Study Abroad Blog: Culture Shock or Understanding Different Cultures?

April 16, 2011 at 11:37 PM | Posted in (All Posts) | Leave a comment

One thing I haven’t touched on in my study abroad in South Korea is the “unusual” aspects I’ve encountered. Don’t get me wrong – I’m having the best time of my life and coming here was the best decision of my life. But there have been moments where I stop being so comfortable and realize there are many different elements when compared to America.

Do I miss my family and friends? Sure I do, but I can talk with them on Facebook and Skype. Do I miss American food? Not exactly, because if you look hard enough, you can find any food here in Daegu, near my university (Keimyung). What I’m talking about is more about just having moments that are just bound to happen when traveling alone.

Example 1: Within my first week of being here, I met one of my Korean friends in downtown Daegu, and I was trying to get back to my dormitory. I wasn’t too familiar with the subway system just yet, so I got back to Keimyung very late at night. I finally got back to campus, but every time I had entered the campus from the outside, I had used the exact same gate, and it was during the daytime. However, this particular subway exit I used put me near another gate. Now I didn’t panic, but I wasn’t exactly level headed here. It was completely dark and technically classes hadn’t started yet so the campus was pretty much a ghost town.

I feel I can speak Korean fairly well (for surviving), but working with directions was something I’m not strong at. I could not find a familiar building or road, and before I knew it I was walking in circles. It hit me all in one moment when I stopped in front of a small picnic area – “I am completely alone in this country. I have no working cell phone yet. Everyone I know here is either in a different part of the city or already in the dorm. So many people here can’t speak English well enough to help me.” And I just stood there under this street light, thinking about how I got here. To be honest, I was a little scared. I knew I could find the dorm eventually, but it was in that moment I realized I am so unfamiliar with this place. I eventually did find someone walking and thankfully she understood my Korean and was heading back to the dorm area as well.

Example 2: This is a matter of dealing with what some consider a “respect system” in Korea. If you ask any foreigner who’s traveled to South Korea (or possibly any Asian country), they’ll likely admit that there is this unspoken system for age. If you travel on a subway, you often see younger people instinctively get up and offer their seat to an elderly person. Sometimes it seems like a genuine act of kindness, but sometimes it seems like this programmed action.

I can think of three different instances, all inside the subway station strangely enough, where an elderly Korean man has approached myself and my exchange student friends and told us to be quiet. At first I would get confused, then slightly irritated, thinking to myself, “We weren’t any louder than anyone else. Why is he singling us out?” After speaking with my Korean roommate about it, he helped put into perspective. I’m sure this wasn’t happening to just me – it was happening to everyone, but because it was unusual to me, I almost took it personally.

They have a certain level of power or ranking in the culture, despite what their job is or what experience they have, and you just learn to accept it.

Even students call their younger students their “junior” and older students their “senior.” Older students have this responsibility to look after and help their juniors, and younger students have a certain amount of respect they have to show to their seniors, regardless of the situation. It’s fascinating, in a way, but I think this is more surprising because I’m so used to the “American” mindset.

I honestly used to think I had this “world view” and that I understood different cultures. I thought that just knowing that differences exist meant that I wouldn’t be surprised by them, but I was wrong.

That being said, I wouldn’t change anything. When I sit down in a school lounge and chat with a student from Afghanistan or Germany or Poland and hear their stories and their way of life, it’s mind-blowing. It’s real. To relate to them and actually call them a friend – it’s more gratifying than I ever imagined. It makes me wish that everyone could experience different cultures, and as difficult as this is for me to say, it makes me wish that America (at least the America I’ve experienced) had a more “global” mindset.

I know a Korean girl who can speak not only Korean, but English, Chinese, and Japanese – all fluently – and she is minoring in Spanish. Then I sit across from her and think to myself, “I know English…and I can speak very little Korean and Spanish.” It’s humbling in a way. I’m not condemning anyone in any country. I’m just speaking personally – it makes me think that as hard as I “think” I’ve worked for some things, I can be trying that much harder, because there are people who HAVE done more.

I don’t feel inadequate. In fact, I’m still proud of myself for doing this study abroad, because there were people who I almost listened to that told me I shouldn’t go. I never thought of myself in a very high regard, but I feel happier with who I am HERE. I thought explaining this would be easier, but I’m lost in translating this feeling.

To try and put it in the simplest of forms – this experience has changed me for the better, and I do not want it to end.

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