Culture Shock

One and a half weeks into my stay in Korea, I have eaten octopus – cooked and raw, several other varieties of raw fish, been nearly spit on by several old men on the street, have had children stop and gawk at me everywhere, figured out what constitutes an ‘indoor shoe’ – kind of, and seen many eels being sliced up on the streets, heard dogs fighting out of my bedroom window in the evening…but haven’t really felt culture shock. Except for once.

One evening over orientation, after a rather particularly intensive day of training, my roommate Akosua and I headed out to unwind over a couple beers. Wandering into a new area, we stopped in front of an interesting looking place and tried to make out the Korean lettering on the sign out front. Given that we had both just learned the alphabet, and didn’t know any Korean words even if we could read them, this proved rather difficult. My roommate asked a woman standing behind us on the streets if she could help us read the sign. She stood there with a kind of deer-in-headlights look, and then ran into a place across the street. She quickly emerged with a man in a matching orange neckerchief, who seemed quite eager to help.

I was immediately wary, and figured they worked at the place across the street and were going to try to persuade us to go there. Which would be annoying. But then, the man was actually reading the sign, translating it into English, and seemingly simply trying to help. He was loud. Really loud. And, upon closer inspection, smelled quite strongly of alcohol. The woman just watched, with an oddly strong expression of perhaps eagerness, or anxiousness.

After the man showed us how the Korean letters just spelled out Heineken and Guinness, he consulted briefly with the woman. ‘Ok,’ he declared, ‘We will buy you one drink.’

At this, the woman gripped on quite tightly as it appeared to my roommate. She seemed very eager for us to comply. We offered a few weak refusals, but went with them quite willingly. Free drinks? When we agreed, the woman hugged us both with surprising force.

It wasn’t until we had settled in and were perusing the menu that the thought struck me that perhaps these people were con artists, planning to rob us or drug us and carry us away somewhere terrible off into the night. Of course! That had to be it. Why else would this man, who spoke such good English and worked with American military personnel on a daily basis, and his wife, take such an interest in a couple of foreigners in a rather crowded area of Seoul that certainly saw it’s fair share of travelers? They were being so nice, buying us a round of beers and food. Such kindness just couldn’t be genuine. I even discretely checked my pockets to see if it hadn’t already been done when she had hugged us (she hadn’t). Maybe they were in cahoots with the owners of the bar/restaurant, and were going to try to charge us a million dollars for the bill, and then march us to an ATM to empty our bank accounts. Which I heard they do in Istanbul. Maybe they’d drug us and we’d wake up in a bath tub missing organs or enslaved into some Seoul sex trade.

Of course, after thinking this, my entire attitude changed. My sense of wonder and excitement at our chance encounter become a feeling up idiotic gullibility and even shame. Of course they’d go for a couple of young girls. Of course they’d pretend to help us. We were ideal targets. The couple, on the other hand, seemed genuinely excited to be talking to us about Korea and teaching and America and Canada. But I couldn’t stop trying to second-guess the genuine-ness. Was it all an act? ‘Are you in this area a lot? Aren’t there many foreigners around?’ I asked them. Yes and yes seemed to be their response, but communication wasn’t all that clear.

The woman enthusiastically ordered everyone a Cass – her favorite Korean beer – and we had a spicy, possibly raw fish stew-like dish. Perhaps they would slip drugs into one of these? The thought was in the back of my mind. My roommate seemed to be totally oblivious, which made me all the more wary for the both of us.

We saw pictures of their kids, and told them about the EPIK English teaching program in Korea. Eventually, it was proposed that we go to the top of the highest mountain in Seoul. Right now. It was nearing 11pm, but they looked it up on their smart phone and assured us it was open, and they could drive us, and they could get us back to the dorm for our midnight curfew. Well obviously there was no way I was going to get into their car, which I made quite immediately clear, letting my otherwise quite impeccable manners fall by the wayside a bit. My roommate tried to compensate for me by being extra polite, which only made me more insistent. Beyond the getting kidnapped/robbed/killed reasoning, we also had to be back to the dorm by midnight or be locked out until 5am. And even beyond that, this guy was obviously a bit intoxicated and there was no way I’d get into a car with him if he were my friend, let alone a stranger.

The woman looked absolutely crushed at our refusal, as if she might even cry. I tried to insist we’d be back in Seoul and could go to the top of the mountain another time. And we even exchanged email addresses. But our evening ended shortly thereafter, only after the man’s repeated insistence that we could find our way back to our place, and we for sure didn’t need a ride?

We parted ways. The wife hugged us again, and again with unexpected force. We didn’t get mugged, or kidnapped, or drugged. We just rather uneventfully walked back to our dorm, and made it there before curfew.
Of course, I was happy the entire thing had actually apparently been ‘genuine.’ But I also felt kind of bummed out by the experience. Which only got worse when I talked to my roommate, and confided my anxieties.

‘I could tell!’ (that made me feel rather embarrassed) ‘Koreans are just really generous like that. My Korean friends from university told me all about this. I knew what was going on.’

But still, didn’t she think they were con artists too? At least just a little bit?

That actually made her laugh. So, apparently not.

Didn’t they seem too nice though? Isn’t anyone that acts that nice definitely out to get you in some way (money, sex, organs…)?

This made her laugh even harder. ‘Stop! Stop!’ She was nearly in hysterics.

And then, I realized what was going on. My roommate was Canadian. ‘I bet you don’t even lock your doors at home! Do you?’

No, she didn’t. And she couldn’t stop laughing.

And that was my first and only bit of culture shock. First, that I could perceive the events of the evening so differently than she did, even though we had grown up only a few hours apart in Detroit and Toronto, and second that I had been capable of such skepticism of apparently genuine hospitality from an extremely friendly couple.

Was it just my outlook from growing up in the American ‘culture of fear’ and scare-heavy media? Or was it a product of growing up in the incredibly cautious suburbs, where everyone was afraid of the scary nearby city? Or was it spending so much time in NYC, where there are plenty of con artists taking advantage of clueless tourists, and no one really trusts strangers?

Whatever the reason, it made me feel quite bad that I had been capable of being so carried away by my paranoid thoughts, and let them close me off from enjoying what could have been a pleasant evening and fun cultural exchange.

So, I’ve decided I’d like to try to be more open – without entirely disregarding my NYC and traveling-hardened ‘street smarts.’ Although it would probably take me another 23 years to totally unlearn my American paranoia. And ultimately, it’s better to be safe than sorry, right? I mean, that couple never emailed us. Maybe they were just hoping we’d get into their car.

Or, maybe not. I think I’m just hopeless.

Orienting in Seoul

It’s difficult to remember that I am in Korea during orientation. Even though we’re being lectured on Korean culture and language, and there’s a lot of talk about teaching in Korea, I spend most of the days within the campus of this international college, going from lecture to lecture and speaking to other native English speakers. In the evenings, finally free to roam the streets of Seoul after the twelve-hour days of classes, it’s hard to convince my brain that I’m not just in a giant ‘Koreatown’ neighborhood back in NYC. A very giant, extremely authentic Koreatown, but still.  Being half way around the world and actually in Korea just isn’t registering.

Not that my brain really had a chance to register its change in location. As soon as I got off the plane at Incheon Airport, I found my way to the orientation site, quickly fell into a jetlag-induced sleep, and started a full day of orientation the next morning. There wasn’t really any processing time.  To further confuse matters, I ran into a guy who lived on the same floor in my dorm freshman year of college on my way from the airport. (Who isn’t teaching English in Korea these days?) People on the streets wear baseball hats promoting American baseball teams, shirts emblazoned with NYC and Brooklyn, and fashion that’s straight out of NYC’s Soho. Where was I?

A night on the town

Not that Seoul was entirely like New York City. And I’m sure if I spent enough time there I’d find it was nothing like it at all. One of the first things I noticed when arriving at the airport and trying to get help finding which bus I needed to take was how incredibly friendly everyone was. Just out of their way helpful in helping me buy my bus ticket, get my bags to the bus stop and load them onto the bus…that didn’t feel like NYC.

The orientation is six days of trying to give us soon-to-be English teachers as much information about teaching, the Korean school system, Korean culture, history and language as possible. While the information is helpful, it becomes quite frustrating to talk so much about Korean culture when we could be going out and actually experiencing it for ourselves. People who had already started teaching shared stories that mainly told us that everyone’s experience was different, and there was no way to know what to expect. How much could you really prepare for the unexpected?

One of the best parts of the week was visiting Gyeongbokgung Palace. The palace was built in 1395, and was the largest palace in the Chosun Dynasty. The palace’s name means ‘Bless all the people’s luck in the peaceful period,’ but, of course it was nearly completely destroyed by Japan during an invasion (in 1592). Since then it has obviously been reconstructed and still looks rather awesome today. For me, it was rather amazing to see the traditional Asian architecture that I had been looking at pictures of before I left, and that I remembered seeing in ninja movies I used to watch when I was little (although the movies were probably in Japan). It felt like I had actually arrived – I was in Asia! The architecture and colors on the buildings were also pretty mind-blowingly incredible.

Gyeongbokgung Palace
Gyeongbokgung Palace
crazy eyes 2
crazy eyes
Temple in Gyeongbokgung Palace
Gyeongbokgung Palace
Gyeongbokgung Palace
Gyeongbokgung Palace

Our brief forays into the city in the evening provide little glimpses into Korean culture. Such as: People generally eat as well as drink at bars, and the wait staff will not appreciate it if you just try to order drinks. Also: soju is cheaper than water and it’s usually BYO in the noraebangs.

Cocktails in a bag!
Noraebanging - with the drunken Koreans from the room next door

Perhaps my favorite moment of the week was getting from the airport to the orientation site. After getting off the bus an hour and a half later than I should have, having missed my stop and gone on an unexpected ‘detour’ with another lost EPIK orientee, I fond myself in a rather busy neighborhood full of university-aged types. On the corner trying to catch a cab, I ran into the guy I knew from NYU, at which point everything felt kind of magical.

I hailed my new friend and myself a cab NYC-style (which was all I knew – I now know that Koreans have a rather different manner of cab-hailing in which the palm is down and they wave their fingers in a ‘come here’ motion. It will take me a while to get used to this). The cab driver that stopped for us didn’t seem to speak any English, and we definitely didn’t speak any Korean, but considering we had been given driving directions written in Korean communication didn’t seem all that necessary. However, when loading all of our luggage – which was quite a bit, considering we were both set to move in for a year – the driver packed the bags quite precariously into the trunk so that it could not close at all. My friend from the bus seemed quite concerned, as his suitcases were most precariously positioned. Not that he could say anything to the cab driver, whose only word of English seemed to be – of course – ‘Ok?’

‘Ok…I guess…’


And with that we were off, and at a rather quick speed considering the wide-open trunk. The cab driver was balancing his cell phone on the steering wheel, trying to see the phone number on the directions we had given him as he simultaneously navigated the car. Sitting in the front seat, I realized that for the moment the fate of my belongings – and myself – was entirely out of my control and in the hands the cab driver sitting next to me. And that was ok. Watching the Korean signs and streets wiz by through the window, I had my first sense that I had just embarked on an adventure.


(evening out pictures on this page were stolen from my friend Ellen!)