On ‘Culture Shock’

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I’ll freely admit it, I’m a bloody awful blogger as soon as something major happens in my life. Some people (perhaps most people) find that to channel big changes into something creative is the best way to manage the change itself…maybe this is what years ago made someone a dedicated diary writer, and now makes for a successful blogger. I have recently realised that I am the exact opposite of these people, and deal with significant change by  completely ignoring it until it either goes away or becomes manageable purely by virtue of the fact that I have been ‘getting on with it’ for a long enough time. Unfortunately, this makes for a crappy travel blog, and for that I apologise.

However, there’s no point crying over spilled Maekkoli. In this post I’ll attempt to detail my own (confused) feelings on the dreaded ‘Culture Shock’.

Before moving here, I heard a lot about ‘Culture Shock’. I heard the least about it from friends and family, more from occasional acquaintances (workmates and the like) and without doubt the most from people I had never before met in my life (my EPIK interviewer, the woman in WH Smiths who enquired as to why I was purchasing a passport cover, etc.). At first I thought this was a little odd, but after moving here I worked it out.

It’s because ‘Culture Shock’ as a single entity just doesn’t exist, especially not in the same way for everyone. ‘How are you going to deal with Culture Shock?’ is as pointless and redundant a question as asking someone you haven’t seen for 20 years ‘so how’s life?’. My friends and family didn’t ask me how I’d cope with it because they know me too well and understand what a complex, loaded question it is. Perhaps they also know that I would immediately launch into a 1200 word rambling essay, and hoped to save themselves.

Culture Shock in the media (and in many travel guides, as well as in the EPIK paraphernalia) is treated like one big thing, an illness that may strike you down at any time and one that will result in either your recovery or your plane ticket home. We are told that some people do not suffer from Culture Shock, as if they have been previously inoculated by some secret social process and are now immune to the stresses of everyday life in an alien country.

Forgive me for my outspokenness (and forgive me for my swearing Nan), but that’s just bollocks. It suggests that some people are simply not built to live within a foreign culture, even for a short period, and will not be able to survive a life of unfamiliarity. Again, bollocks I say. What we are doing is hard, yes, but it’s akin to moving schools as a child. Things look different on the surface, sometimes you put your foot in it and feel like the most awkward of all of God’s creatures, sometimes you say the wrong thing and want to ground to swallow you whole, but above all it is nothing but another strange situation to conquer and a new pattern of life to be learned. Once you get used to it, it becomes the norm and that’s that.

I think what I dislike most about ‘Culture Shock’ as an idea is the way that it appears to be so tightly bound to depression. When the lovely American boy asked in my interview “How would you deal with Culture Shock?” I responded entirely as I would if someone had asked me how I would deal with a bad day or with missing my family…with a nice glass of wine, perhaps some indulgent food and (most importantly) the knowledge that home still exists and is always there for support even if you are miles away from it. I passed the interview, so he obviously didn’t think I was too mental.

But feeling like you’re having a bad day just isn’t what I’ve found culture shock to be. It’s not a sudden debilitating smack in the face (“Life used ‘CULTURE PUNCH’…It’s super effective!), and it doesn’t creep up on you like some kind of sneaky realisation-ninja (“la la la, everything’s so grea-OH GOD GET ME TO THE TOBY CARVERY RIGHT NOW!!”) but is merely the day-to-day trials and tribulations of simply being somewhere else. Hardly deserving of the capital letters, in my opinion. Culture Shock sounds inherently negative too, which is also total crap. If any of my fellow EPIKers read this, how many times even in the few weeks we’ve been here have you been shocked or surprised by the total awesomeness of the differences between here and home? Now how many times have you been genuinely and truly shocked by something crappy? For me at least it’s a tie, and if I’m honest that’s largely on grounds of animal welfare and poopy tissue paper in bins. Are you really shocked that you miss your friends/family/pets/boyfriend/girlfriend/etc? I doubt it. When you move 5000 miles away from the people you love, you just expect to miss them. You’re supposed to, and you’re at least partially prepared for it. If you didn’t think that you’d be able to handle life a considerable distance away from your home, you probably wouldn’t have gone through the rigmarole of getting here.

For me at least culture shock is nothing more than a series of mild annoyances, quickly forgotten and outweighed. This isn’t to disregard them, of course…in the moment itself nothing seems more important than to achieve whatever the hell you’re trying to achieve. For weeks my primary goal in Korean life was to get a working SIM card for my iPhone. Now it’s done, I wonder why I was so stressed about it. A month ago I actually cried because I couldn’t work out how to use my own washing machine, until I realised I could get the buttons translated on Google. Last weekend it drove me crazy that I couldn’t work out where the post sorting office was, I convinced myself I’d wasted money and would never buy online again, then I got the card translated by the shop assistant at the GS25 and picked up my parcel five minutes later. Sometimes things here are hard to deal with and I struggle, like everyone else, with being the only proper english speaker in my school…but then you just sort of forget about it, push it to the back of your mind and get on with living here. Maybe one day everything will hit me at once and I’ll find myself overwhelmed with every little detail I’ve hoarded away, but I doubt it. For me at least, living within a completely alien culture-bubble is a damn sight easier than trucking through day to day life as a bored to death bank cashier, or spending my days repeating the same phrases to drunken Yorkshiremen.

Hopefully this goes some way to explaining my lack of blog posts…things only seem important in the moment they’re happening, and when they’re over I just disregard them as nothing of importance. That said, in my next post I’ll spend some time covering the things I find to be the most different between here and home. Maybe, if I’m not too busy ignoring them.


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