Friday, December 5, 2008

Novelty Lost - Thoughts on Culture Shock

We've been here just over three months now, and it seems the novelty has worn us for us and for Korea. Culture shock is setting in for almost all of the foreigners I've talked with, and the folks in our school seem less interested in us everyday.

Most people think that culture shock comes immediately upon arriving in a new culture. The name makes such a mistake understandable. Culture weary might be a better title for this experience.

I had a bad case of culture shock my first year living in Korea (my first time outside of North America). From about 3 - 6 months, I mostly hated everything, and I plotted daily how I could and would go home. I was unhappy in general, and especially disliked anything and everyone Korean. It also manifested as resentment toward my girlfriend, distance from my friends and apathy for my hobbies. I look around at the teachers who arrived here at the end of August, and I see tired, weary looks that remind me of how hard that period was for me.

Culture shock is an incredibly valuable experience. It is hard growth at its essence. If you take the metaphor of a person as a tree, getting through culture shock is expanding the breadth of your trunk - imperceptible and inglorious at the time, but it yields stability and opens new possibilities for height in the future.

It comes when the fascination, the newness, of a foreign culture wears off and the fascination of you wears off for those around you. When that happens you are left with the day-to-day experience of living in a culture that doesn't understand you and doesn't support the image you have constructed of yourself over the course of your life. Without the cultural backdrop on which you have defined yourself, and which supports the notion of you that your ego maintains, you have to develop some other concept of self, one that doesn't depend on the perceptions of you that have been relatively constant in your home culture.

This is why I came back to Korea. This is the good stuff.

But when I get home after work, it feels like my heart has been leaking happiness and self-confidence all day.

This too shall pass.


Anonymous said...

Nicely put.

I think you described an emotionally and mentally taxing experience rather eloquently.

-a fellow Samcheokian (anna)

Anonymous said...

Nicely put. I'm not weary yet (2months into my first year) but I really like your tree growth metaphor. This is where you make yourself strong outside of your culture and comforts.