Late-Onset Culture Shock

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I think the hardest thing about living in Korea, as a foreigner, is what feels like constant scrutiny. Maybe it's easier in Seoul, or Busan, places where being a foreigner is no longer so noteworthy, but in my small city and smaller neighborhood, I feel as if everyone is super interested in anything and everything I do, from the moment I step outside my door. If I buy bread at the bakery, the owner wants to know why I'm buying it. For dinner? Breakfast? If I run into my students, they want to know where I'm going, why am I going there, who will I meet? Friends? Korean friends? American? A boy? Girl? Your boyfriend? North Korean spies?

Okay, the last one was an exaggeration, but sometimes I feel like a teenage girl with an overprotective father. It's even worse at school. If I change the way I do my eyeliner, people ask me about it. If I get a sunburn, I have to explain that yes, Western people get sunburns. If I wear short sleeves in winter, people worry I'm too cold. If I wear longer sleeves in summer, people worry that I'm hot. I have never in my life been under so much scrutiny, and in some ways, it's starting to take it's toll on me. I know that there's no malicious spirit behind the asking, merely innocent curiosity, but that doesn't change the way it makes me feel.

On most days, this doesn't really bother me so much. Heck, there are even some positive aspects. I know that I keep myself looking sharp with much more consistency than before, and no matter who I'm with, I try to comport myself in a teacher-like manner. To some degree. I mean, there's only so much dignity you can have at 4 AM trying to hail a cab outside the noraebang. But that doesn't mean a girl can't try!

Lately, though, it's been fraying my nerves. The need to "keep up appearances" and blend in is nothing new for me. My mom is the sort of person who constantly worries about what people will think, and as much as I tried to avoid it, I inherited a great deal of that habit. All through school I cultivated invisibility as a defense and a way to get away with just about anything. If you don't stand out, it's a lot easier to skip a class or do your own work at the back of the room. I've used my chameleon-like powers to fit in at wildly different jobs, some of which I wasn't at all naturally suited to.

To me, standing out always seemed like something negative, something to be avoided. Getting perfect grades meant I'd be made fun of, but failing would have been worse, so I aimed for safely average. Flamboyant fashion choices just didn't seem worth the comments. As you can imagine, as a white girl living in (somewhat) rural Korea, there is no way for me not to stand out. I can wear the exact same outfit as my Korean friend, down to makeup and hairstyle, and I will still stand out as a foreigner. For the most part, I've come to accept that. I've carved out my own niche of fitting in, conforming to all the social and fashion rules that I can, but sometimes something goes wrong, and my little illusion of fitting in comes crashing down around my ears.

I only realized how much stress this was putting on me over the past day or so. The realization grew out of a few factors coming together in that wonderful way that bad things are able to clump together. For one, I've been having a hell of a time trying to dye my hair over here. I've managed to accidentally turn my hair purplish brown, then gray trying to fix the brown, then pinkish brown at the salon trying to cover up the awkward swampy gray color. All of that happened in about a week, and the damage it caused does not bear mentioning. Since then I went back to blonde, dyed my hair red, it faded out to a strawberry blonde, and I'm currently sporting an accidental, though perfectly nice, warm brunette shade.

I've been dyeing my hair since high school, so at first it really didn't make sense why I was getting so incredibly stressed over a minor coloring mishap or two. I hate having a feeling and not knowing why, so after weeks of pondering the stress, trying to follow it to the source, I realized what was wrong.

Culture shock. It's finally hitting me.

My life in Korea is great, but the two hardest things about living here are represented in my hair struggles. One, the feeling of a lack of control over my own life and lack of familiarity on which to ground myself, and two, the stress caused by the seemingly constant scrutiny of those around me and my constant inability to simply fade into the background if I want to.

For the first, dyeing my hair is something I'm good at, something I've been doing by myself for years, with usually good results. Now, suddenly, not only am I unable to buy the supplies I need to do it myself, even the hair salons lack the kind of dye I'm used to. That's no fault of the salons- why stock dye for non-Korean hair if the majority of your customers are Korean? As for the second, that's pretty obvious, I suppose. If even a small change in makeup choices garners comments, imagine what a drastic hair color change is like. Even if every comment is positive, the mere fact that it's being commented on is what is slowly driving me crazy. If it was at least the color that I wanted, that would be one thing, but as it stands, least dye washes out.

How do you deal with culture shock? How does it manifest for you? Have you been able to dye your hair in Korea? Tell me about it in the comments~

Teacher Pretty
Middle school ESL teacher, lover of pink, eater of kimchi, addicted to Etude House, expert procrastinator, meeter of 2-dimensionial popstars: Ana. That's me.

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