Let the Culture Shock Begin

This morning I realized that without naïvety and my hopeless optimism, I wouldn’t do half the things I have chosen to do in my life. It’s like a necessary amnesia to force me over the precipice into unknown territory. Oh, sure, it will be easy. It will be fine. Simple. It’s simple to move to another country. You know. Like moving down the street.

Does anyone recall the teary phone calls in the days after I moved to Austin, not knowing a soul there?

It is my 3rd night in Seoul, my 8th day in Korea and now the culture shock is finally settling in for a nice, hearty visit. Hey! Guess what? It’s really hard to communicate in another language when the only things you know how to say are “hello” and “thank you” and “kimchi”. Hey, you know what’s harder? Not being able to read anything. At all. When I’ve travelled abroad before, I’ve either known the language inside and out (France) or had some working knowledge of the language as well as fluent translators (Central America). This is more challenging than I expected. Excursions are best kept short, as a simple trip to the market down the street is more exhausting than one would think. “Which one of these things is soap??” My brain hurts in a new kind of way, like flexing a muscle that never gets flexed. Ow. Ow.

I am no longer in the bubble of the training session, which was held at a retreat center two hours south of Seoul in the mountains of northern Chungcheong Province. A week-long bubble of Canadians, Americans, three Irish girls and an Australian. A bubble that included four or five Korean Americans who held our hands through every meal and schooled us on customs and etiquettes. Three outstanding meals a day with the freshest, most incredibly delicious food. A week in which we hardly left the building and there was no town to visit. Until yesterday, my only true interaction with Korea was through a car window.

Training was demanding, challenging and intense but it will be well worth it in the end and brought me some new friendships which will prove invaluable to each of us during our first weeks in Seoul. I am grateful to have met two funny and wonderful girls from New York and New Jersey who also happen to be Korean-American. They are going to come over and label everything in my apartment so I can figure out how to use the microwave and washing machine. I am jealous of the two Irish girls and the two American boys (oh yeah, by the way, everyone is half my age) who came together as friends and have each other to lean on in these early days. I miss my girlfriends like a hole in my side and am painfully aware of how much easier this would be to discover as a pair. Janelle? This means you.

But with all this hesitation comes the new delights and discoveries around each corner.

Saturday we returned to Seoul and after a slightly traumatic episode involving being trapped for 45 minutes by myself on the 18th floor of our HQ building, I was picked up by my Director and taken to my new apartment. I live in the southeastern district of Seoul called Songpa, in a neighborhood that is much like Times Square meets the Garment District. I am thankfully on a quiet side street. Every square inch is devoted to (brace yourselves, ladies) discount retail shops. I am not much of a shopper, but I have several girlfriends who are already planning trips to visit me, and I think I just sealed the deal. Ev-er-y-thing. Paris to Milan to Calvin Klein to Korean, Chinese & Japanese designers at 50-70% discounts. Maybe I will finally learn how to dress myself. I’ve seen designer shoes out there for $10. Right. On.

My apartment is adorable, if not slightly cavernous. I could use a little more sunshine, but all the more reason to go outside, eh? It is quite liberating to have things simplified down to one room and four bags worth of stuff. The only thing I wish I’d brought is a towel, as Korean towels are the size of a piece of legal sized paper. My director had set the apartment up with some kitchen basics, fresh new bedding, some new toiletries, a toothbrush and a fridge stocked with water, a bottle of coke, and some coffee drinks. It was a very sweet welcoming and much-appreciated.

There are many corner stores crammed with products, reminding me of the pulperias in Central America. I can get the basics of what I need, however it is so inexpensive to eat out, I will probably be frequenting many of the local eateries. I just need to learn how to read a menu first. Or a sign for that matter. “Oh, this isn’t a restaurant?”

Today and yesterday have been about the small victories. Yesterday I bought some groceries at a corner market and some basic household items at the Korean version of Sears. Today I successfully navigated my way through the subway and finally purchased some power adaptors at TechMart, a multi-story department store and electronics wonderland. I visited my school this afternoon, met the staff and received my textbooks. This all still gives me heartburn at the moment, but I am looking forward to getting through the initial bumpiness & learning curve and start to settle in to this new world.

If we had 20/20 vision of the challenges in each new endeavor, we might never walk outside our front door. And we would lose so much in giving in to that fear. I remember how unexpectedly I was gripped with terror the second I hit the Mass Turnpike on my way to Austin. I had crossed the country back and forth three times, twice by myself. Why was I suddenly such a puss? I spent my first week in Austin thinking I’d made a horrible, horrible mistake even though it was a knowing so deep in my bones that brought me there in the first place. We have guts for a reason. Austin brought amazing people, amazing music, amazing career opportunities and amazing BBQ into my life. Stuff I never would have known had I turned around and said “Ok, fear. You win.”

So I’m all the wiser this time, as I notice those moments where I just want to get on a plane and return to what is familiar. Return to the roman alphabet, full-sized towels, 110V power cords and the comfort of familiar faces. It would be nice and it would be simple, but I would miss knowing what is around this corner. Call it a hunch, but I have a feeling there is something magical around this corner. And I’m certain it’s better than BBQ.

One Response to “Let the Culture Shock Begin”

  1. heidi says:

    a few tidbits left by the fly on the wall of crosscultural conscience:

    – one good neighborhood shopkeeper is worth their weight in gold, especially if she takes you under her wing (remember audeli in otoro?)

    – one day, or word, or familiar landmark at a time, okay?

    – one standing date (tea every monday with [x the expat]) might be a good start to building the routine which will reduce the isolation. survival tactics and secrets of success – not to mention the all-important where-to-get-what hints that i obsessively sought – are good fodder for conversation. and once you are teaching/working, things will be less lonesome, of course…

    – a notebook in your pocket is handy for picking up/decoding new words. does your employer offer you language tutelage? when i was freelance teaching in prague, there really wasn’t much impetus to learn czech because i was living with another expat and he already was plugged into the foreign subculture. when english is your bread and butter it is also hard to totally immerse yourself…

    – the internet cafe fee would be worth it to get in touch with that guy (sarah’s brother?) who lives in seoul. use that connection… as soon as you can. i bet he knows the ins and outs of modern technology-enhanced korean living.

    – on life without a comparably-equipped communicative outlet: get used to lots of time to reflect on all the unfinished business kicking around in your head. when so much is so utterly unfamiliar, there is a tendency for the brain to burrow inward. has that started? kind of like a wacked-out version of that vipassana meditation course – ahhh, the tranquility of sitting for hours and hours in silence. ommm.

    – and from that image to one who of “she-who-can’t-seem-to-stop-talking”: madelyne dictated a letter which was sent on the 21st from gloucester to you, with lots of hugs, kisses, crayon and stickers. watch for it!

    we miss you! all of us. every day. in a thousand ways. xoxoxo take care, dear.

    love from here to there, up to the moon and back, a bazillion times,


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