me, it was a pretty good hike. I feel somewhat accomplished for getting as far as we did.

Among other deep revelations such as "Maria shouldn't try to hike mountains without a proper backpack," I realized something surprising: I was dealing with some serious culture shock.

I wasn't expecting that, to be honest. I mean, I'm very open and adaptable when it comes to other cultures. I did some research before coming to Korea to prepare me for some of the things I might encounter, and one of our guest speakers during orientation gave us even more good information. I was ready to try new foods, fumble about with social niceties, learn enough Korean to get by (and maybe more if I could find some proper classes), and generally adapt to my new home for the next year or two. But no, here I was, globe-trotting culture and language nerd, suffering from some grade A culture shock.

But not from the Koreans. From the other FTs.

Let me pause and just make it clear that I am not blaming anyone but myself for this. I was, for awhile, but when I finally sat down and analyzed why I was feeling so frustrated, well… I felt like a complete idiot. And I know they're probably going to read this before I can talk about it with them in person, but that's fine, because I organize my thoughts better this way: in writing. When I try to translate anything involving my emotions into words, I only prove how socially awkward I really am when I try to speak on the matter.

Culture shock, simply put, is caused when what we experience in a different cultural setting does not match up with our expectations and what we're accustomed to in our own culture. Much like my expectations for mountain hiking, the experience of associating with my fellow FTs has not always gone the way I imagined.

I'd already mentally and emotionally buffered myself for some serious differences in the Korean way of life, and I think I'm adapting to those fairly well. I've learned a handful of useful words and phrases already, I've found out what kinds of food I like here and which ones I should generally avoid, I know to be careful of the traffic here, and I'm picking up on some of the etiquette. I may still be in the "Honeymoon" phase, but I'm being fairly realistic about it. There are things I really dislike about this country, but I'm willing to tolerate them for the sake of getting along with my hosts. Because yes, I consider myself a guest in this country, and I've been trying to act accordingly.

With how well I was dealing with Korean culture, I was completely blindsided by the differences between myself and the other FTs. Three of them-- Melissa, Julia, and Sam-- are from Canada, which even shares a border with my home state of Minnesota. Nathan is from Wales, a country I am admittedly only familiar with through Doctor Who and Torchwood. They all speak English, and the Canadians even speak with an accent that's almost indistinguishable from my own (although I catch them saying "eh?" a lot). So why was I dealing with culture shock around them, of all people?

It all came down-- say it with me if you know the answer already-- to expectations. Because they look and talk more like me than anyone else I know in this country, I wrongly assumed they were more like me in every other way. But over the past few weeks, I've discovered that their interests, lifestyles, and even certain social customs were different enough from my own to cause a bit of a cultural divide between us. Everything from alcohol consumption, behavior in public, money matters, and entertainment preferences incited surprise, frustration, and in some cases, anger.

This was not, as I stated earlier, their faults. It was my own. Their choices in lifestyle and interests are just as valid as my own, and I was failing to recognize that, which was only hurting myself and my new friends. At first, I thought that it was worth some discomfort to try to "fit in," to try to go along with the things they found enjoyable, but I only wound up either bored, disgusted, upset, or all of the above. Again, not their faults. I was throwing myself at a brick wall, and thought that I would get a different result by throwing myself at it from different directions.

I couldn't figure out what was wrong right away. Back home, I make friends pretty easily, get along with just about everyone I know, and even the people I don't like much I'm very good at tolerating (at least for short periods of time). And I did, and still do like my new FT friends. So what was the big deal? My first instinct was to try to find the fault in myself, as I often do. Usually, one of my friends will tell me that I shouldn't blame myself, that it really is someone else in the wrong, but I didn't have that in this situation. Which was good. Because this time, I was right. It was me. The problem was with me and the way I was approaching the situation. And when I finally realized that, and could analyze my feelings and identify them as culture shock, it was a huge relief. Okay. Problem identified. Now to solve it.

It's not easy being in a foreign country, far from friends and family. It's lonely. Naturally, I wanted to latch onto the other FTs, adopt them as my "new" family. I'm a social creature, awkward as I am about it sometimes, and I'm used to having lots of friends around. But if I am going to live, work, and have fun with my fellow FTs for the year or so we're in this country together, I need to acknowledge and accept their differences, be sensitive to them, to minimize conflict and frustration in the future. I hope that they can do the same for me. Because despite those differences, we really are all in this together.

Not to make any excuses about my own potentially culture-shock inducing behavior, I thought a bullet-point guide to my own idiosyncrasies might be a good place to start:

Self-deprecating humor: I use it. It started in high school as a preemptive self-defense mechanism. Poking fun at myself first makes it hurt less than when others do it without my prompting. Now, it's more a force of habit than anything. Yeah, I'm insecure about some things, I don't like everything about myself, but I'm honestly not trying to fish for compliments or make people uncomfortable when I joke about my shortcomings. They're just facts, which I try to present in a humorous light. Laughter is generally an appropriate response.

Sarcasm: I'm terrible at it. I can't always tell when others are being sarcastic, and when I try to use it myself it never seems to come out right. Part of that social awkwardness thing. Bear with me.

Physical limitations: I am a nerd, a geek, a pasty glasses-wearing lump that would rather sit behind a computer screen or curled up with a book or a sketchpad than go out and enjoy the fresh air. Sunlight is abhorrent to me. Exercise is to be taken in daily walks and maybe the occasional set of sit-ups, or a gentle session of aikido. I have allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances (cinnamon, shellfish, cigarette smoke, some kinds of dust/mold/pollen, morphine, malted liquor, lactose [milk]). I'm anemic. I have scoliosis (curved spine-- I was an inch taller last year! T_T). I've been known to faint without warning. Also, I'm kind of pudgy. Please understand when I can't keep up with you, or decline to go somewhere entirely. It's not because I don't like you, or because I don't want to go, but because it'll take me a lot longer to get there.

Worrying: I do it. A lot. I care about people very easily, and I worry about the people I care about. I worry about being on time, about how I present myself to my employers and my host country, how I perform on a job. I worry about everything, especially… wait for it…

Money: (Did you like that segue there?) I worry about this a lot. I grew up poor, and have never held a job for much longer than a year. Sometimes I have trouble finding work at all, and I haven't always known where my next meal or rent check was coming from. When I'm in enough money to relax, I am a very generous person and don't always budget very carefully--- but fair warning, I can be pretty stingy when I'm stretching my last few thousand won to last me a month. I will, sometimes obsessively, keep track of every coin borrowed, lent, and spent. Don't take it personally. It's just a survival tactic.

Emotions: I suck at dealing with them. My usual response to negative emotions like stress, anger, sadness, loneliness, or just tiredness, is I either get really quiet, or I cry. I don't like to cry in front of people, though. So, I might be quiet a lot. This is my way of sparing myself and everyone around me from having to deal with my crap mood, whatever it may be. You don't have to ask if I'm okay. I may just say I'm tired (which is likely true), or I might be brutally honest with you, and nobody really wants my honest answer when I'm having a crap day. If something is really, really wrong, you can be sure I will say something about it (there will be much kibitzing). I also suck at talking about my feelings, unless I can first sit down and dissect them in a logical manner and write them out on paper or a computer screen-- and even then, I'm no psychologist. Also, if someone upsets me, I might not say or do anything about it right away, because it takes me awhile to process the emotion and decide whether I'm upset enough to say or do anything (conflict gives me too much anxiety to bother most of the time), and whether it's my own fault I'm upset or someone else is at fault, and… well, you get the idea. On the flip side, you will ALWAYS know when I'm in a good mood. I don't bother to hide that at all. ;)

I'm sure there are plenty more that I haven't even thought of. But this is my blog about teaching in Korea, not in-depth self-analysis. I'm only including this section because I think it's somewhat relevant. And maybe because I sometimes enjoy rambling on about myself, and it IS my blog, gosh darn it. :P

To sum up: We're all different. We deal with stress and culture shock and other people in different ways. I'm going to make an effort, henceforth, to do better at both dealing with my own culture shock, as well as recognize when others are doing the same, and maybe I can do a better job of making this situation easier on myself and everyone around me.



P.S. I'll have my weekly report on classes and whatnot up sometime this upcoming weekend. <3


  1. I can't tell you how proud of you I am. I cannot imagine being brave enough to do what you do. Just the thought of being that far from home gives me the willies.

    But you're doing it, and you're doing such a good job at it. Of course, there will be kinks. But in my personal opinion, I think it's wonderful that you're getting them out now. The sooner they're dealt with, the sooner they're gone.

    The most important thing I can stress, is that I will always be here for you. I'm only an email away, and if you ever want to skype, I'd love to be able to hang out!

    I love you, Mar-Mar and you're doing amazing. *waffles forever*

  2. HUgglez girl and hang in there .. Yes although we're the same we're also so different *G* I'am sure the other FT will understand .. If we were all alike what a boring place this will be .. hugglez and stuff


  3. No worries Maria! Hell, I doubt I could ever do what you're doing. I wanna move to the Twin Cities come spring, and it's scaring the hell out of me. Part of me is trying to convince me not to.
    Its gonna take a bit to adjust, but before ya know it, you'll be in full swing of things.
    Im here for ya, and I'm on skype as well if ya ever wanna talk when im home.

    *big monster hugs*

  4. You're brave! ^^ And don't feel bad about culture shock. I had it the first month at the TC game. :P

  5. Found out the hard way that just because you share a language with some people doesn't mean you can necessarily communicate with them well!

    Luckily, where you live there are a lot of English speakers, so you'll have a good chance of meeting people with similar interests. I'd strongly recommend being proactive about meeting as many people as possible - keep watch for events in your area, go on Facebook and search for groups, take Korean lessons, etc. If you're an introvert this might be hard, but...hey, you're in a new country, might as well try something different. Good luck!

  6. That hike sounds brutal... the view is gorgeous though.

    Interesting commentary on culture shock... glad you figured it out so early on, I guess, so that you could think about it!

    Kudos to you for writing about yourself with such honesty.

  7. way to deal with that culture shock, Gyppo!

    you really showed Korea who was boss!