Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Korean education of Andrea - Part 1

I figure the subject of my learning of the Korean way of life will be something that happens through out my year here, hence my title being "Part 1".

It's been over two weeks since my last blog post.  Much has happened in that time - both good and bad. 

The bad part is: the culture shock hit me earlier than expected.  In some conversations I've had with people before I left Canada, I was told that I should anticipate culture shock really hitting around July when the honeymoon phase of everything had warn off and the novelty of living here had really started to fade.  Since my last post about my apartment, while I have started to find a sense of comfort in my small space, I have started to have developed an sense of anxiety about the life that is all around me.

First of all, I have learnt that I am really not a big fan of Korean food in general.  Because I had really enjoyed dishes like bimbimbap and bulgogi back home, I had hoped that that would translate into my liking more of the common meals I would find here.  It would seem that, unfortunately, that has not been the case.   I can't really put my finger on what is it exactly I don't like about the food.  I just don't find the flavours work well for me, like so many other Asian cuisines do.    I am certainly disappointed with this, but I do make a continuous effort to try it, as I do eat the Korean lunches offered by my school every weekday.  But, since I do need to eat while I'm here, I will likely just cook most of my own food, to suit my own tastes.  I had a difficult time figuring out how to start/work my gas stove (since I've only ever really used electric before), but my very kind landlady (who doesn't speak a lick of English) physically showed me how to do it.  She took my hand and demonstrated on a tea towel how I had to gently press the knob, before turning quickly and letting go slowly before lowering the temperature.  I have also been introduced to the foreign markets in Seoul which are 1.5 hours door-to-door from my place in Incheon.  I am able to buy so many of the foods I would normally cook at home, everything from Thai sauce mixes to cheese to pasta to chili beans.  I will be able to eat well, it will likely just be not very Korean.

The other culture shock issue I've been dealing with is the language barrier.  While I am SO GLAD I learnt to read and write Korean before coming here (it has made such a difference for me), speaking it has been extremely difficult.  I have a very hard time getting even basic things like garbage bags (we need to buy special garbage bags here and I was completely denied to buy them by a local store clerk because I couldn't clearly express to her what I wanted).  Since then, my Korean phrasebook has become my best friend; although, admittedly, my friend does sometimes fail me.

Last weekend, for whatever reason, I felt culture shock hit the hardest.  I sent an email to a few friends back home who had experience living in a foreign country asking for their advice.  It wasn't a pretty email - quite negative in fact.  But, I'm very glad that I did.  Their support/advice/encouragement was so helpful to me.  I thought about exactly what was getting me down here.  I think it boiled down to 3 things: 1) the food (as mentioned) 2) the language (again, see above) and 3) the fact that I'd like to have my social life be expanded to outside my apartment, but not straight into a bar. 

So, I looked at these three problems and thought "how can they best be addressed?"  Number 1 was fixed by going to the foreign markets and learning how to cook at home.  Numbers 2 I plan to fix by joining a local language exchange club, where I can improve my Korean and help some one else improve their English.  Number 3 was addressed by doing the same thing I've recommended to other people who have moved to a new city/country: join groups in  Next weekend, I plan to go to a meetup for something I've been looking at since another English teacher turned me onto it a couple weeks ago: Temple Stay.  You spend a day or up to a week at a Buddhist temple learning all about the Buddhist way of life.  You learn about different aspects from meditation to bowing to food to lotus-lantern making.  It should be an experience so far out of my comfort zone, but I look forward to it!  Last weekend, I went to Seoul with a few fellow Incheon-ers to check out the Lotus Festival parade and the other events kicking off the week of celebrations for Buddha's birthday. In the coming weeks, I also hope to find a yoga class I can partake in.  Even if it's all in Korean, I should be able to follow the moves, right?  I figure these are all great ways to get me out of my apartment to meeting new people & making new friends, and (not necessarily) getting drunk while doing it.

I think by going out and doing as many of these unique things as I can, I will help combat my culture shock and perhaps even learn to love being here.

This weekend (May 17-19) has been a long weekend here in Korea due to the holiday celebrating Buddha's birthday.  Since we have very few official long weekends this year, I decided to come down to Busan, Korea's 2nd largest city to celebrate and check out some new sites.  These two weekends have been the things that have been the good parts of my last two weeks here.  Despite my culture shock, I've met up with many great people to experience different parts of Korean life & culture, and everything in between.

I'll do a proper post on Busan and my weekend in Seoul another time, but for now, I'll say a big thank you to all of those who have helped me through this difficult transition in this new country (you know who you are).  I can't tell you how much it has helped me!


  1. Congrats Andrea on persevering! It sounds like it has been difficult but focusing on the things that can make you more comfortable is a great way to get through! Sticking with it is definitely something to be proud of.

    The Temple trip sounds like a great experience, please post more about it after you go! Also, having just caught up on your blog posts (I finally figured out how to subscribe), I am wondering how on earth you are managing with a shower head above your bathroom sink! That is definitely a big adjustment :)

  2. Hey Andrea! I hear ya! It takes time to hit your stride, but once you do, you'll look back on this and laugh! Even though this is my third time in Nepal, I always have an adjustment period (ie panic), it's normal! That said, I think your friends are spot on. Learning to speak with confidence here has made ALL the difference. I'm out in a village with no native English speakers and without pretty much all of the comforts of home (friends, warm water, internet, even power sometimes) and being able to at least converse makes all the difference. I also stock up on boxes of granola bars when I'm in town... we all have our thing, I guess.

    Anyway, happy to catch up on what you're up to!