beyond culture shock


So in the recent past I’ve read a few articles by expats about how culture shock is the visitor’s own fault and that they need to actively try harder to incorporate themselves into society and be more accepting.  I can appreciate that.  But what if you do and you decide that despite all your best efforts and attempts at being open, maybe you just don’t like it here?

A returned person has high hopes and expectations.  Couple that with the prejudices against returnees, and it makes returning especially difficult.  Even among the foreigners who marry and stay, I’d say over half don’t intend to make that permanent.  Being raised in the west, there are just some things that are unacceptable.  Being that all the people I care about are still in the west, making a commitment to change things here doesn’t really make personal economic sense.

The other day a student asked a sort of non-sequitor question.  “Why don’t you speak Korean?”  I explained how I’ve only taken about four months of lessons and been here a year and a half.  I explained how unfair it was that Koreans judge me for not knowing Korean after such a short time when they have had 6-8 years of English and still can’t speak it.  I explained how every person learning to communicate in another language needs practice, and that nobody here will speak Korean with me.  To which the passive  co-teacher said (rather patronizingly while chuckling) why would they because “we know you don’t speak Korean!”  She told the kids something, but as always it was chaotic in her room and nobody seemed to care.

In the next class I told the class I was in a bad mood and explained what happened in the previous class.  The proactive teacher did a good job translating this and it registered with some of the kids.  One boy came to my desk afterward and took it upon himself to open a book of mine and explain what mountain and apple were, which I already knew, but I thanked him anyway.  I couldn’t explain to him that vocabulary wasn’t what I needed, but communicative speech was what I needed.  Useful, meaningful interaction is what I need…

Today after class the proactive teacher took me aside and counseled me that there was a problem with my shirt and, apologizing, said that she could see my breasts.  “Korea is a conservative society.”  So I’m wearing TWO shirts exactly because of this reason. I AM TRYING!  The undershirt with the scoop neckline, I guess, being too low and exposing a tiny bit of cleavage.  It was all I could do to not snap back – what do you want, you want me to wear a birka?  I bought this shirt IN KOREA.  Why do they sell things that are unacceptable to wear?  I wouldn’t be wearing two shirts in America on a hot summer day!  And the only reason I have this cleavage is because I’m wearing a stupid Korean bra, which all have stiff padded shapes to them.  It’s like you can’t win for losing, unless you want to dress like a nun.  And excuse me, wearing a spaghetti strap undershirt beneath chiffon like some do is a lot more revealing than this combination I’m wearing today.

There are a billion things I try to be understanding about.  A thousand jolts to my system that I write off and dismiss and let slide and roll off my back.  But these two things – maybe not so important to others – are almost essential to my being.

Don’t get me wrong – I love it here in the country.  I really like most Koreans.  I’m beginning to get a feel for how things work.  I have real sympathy for the students.  I actually adore the students.  I love the culture.  But some things about this society are UNTENABLE to me.  And will be today, six years from now, and ten years from now.

I think it all boils down to:  How dare you judge me so superficially.

I really need an exit plan.

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