Monday, February 2, 2009

A Ramble

So now I am almost three weeks into my year in Korea. Though the three weeks have gone by in a flash, it also seems like so long since I got here. It has been long enough to get used to things. I am sleeping and eating normally, and my stomach is finally adjusting to Korean food. But more than that, it feels like the return of habit, rhythm, and homeostasis.

Some of the initial thrill of the experience has worn off, but it has been replaced by a more measured appreciation. When I first got here, all the food tasted equally good and bad. I was pushing myself to understand and get used to things. Now I can positively say that some korean food is bad (though it is awesome on the whole). Another example concerns classical music and fine art. I noticed immediately that Koreans love to play classical music in public spaces, including during breaks at my pre-school and in the subway. Waiting for a train while "pomp and circumstance" blasts from loudspeakers overhead, I couldn't help but be impressed. And the fine art-- art is everywhere in Busan. Classical portraiture in the malls, statues by in the park. And a lot of it is really beautiful stuff. But now this zeal for sophistication is getting a bit annoying. You are not supposed to listen to Wagner on the subway! Thank god for daft punk on my ipod.

The point is I am getting some perspective on things. I don't want to be a knowitall, over-critical foreigner, but I want to have my own thoughts on what I see. Appreciate the culture but hold onto the values and experiences that make me who I am. So maybe the "honeymoon" is over. If the culture-shock theories are right, I should soon hate everything and want to come home. Only after that will I adjust and live comfortably unconscious of the culture. I don't think things will play out quite like that for me. I am pretty confident that I can avoid the lows of culture shock, if only by being extra aware of it.

And I wonder how 'shocking' this culture is, after all. For those of you who don't know, Korea is a very modern country, and overall pro-western. From what I remember from a high school trip to China, Busan seems culturally closer in to the Chicago that it is to Beijing. So perhaps the real adjustments are minimal, compared to being in the peace corps in some African village. The one huge problem with that idea is the language barrier. It is almost shocking how little English most Koreans after years of mandatory English classes. This is mainly because Koreans study for written/read English, while listening/speaking is relatively undeveloped. And my own efforts to learn Korean... well let's just say it is a difficult language. I came to Korea already knowing how to read the script and some basic words and expressions, but I am finding it very difficult to improve. My attempts with the language have been frustrated by the most basic problem: learning to discriminate seemingly identical sounds. To give you an idea of what i am talking about, it is a JJimjilbang (찜질방), not a Jimjilbang (짐질방). So basically I live in a country and don't know how to speak the language. So that's source of constant minor frustrations, which threaten to grow into a more general alienation. And if nothing else, THAT will take time (and a sense of humor) to get used to.

But I do wonder how it will end. One of the undetermined variables in textbook culture shock is how people eventually adjust. The majority of people become 'rejectors' who cling to the habits of their native country by surrounding themselves with like-minded expats. This is the most noticeable group among the foreigners I have met. Seemingly without interest in the language or culture, you can find them in the local foreigner bar. Another group lose their original identity by absorbing the values and customs of their host country. These people are obviously harder to spot. But I have heard stories about people who end up marrying a Korean and staying here forever. The smallest group are the 'cosmopolitans', who are able to appreciate the culture without being consumed by it. I wonder what category I will fall into? How koreanized will I become? Will I have any problems readjusting when I come home, so called 'reverse culture shock'? Will it feel strange to not be bowed into the walmart doors? What will it be like understanding what people say on an elevator again?

As it relates to this blog-- I have to admit I have been waiting to write about some things until I am more adjusted and have better perspective and more experience. There is so much to write about-- temples, food, mountains, funny english, city life, kids. But I still have a lot to learn and many photos to take. And I really think it takes time to really understand a new country because first impressions can be deceiving. If I see someone do something I find strange, it could either be cultural or idiosyncratic. There is more variation within countries than among them. So, it will take time to see the big picture.

So sorry if this post came off a little self-absorbed. This blog is NOT about my feelings, and I can only hope this is the last time they are mentioned. If you want to know about korean street food, wait for this weekend! Pictures and everthing. In the meantime, I have no idea who (if anyone) reads this thing so don't feel obligated!


  1. Hi Graham.....totally enjoy reading your may think you are teaching preschoolers but you are also sharing so much with us oldsters :) Love your insight! (and those pictures).. {I do know that sea cucs are on my "do not eat" list ;)...

  2. St. James is loving the blog....keep it coming!

  3. Hey Graham. I think that your 'ramblings' are insightful and that you have a better understanding of where you are personally than you know. And, for better or worse, I'm sure that you're not done with the culture shock. 3 weeks is a long time in some ways but a very short time in many other ways. I hope that you continue to be shocked by hilarious, unusual, and bizarre - and that you continue to write about it. Also write about the similarities. It's all very interesting and appreciated from us back home.

  4. oh, and of all people! you should appreciate wagner in public transit.

    ps: i'm in san juan now. 85 degrees and sunny. that would be 87 degrees warmer than chicago.

  5. 87 degrees... that sounds so nice right now. I bet you are getting a nice tan, or the always fashionable mid winter sunburn?
    But no, I do not approve of wagner on the subway. Today was tchaikovsky's 1rst piano concerto. That was more acceptable.