As you might imagine, relocating to the other side of the planet can be an eye-opening shock to your system in so many ways — welcome and not-so-welcome.
But somehow I’ve managed to largely avoid culture shock in moving to South Korea (except for being susceptible to respiratory woes on high-pollution days, but that’s another blog post), and I can honestly say that outside of my health challenges, adjusting here has been a big, ol’ breeze. Ready to find out how to do it yourself? I’ve got four hot tips — click on through!
1. Do Your Relocation Research. A TON of it …
Once I’d decided upon South Korea as the place I wanted to hang my hat, I dived into Google like a snorkeler approaching the Caribbean Sea. I wanted to know everything about life in South Korea! I started by finding blogs created by those who had done or were doing what I was trying to do – teach English in SK. That provided me with a range of personal testimonies about the highs and lows of living here. There was a ton to be taken with a grain of salt, because, hey – these bloggers aren’t me. I couldn’t know what they personally love or disdain about being abroad; but, all in all, while reading their experiences, I started to see a lot of the same highs (gorgeous country, awesome transit system, i.e.) and lows (brutal summers, public spitting, i.e.) crop up, so that helped a lot.
I did soooo damn much research that there’s very little about Korea, Korean culture or Korean life that catches me by surprise. Soooo much that I guide fellow expat teacher friends. Soooooo much that I even correctly predicted to one of my Korean co-workers how a peculiar staffing situation at our academy would shake out. I’m that schooled. And it feels good to not be surprised by the shitty stuff, because it leaves room in my brain to be surprised by the great stuff. And that’s how this experience should be!
One caveat to Googling SK info about your destination: Be mindful of publication dates and resulting accuracy of info – for example, while there’s a wealth of stories, forums and blogs about life in the ROK (it took me ages to realize that stands for Republic of Korea), even stories that are only a year old can contain totally inaccurate or outdated information. With some topics – like finding the best Korean bank, for example – you can’t really uncover the real skinny until you get where you’re going.
2. Let go of your control freak-dom ASAP
… or at least loosen it. I’m a Type A control freak who tends to want to know what’s going to happen when and exactly how. And this used to manifest itself in the way I travel. (Ask my friends with whom I traveled in the early and mid-naughts – I was an over-scheduling terror.) That’s a good thing in moderation – I did manage to see a ton of my favorite European cities by mapping out detailed itineraries. But, then again … you miss out on the pleasantly unexpected by not allowing yourself space to pivot and traipse down this side street without a time constraint or make an unplanned stop into that cool building. And the latter represents the kind of go-with-the-flow experience I wanted to have in Korea.
And I know my first tip in this post – to arm yourself with ALL OF THE INFORMATION to be ready for curveballs – may sound pretty control freaky in and of itself, but I think that strategy actually complements this tip because you can learn what there is to be learned about your new residence while you’re still at home, which frees you up to immerse yourself (knowledgeably) in your new world when you arrive there. As an example, I had read so much about the transit system here that I knew that small town bus schedules like the one in my rural city are tragically unreliable, so when I head to Seoul on the weekend, I know not to get too strict on my arrival time; I land when I land and enjoy the day. In sum: Control what you can, let go of what you can’t! Because wherever you move to is going to throw you for numerous loops in your time there — I guarantee it.
3. Embrace your new culture
I’ve met some
sad sacks expats here who really don’t care for living in Korea, and while they’re, of course, entitled to their feelings on the matter, I have noticed one thing they have in common: a near-avoidance of embracing or sometimes even just exploring the culture. I’ve found that they’ve done the very opposite of tip No. 1, and just landed here with little prep or research done. And if you’re going to pull the trigger on a huge transition, why not arm yourself with some knowledge?
As for embracing or at least accepting the good and bad in your new surroundings, it’s tough! There’s plenty that I miss about the States as well as facets of life in SK that have been a bit difficult to adjust to (see the aforementioned public spitting), but if I’m employing my go-with-the-flow mindset correctly, I know that the bumps in the journey are as much a part of the experience as the hills. If I get stuck, it helps if I educate myself on a facet of the culture that baffles or frustrates me. For example, I’ve learned that keeping spit — or rather phlegm — inside (i.e., swallowing it) is considered to be bad for one’s health in the ROK. It doesn’t make me like the spitting habit any more, but I get it now.
4. Learn some language, for Pete’s sake!
This tip is pretty self-explanatory and fitting even if you’re just visiting another country. I find that knowing even survival phrases in the language of my destination country not only puts me at ease but also puts native speakers with whom I’m communicating at ease, too. It’s a great way to express, “I know not everyone speaks English — let me meet you halfway!” and, in my experience, it’s usually so welcome. Don’t worry if your speaking skills are rudimentary; a little bit goes a long way, particularly in the goodwill department!
If you’re plotting a move overseas, pat yourself on the back and luxuriate in this brave adventure you’re giving in to. No matter how much culture shock you run into, be confident in the fact that you’re a badass for taking on such a life-changing move and know that things will work out as they need to. I feel like I need to end that with a namaste, so … namaste!