Last March, I took a TEFL course to prepare for teaching abroad in Korea. Day one of the course was all about culture shock, and, though I consider myself to be a fairly well-rounded, cultured individual, I quickly realized that I’d never actually experienced culture shock. Despite having traveled abroad numerous times, I was always either with family or in a comfortable, familiar place.
Now, I’ve been living on my own in Asia for nearly a year. Though I’ve adjusted to life here, and settled into somewhat of a routine, I still experience culture shock on a regular basis. Here are, what I consider to be, seven of the most culturally shocking things about living in Korea.
1. Squat Toilets
There are few things worse than desperately having to pee at the end of a long flight. The plane is descending for a good half hour, and the "fasten seat belt" sign is on the entire time. So as to not be scolded by a flight attendant on the descent into Dubai (where I had a layover before flying to Korea), I opted to hold it.
By the time the plane landed and taxied in, I REALLY had to go. I was hoping for a quick walk up to the airport… (And that I’d be find a toilet even more quickly). After the seemingly endless descent (and the bus ride to the airport terminal), I found a toilet alright. It was a hole… in the ground - my very first squat toilet experience, and my first time REALLY being shocked culturally. I was so shocked, in fact, (and had to pee so badly) that I let out an involuntary “Whaaaaaat?!” and nearly peed my pants. To make matters worse, I was still following America's TSA regulations and had brought all of my luggage into the stall with me.
It's a good thing that I was exposed to squat toilets early on, because they're quite literally everywhere. On that note, I quickly discovered that culture shock is a very real thing.
2. Shower Bathrooms
Shock number two is also bathroom related. Since I was expecting it, my shower bathroom wasn’t so much a shock as it was an odd and difficult thing to adjust to. When my recruiter sent photos of my apartment, I noticed something that looked like a hose attached to the sink in the pictures of the bathroom. After speaking to some friends who had taught in Korea, I discovered that, no, I was not seeing things, and that, yes, for the next year, I would in fact be using a shower bathroom.
Some of you may be thinking, “Shower bathroom? What’s she on about??” Well, it’s a fitting name because there’s no tub, and the whole bathroom IS the shower. Basically, a knob on the faucet determines whether the water comes out of the sink or the shower head. Typically, I turn the knob back to sink mode immediately after showering (so as to avoid any disasters), but there have been several times that I’ve gotten totally ready to leave home and turned the sink on to brush my teeth… only to get completely soaked by the shower head. This sucks especially hard for someone like me who takes ages to decide what to wear.
At first the whole shower bathroom thing was SUPER weird, but now I kind of love it. There is so much more room for activities, it’s easier to drink wine in the shower, and my bathroom is always clean. Aside from the occasional surprise showers, the whole "Shower Bathroom" thing has kind of grown on me.
3. Living in the Future
With an incredibly Massive Time Difference
I thought I’d suffered jet lag on my trips to visit family in Europe, but it was NOTHING compared to what I experienced moving to Seoul. The 13 hour time difference was so tough to adjust to. Thankfully, because I’d spent two weeks in Ireland, my body had already jumped five hours ahead.
In the beginning of my year in Korea, I’d always want to stay up late to talk to people at home. However, I quickly realized that 9 a.m. comes quickly, and that late nights chatting with friends at home were followed by unproductive and exhausted days of teaching.
Drunk texting of any sort is even more highly frowned upon than usual. Whenever I’ve had a bit of soju, everyone back home is just beginning their day. It’s also super weird Face-timing or calling people back home while they’re out partying on a Friday night and I’m suffering a wicked Saturday morning hangover.
4. Korea Knows How to Party
Speaking of hangovers, NOTHING could have prepared me for Korea's drinking culture. There are no open container laws, so you can drink on the street, by the river, in a cab, on the train, at your local 711 - literally anywhere. The bar scene is fun, but my favorite place to drink (aside from the river) is a convenience store. It’s cheap, there are dozens to choose from within a half-mile radius, and they never close.
Soju, Korea’s signature drink, is both delicious and dangerous. They drink it straight… They add shots of it to cider… They mix entire bottles into pitchers of beer. It goes down like juice, but is essentially watered down vodka. I have fallen down many a staircase because of this deceptively easy drink.
My first staff dinner was basically a marathon of Korean BBQ and drinking games where the loser, or sometimes winner, drinks (you guessed it) soju shots. Said staff dinner ended with my phone taking a swim in the toilet, a wicked hangover, and a solid two weeks of being phoneless to follow.
Staff dinner number two involved less soju consumption on my behalf, but our Vice Director did buy us a bottle of tequila at the bar.
5. Personal Space? What's Personal Space?
Public transportation here is absolutely fantastic. It’s fast, cheap, extremely convenient, and, for these reasons, always busy. While the metro system is amazing, I will never NOT dislike feeling like I’m in a pack of sardines. When it comes to being uncomfortably up close and personal with strangers on the train, the golden rule is, “It’s not awkward unless you make it awkward.”
... But it’s not just the subway. In Seoul, the sidewalks are constantly teeming with people. Rainy days are the worst because the city turns into an umbrella war zone... though, I must say, the ahjummas, (old Korean ladies), are quite violent with their Sunbrellas on nice days as well.
To be fair, this country is TINY in comparison to it's massive population. Personal space can't really exist with so many people existing in such close quarters. I must say, I’ve become quite a master at bobbing and weaving my way through the crowds.
6. Couples Outfits
Though this photo was taken at Ultra Korea, seeing couples in identical outfits is not something reserved for music festivals. In fact, it isn't a rare occurrence at all. For Korean couples, twinning is not a mistake, it is the norm. It is carefully planned, calculated, and, to me, wildly comical.
I’ve seen some couples go so far with their clothing coordination that they even wear identical socks. I can only assume that the rest of their undergarments match, too (as, according to the mannequins at lingerie shops, this is also a thing).
7. I Actually Really Don't Mind Culture Shock
The term "Culture Shock" tends to have a very negative connotation, but, the truth is, after the initial mega-shock died down, I grew to enjoy the little daily shocks... (aside from the surprise showers - those definitely still suck).
There is nothing wrong or right about the things I've found shocking while living in Asia... they're all just different from what I was used to. It's almost as if I've had some sort of awakening - like I'm either seeing things with a new pair of eyes, or just truly seeing the world for the first time.
I will never not be a Carolina girl, but life in my small town North Carolina had started to feel like a habit. Everyday, I would go to jobs I had been working for so long that I could do them with my eyes closed. Had I stayed, I would have lost my mind. Here, life is different- It's interesting, it's stimulating, and, most importantly, it can be downright challenging. I had become entirely too comfortable at home, so these new challenges are totally welcome.
Though the big city life can take a toll on my s(e)oul, (pun intended), it's nothing a hike up the nearest mountain can't fix. I am loving both this beautiful country and it's vibrant culture, so much so that I'm extending my contract for another six months. I've grown to appreciate the feeling of pure lost-ness that, these days, I experience the majority of the time... for, in every new thing I see, and each new place I discover, it feels like I find another little piece of myself.