Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it ― Mahatma Gandhi
If I had a dollar for every time someone back home mentioned or asked me about the kind of culture shock I would or have experienced in South Korea, I’d have my credit card debt paid off much faster. Admittedly, this journey has made me aware of how I react to other people giving me advice or telling me what to do or expect, particularly when I haven’t asked for such input. Still though, this week was a wake-up call to reality: I live in a different country on the other side of the world from where I grew up. Life here is different.
The walk from my apartment to Homeplus (read: Korean Target/Meijer/etc) is not very long — maybe five or six minutes. Along that walk, I can count on 2 hands the number of words written in English. The rest is all in hangul (한글) the written form of Korean. Sure I’ve been using Drops and Duolingo for several months to learn letters and simple words in the language, but nothing could have prepared me for my emotional reaction to having my reading skills limited. Beyond reading, it’s unnerving to be in a physical space where the language spoken around you simply doesn’t register. I might hear a word here or there that I recognize, but beyond that, if my Korean counterparts wanted to speak ill of me or plan my demise, they could easily do so with a smile on their faces, and I would be none the wiser.
If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete — Jack Kornfield
My friend Heather, perhaps one of the most well-traveled friends I have keeps reminding me, “Be gentle with yourself.” I’ve recently rephrased this to “give yourself some grace.” Culture grace. For whatever reason, I didn’t believe friends or strangers who told me what I’m doing is admirable, brave, courageous, or what not. I kind of just thought, “I’m moving to another country to teach English. What’s the big deal?” Now, seeing just how different my world was before and after, I remind myself that yes, this is brave.
There is something brave about stepping into an unknown world, something admirable about walking the footsteps of a different people and culture. Every time I try a new food or speak a Korean word out loud, even at the risk of being embarrassed, I remind myself of just how big and beautiful and diverse this world is. I remind myself that my way of life is not the only one that matters. My language is not the only one worth speaking. My traditions are not the only ones worth practicing and protecting. This world has more sounds and flavors and movements than many of us will ever be blessed (or brave enough) to experience.
The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely — Carl Jung
As I prepared to move to Korea to teach, naturally I did a solid amount of research, poring over blog after blog and article after article about Korean food, culture, traditions, faux pas, and so much more. Respect for elders and superiors was a subject covered on nearly every site, which I took to heart. My first day at Daemyung Elementary, a woman was in the teacher’s lounge. She quickly offered me a seat, coffee, cookies, and a smile. I honestly thought she was one of the teachers. Later, when my English coordinator introduced me to the other teachers and staff, I learned this woman is the school principal. I felt so embarrassed, worried that I had failed to show her the appropriate amount of respect in response to her kindness. So I did what any English-speaking expat might do: I wrote an apology on Google translate, knocked on her door, handed her my phone, and bowed. She smiled and laughed a little, saying, “It’s your first day. Go have a happy day.”
Thursday marked 2 weeks since I arrived, and that encounter with my principal reminded me how getting used to a new culture takes time. I will make mistakes, and I may very well end up doing or saying something offensive without knowing it. But having the heart of a student who is here to learn and embrace something new is perhaps the best thing I have going for me. At the end of the day, it’s all about learning to show ourselves some grace.
photo credit: Marat Assanov (via Flickr)