Reflecting on Culture Shock!


Living and teaching in Korea is an utterly unbelievable experience that provides an education that one cannot get from any book or receive from any university. Learning about and experiencing first-hand another culture, language and way of life is elating. The largest majority of people who travel to South Korea to teach for a year end up staying longer than they planned, or end up continuing teaching in other countries in Asia and around the world.

Almost certainly the single greatest threat to any person traveling to a foreign country to live for an extended period of time is “Culture Shock”. First identified in 1958 by anthropologist Kalvero Oberg, culture shock is a long-term psychological stress that all human beings experience when they move to a completely new cultural environment. This term expresses the lack of direction, the feeling of not knowing what to do or how to do things in a new cultural environment, and not knowing what is appropriate or inappropriate. Culture shock typically sets in within the first few weeks of moving to a new environment, though sometimes can take longer to surface. Appreciating the myriad, diverse and at times perplexing fundamentals within what may be called ‘Korean culture’ is in all probability the key to a Guest English Teacher (GET) retaining his/her sanity!

Korean culture is infinitely dissimilar to that of any other I have experienced in my travels. I believe that much of this standpoint has come from living and working here (as opposed to just travelling), but even just a few days in this country would be adequate to leave you simultaneously impressed, amused and mystified. There are, which readers of this blog will realise, many idiosyncrasies.

On a daily basis one is faced with that tiny voice inside your head (and I hope it’s not Schizophrenia) asking:

  • “Why are they behaving so disgustingly” (spitting, peeing, fondling)
  • “Have I got something on my face? Or I am THAT handsome?” (routine staring)
  • “What is he/she thinking?!” (clothing, pink dogs, hair))
  • “Don’t these people have any manners?” (pushing, loudness, failure to queue, farting)
  • “You wouldn’t see that in the UK” (ignorance of or overzealous health & safety, picnicking in a car-park)
  • “That was bloody close” (after nearly getting hit, on the footpath or on a road crossing displaying the green man)

Quite simply I am suffering from culture shock! Working abroad is taxing in a very personal way. Despite being widely travelled I find myself examining my own assumptions and my way of life recurrently as I submerge myself in something new and different. Change is intrinsic in working abroad. Adapting and embracing change is one of the skills I thought I had gained from experience. However, the SK change has sometimes been painful and overpowering. These feelings (I am told) are normal and are shared by most people who have traveled and lived abroad.

When I arrived I first experienced an initial euphoria, the honeymoon period, when anything new is intriguing and exciting. Then secondly I AM enduring irritation and hostility with some negative attitudes towards my host culture.  I need to move to the gradual adjustment stage when I accept the above norms and finally I will hopefully adapt and embrace UK/Korean biculturalism.

Blog writing and Skypeing are good ways to let off steam and dispel the negative feelings as well as celebrating the positive aspects of living here in SK. It’s important to reflect on what you miss and celebrate what you enjoy about the new country that you inhabit. Of course I hate the disorganistion and poor communication in the workplace plus the boredom of exam time. I hate how much it all irritates me. I hate the problems with owning an apartment in London and not knowing if the management company are bullshitting me or being honest.  I hate the Tories and bankers for cocking up the economy which means I can’t yet sell the bloody thing!

I miss the chats with close friends and mums home cooking. I hate my obsession with stereotyping the people who generally speaking have been most welcoming and respect me more than many people did at Westking. I miss my visits to Susan & Paul, Atmos, Georgie, the Languedoc rouge and my drinks with John, Chris, TG and ZT.

I love the shorter working hours and the free time I have to cycle and enjoy the countryside, I love the new friends I have made and the ability to travel around a small diverse country.  I mostly love the food if not the school dinners.  I love the kids despite the majority having no interest whatsoever in Englishy and I love how some of the soccer boys have matured with the experience of playing in a team. I love how I watch less TV and do more reading. I love how I have lost weight because I don’t do anything to excess at the moment. I love how this experience will allow me to do many more things in life by travelling and teaching rather than being consumed by the clearly dysfunctional nature of education in the UK and the fact that those who manage it have either never been teachers or probably shit ones!

7 thoughts on “Reflecting on Culture Shock!

  1. How long have you been in South Korea? Have you managed to overcome the culture shock? If you have to name a single most shocking or unexpected thing you encountered so far, what would it be?

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