Getting Over the Initial Culture Shock of Living in Korea — Introduction

Getting over the initial culture shock of living in Korea was really hard for me. When I first got here, life was pretty depressing. I was excited to get to a new country and in awe of everything I saw around me. But I was disappointed by Busan — from what I could see, it’s an ugly city. Well, it is!! But it’s got some beauty spots hidden away…

Getting over the initial culture shock of living in Korea is easy with scenery like Busan's.
A Busan beauty spot, hidden away at Dusongsan in Dadaepo.

A Tough Start

Anyway, just living everyday life was really difficult. I couldn’t buy the things I wanted at the grocery store, for example. Items come in different packaging than back home and since you can’t read anything, how are you supposed to find what you’re looking for?

One day at the beginning, after coming back from the grocery store with less than half the items on my list, again, I actually cried. I had to get my director to write me a note asking for certain items, and present the note to a clerk the next time I went to the store.

It was lonely, too. The first two months, I didn’t have any money so I couldn’t do much, couldn’t go very far or meet many people. There aren’t too many foreigners in Dadaepo and it was really hard to communicate with Koreans.

Read about grocery shopping & how long it took me to meet other English teachers in Dadaepo in Memories of a Carnivore.

So many of them would wave me off if I stopped them to ask for help. They wouldn’t even try to use gestures or anything, just waved me off. Sooooo rude!!! And it really leaves a bad first impression, that Koreans aren’t the type of people to help foreigners in need, but rather to shun them or laugh at them (this happened to me often as well).

Read an update about the hand-waving situation in The Kindness of Strangers in South Korea: Language Barriers Notwithstanding.

Novelty Helps Getting Over the Initial Culture Shock of Living in Korea

But I have seen some pretty cool things since I’ve been here.

Sights like this unique mountain formation make getting over the initial culture shock of living in Korea a breeze!

Like one time, I went hiking in Jeollanam province, to Maisan (Horse Ears Mountain) Provincial Park. While the mountains themselves weren’t snow-covered (some small areas were), the lower grounds all around were. (Weird, eh? Isn’t it usually the opposite?)

From the bus on the way there, I could see cars pulling kids on sleds in a field. The cars drove around an imaginary oval track and kids bumped along behind, screaming their pleasure.

It looked like fun, and I was glad and surprised to see them enjoying the snow, but whoa man! I thought it was pretty dangerous. What the hell? If a kid falls off and the car behind doesn’t see, what do parents think will happen? Buddha reincarnated will swoop down and whisk the child away to safety?

Probably not, that would be Jesus’s job. (There are far more Christians here than I expected.)

Waste Disposal Problems

Still, even though I’m pretty much done getting over the initial culture shock of living in Korea, some things continue to bother me about life here. Most recently, I found out that the trash at school gets burned. That’s bad enough in and of itself, anywhere, but…

I bring my trash and recycling to school since my director, Mr. Kim, said it’s too expensive to buy all the different trash bags and the system is too complicated. Right — I must be an idiot…

It sucks; I have to drag all my crap to school and I find it embarrassing walking on the street with it or getting to school and having teachers and students stare at me in the elevator and in the hallways. Grr.

I was bringing cat litter, too, even though I thought it was unsanitary — I didn’t know what else to do with it. The other day, Mr. Kim tells me I can’t bring litter anymore because something goes wrong in the burning process. So now what?

Well, it turns out I just have to leave the bag outside my apartment and someone will pick it up. So why can’t I do this with my regular trash? I don’t know, but I think I’ll try. Then I’ll just have to bring the recycling to school, which isn’t so bad.

Not having access to the garbage disposal system of my apartment building does complicate my life a little, not to mention that trash piles up in a corner until I feel like dragging it to school with me. The older I get, the less tidy I become.

But hey, at least I’ve found some all-natural litter at HomePlus, so it’s not so bad — but wait! If litter is perfumed, is it still all-natural? Don’t answer that; it’s a rhetorical question…

Home Comforts Help Getting Over the Initial Culture Shock of Living in Korea

Speaking of pets, I can’t go too long without dogs, so I’ve found some neighbourhood canines to take on walks. Suteori is a large white and grey female, Areongi is a small white and brown male. Back home I’ve got a large black male and a small grey female, so I guess there’s balance all the way over here on the other side of the world! And having them in my life has really helped in getting over the initial culture shock of living in Korea. Dogs really do make great companions!

Well in the end, home follows you everywhere you go, it seems. It’s kind of cool, actually. Last year, in Peru, I had occasion to visit my cousin Dan in Lima. Here in South Korea, I’ve visited my parents’ old friend, a man with whom my mother went to elementary school and my dad went to high school, a man I remember from my childhood in St-Charles.

I went to Ulsan to see Dan and Minjung, his wife. It was so cool to talk about home, about all the people we know. And it was awesome to get to know Minjung, who taught me lots of Korean words and introduced me to some vegetarian foods I can eat (smiley face).