Hey Seoul Sister / Travel

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in (Ar)kansas anymore

First month in Korea

As some of you know, I was recently awarded a fellowship to study Korean full time in South Korea. Despite my best attempts to get things sorted before I moved,  I walked in with no visa, an Airbnb for 2 weeks, and very little knowledge about the life I’d have to make my own for the next year. 

They say that culture shock comes in stages, and to some degree, this is true, but it’s also highly dependent on circumstances and not as the pre departure orientation powerpoint figures would have you believe.

Before I came, I asked around about Korea, and I found it to be an extremely polarizing topic. People either told me it was the best time of their life, they loved it, and I was so lucky to be going or that it took a real toll on their mental health, they hated it, and got out as fast as they could. No one I knew in the States had a neutral opinion on Seoul. And now that I’ve been here a little bit, I can kind of see why. Korean society relies on a fast and efficient kind of logic/worldview that confuses my American sensibilities. But I can’t summarize my experience thus far as normatively good or bad.

It’s more like when things are going well, your highs are super high. It’s beautiful here. People are nice. It’s an adventure every day, and you feel so proud of yourself when you figure it out for the first time. I can actively feel my Korean improving every week.

But when something goes wrong or you need something and can’t do it, everything comes crashing down. You need to make an appointment but can’t make a phone call. You need to buy sheets but none of the stores have it. You buy the wrong SIM card (“unlimited incoming text and calls” does not include the ability to make calls or send text messages) and are told it’s your fault for not knowing that. All you want to do is go home. Things are not necessarily better there, but at least you know how things work and no one expects you to do everything in Korean. 

Culture shock for Americans in Seoul

Before moving here, I expected things to be hard. Those aren’t really culture shock moments for me because there’s no shock there –– finding housing is stressful no matter where you are.

But there are things I didn’t consider before deciding to move here. Like the fact that apples cost $2 PER APPLE. Or how difficult it would be to look things up online. This is partially due to the fact that my Korean is not great, but also because websites are laid out differently (perhaps a cultural difference) and the fact that Google maps does not work here due to a fundamental disagreement about whether or not to censor South Korean military bases.

They have their own map/search engine app called Naver and another app called KakaoMaps. Both of these are less intuitive to use than Google, and you often need to search using Korean search terms to actually find anything. They have two different address systems, and the address of places will differ substantially under the different systems. 

All this is fine conceptually. I understand why it would be the case. It’s just not super helpful when you’re looking for a specific restaurant to meet up with your classmates you can’t bring it up. 

English words don’t necessarily mean the same things

I’ve written before that words don’t always mean the same thing in people’s minds. When learning a new language, I expect to encounter differences in definition/conceptual understandings, but in Korea, they use English words in ways I can’t always guess. “Service” (서비스)  to mean something you usually have to pay for but they give you for free. “Sharp” (샤프) to mean mechanical pencil (and not knife/box cutter…which is definitely what I guessed in class). 

Compared to other Asian countries I’ve lived in/visited, there are a lot fewer American expats, so a lot of my friends speak English as a second language. I’ve learned (or tried to learn) a lot of words in other languages and how they do and do not translate. 

I need to write a whole other blog post about what it means to be Asian American in Asia but not in the country your parents are from. For now, I’ll just say it’s got its ups and downs, but I never expected the place I used my Mandarin the most to be Korea. I’ve been feeling so much gratitude for the Mandarin I learned in college because I see how it opens doors to friendship that would otherwise be closed to me or lets me read menus that I otherwise would only be able to Papago (their google translate). It almost makes up for all the angst I’ve had about it over the years. Almost.

For the rest of my time here, I’ll be checking in and blogging once a month. If you want updates, please sign up for my newsletter and get updates (and my writing from all corners of the internets) delivered straight to your inbox every month. If you have questions for me, recommendations for Korea, or just want to say hello, please get in touch. And if you’re reading this after the fact and my work is helpful to you in some way, please consider buying me a coffee (or a single Korean apple) on KoFi.

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