When heading abroad, you are inevitably warned of the coming culture shock. However, I’ve found the reverse culture shock of returning “home” far more difficult than that of when I first arrived in Korea.
Here’s 13 things I’ve noticed, some good, some bad and some whatever, since I’ve been back:
1. Portions are really big. Which would be OK, except that most of the food in America is, compared to Asian food, a) flavorless and b) unhealthy.
2. There is so much diversity. It literally makes me want to cry tears of joy. Walking around Washington, DC and seeing people who speak different languages and look different from another all in one glorious city is a beautiful thing. The diverse cultures and experiences of America are truly one of its most important assets.
3. Craft Beer. ‘Nuff said.
4. I still have the instinctive urge to bow when I meet new people and take off my shoes when I go inside. I make a great houseguest.
5. On the subway, I am shocked when I can actually understand people’s conversations. It’s nice to be blissfully unaware of what people are talking about because you can’t speak their language.
6. Public transportation is expensive and extremely sub-par. I really knew I was back in DC when the Metrorail operator started screaming over the microphone for people to move away from the doors so they would close—perhaps we need a more effective system.
7. On that topic, busses. $40 for a four-hour one-way trip from DC to NYC? Really!?
8. In the office, people make jokes and interact beyond their age/position in the hierarchy. What.
9. Skype calls are so much clearer when compared to Korea. It sounds like the person on the other end is right next to me.
10. Most people don’t really go out late on work nights. What’s a guy to do?
11. Everything is oh-so-expensive. Especially things that shouldn’t be. Value is relative.
12. Apple Products. Everywhere. Speaking of: Apple Watch, anyone?
13. Stall doors in bathrooms leave about six-inches or so between the bottom of the door and the floor. This is compared to Korean stalls and doors, which go all the way down to the floor. Infinitely more private in Korea.
14. American supermarkets are huge and have a ton of variety. While Korean supermarkets (here’s looking at you, HomePlus) are also big, sometimes an entire aisle would be dedicated to one kind of product. Who could ever forget the instant ramen or instant coffee aisles?
This list is pretty Korea-centric. For those of you who’ve left your home country and returned, what were the things you found interesting or strange while experiencing reverse culture shock? Did you experience it at all?
I love eating and I’m a firm believer that one of the best ways to experience a new locale is to eat your way through it. Somewhat miraculously, even with seemingly endless varieties of food to try, I’m about 15 lbs lighter than when I first came to Korea. I digress, but to me it’s somewhat further proof that the American food system relies on crazy additives/chemicals/added sugars and salts.
Anyways, my students, host family, family, and friends always ask me what the best (or strangest) foods are that I’ve had here. It’d be impossible to pick just one. Inspired by the awesome food posts by fellow Korea ETA Gabi on her blog, here are just a few of the amazing things I’ve eaten over the past year in Korea and Asia overall. I’ve tried to keep it more limited to things that you probably would have a harder time finding in the West, but I did also have some amazing Western/fusion food as well.
I’m notoriously bad at bringing out my camera at the right moments, but here’s a sample of what I did capture.
For those celebrating, Happy Easter!
I don’t consider myself very religious, but at home my family celebrates Easter with church and a big brunch that is always a great time. My “celebration” this year is far from typical—after waking up very early to a Korean breakfast of rice, side dishes, and tofu stew, my host family headed to a wedding out-of-town. Instead of brunch, I found myself trudging out of the apartment earlier today in search of some tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes). My cravings satisfied, I’m now writing and lesson planning in Ochang’s Starbucks. While I feel like I’m cheating on Korea choosing Starbucks over one of the four or five Korean coffee shops immediately adjacent, this is the only one that offers actual brewed coffee in lieu of the Americano.
Last post I was getting ready to head off to Jeju Island for the Spring Fulbright Conference. It was an absolute whirlwind of a weekend, marked by lots of presentations, successful workshops, and catching up with friends. Unfortunately, the logistics of the conference were as such that we didn’t get much time to see the actual Jeju landscape. Besides a tour on Sunday, we were in the conference room almost the entire weekend. To add insult to injury, the room had giant windows in the back that view the beach, but the curtains were drawn for all of our sessions. Nevertheless, the island was beautiful.
The conference itself was quite different from the Fall conference—there was far less of a focus on teaching tips and many sessions focused on end-of-grant logistics: how to keep our schools happy, when our final gala dinner would be, and what to plan for the departure process. A few highlights from conference:
-A video put together by the Fulbright office staff of former grantees saying what they missed most about Korea.
-Jaunting around Jeju with our program coordinator, the Office’s executive assistant, and about 45 other grantees.
-Leading a group discussion on Fulbright and non-teaching career paths with two fellow grantees to large groups of ETAs.
-Cramming a bunch of ETAs in pajamas into one hotel room for a late-night pizza party.
Overall, it was a weekend of positive people doing positive things. However, Jeju conference was also a significant reminder that my time here is limited.
On July 4, 2013, I started my Fulbright journey to South Korea, flying from Washington, DC to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Seoul, and finally a bus from Incheon airport to Jungwon University in Goesan. On July 16, 2014, my grant year officially ends.
87 days. That’s how long I have to make a direct impact on my host family, Gakri Middle School, and overall community. I’m not sure if it’s something about springtime, or that I’m a more seasoned teacher (or both!), but the last few weeks my students have been particularly wonderful. Last Monday, I came down with a nasty cold; my voice was pretty much gone and I couldn’t sleep. During one of my 3rd grade (freshmen year of high school in America) boys’ classes, one student in the back row silently held up a makeshift sign:
“BE HAPPY JON ☺”
Moments like that, while irrelevant to my kids improving their English, are what make this experience. I know that even though I feel ready for the next opportunity ahead, it’s not going to be easy to leave this community and the relationships that are gaining strength daily.
In preparation, I’ve been thinking more about my personal goals for school life—what kind of legacy do I want to leave with my students? Leaving something tangible isn’t so much an option, so that legacy must be what stays in the minds of my students. Of course, I want some of that to be an improved command of the English language. On the cultural side, I also want some of that to be positive impressions of Americans and foreigners. Something that one of my co-teachers said the other day has stuck with me, though—he said that I am an “actor” teacher. He said that when my students interact with me in class, they usually laugh and look entertained.
There are some who think that there is no need to make education entertaining—I remember an instance of Noam Chomsky defending his unenthusiastic style of public speaking. However, for me, the teachers that I remember best were the ones that had enthusiasm and made learning an entertaining venture. While I may not remember all of the content that they taught, it was those teachers (thank you, Mr. Alleyne from WES, among others), who cultivated my love for learning and curiosity. The Korean education system is notorious for both its success and its brutality—I want to leave my students with the view that education, and specifically learning English, is entertaining and, ultimately, fun. I like to use a lot of physical comedy, big gestures, and facial expressions. Some of my students may never gain a deep interest in English, but at least they can associate their middle school conversation class as a positive experience.
So, 87 days. A few of my Fulbright friends react pretty negatively when I bring up this countdown. In the end, though, it’s not a demonstration of our limited time—it’s a time for uninhibited possibilities.
(On a not so happy note, I’d ask everyone to keep the students and families affected by the ferry sinking tragedy in Korea this past week in your thoughts. As a teacher in Korea, I can’t imagine if that were my students. I am not exaggerating when I say that the entire country is in mourning. Korea needs hope and support right now from all of us around the world.)
I have spent the majority of my life with the worst traffic in America.
Growing up in the Washington, DC area, I remember turning on NBC4 news each morning and hearing about the slow commute on the beltway and in the city itself. Today, I do everything I can to avoid driving in the city, especially during rush hour. Unfortunately, Washington does not make that easy with the notoriously unreliable-but-good-looking-to-tourists Metro system that charges insane rates for extremely poor and slow service.
Naturally, after wanting a change from DC, I moved to a place with even worse traffic: Los Angeles. I still don’t understand how the 10-something lane highways always manage to be packed no matter time of day or night. Public transit in Los Angeles is in its infantile stages, with an ineffective subway system, an expensive and somewhat intimidating commuter rail (Yes, Mr. Police Officer, here’s my ticket, now please don’t shoot me!), and an unclear bus system.
The world once envied the United States for its cross-country rail, effective inter-state highways, and reputable air transit industry. Today, it’s all pretty much the worst. While I love Amtrak, Congress’ fear to subsidize it fully leads to ridiculously high prices compared to the rest of the world. The cheap busses between NYC and DC are one of the better options; however, numerous sketchy operators with questionable safety records sully their appeal. The highway system is still impressive, but the planners didn’t design for the number of cars they must now carry. Air transit quality is dropping rapidly–I was a frequent flier throughout college and have come to expect misery when flying.
That brings me to South Korea. As my time here whittles away, I find myself often reflecting on what it is going to be like to go back to America and how the reverse-culture shock will affect me. Sure, I’ll miss the no-tipping policy, incredible cuisine, and my effervescent students. But, one thing that will leave a void, and I’m almost remiss to say this, is the Korean intercity and express bus system.
Am I really going to wax poetic about a bus? Yup.
Public transportation in Korea is great. City busses can be a bit jarring, but they are frequent and fast. The Seoul subway system is a modern marvel in terms of getting around safely, quickly, and on the cheap. However, the best parts of Korea’s public transit system are the intercity and express busses.
In Korea, there is no stigma towards taking a bus; everybody rides them. There aren’t horror stories like there are about Greyhound in the USA. Busses here are cheap, frequent, and easy to use. My town is about 1-½ hours from Seoul and there are busses on the hour everyday. Not only that, but the busses are inexpensive, about $7.50 one-way to Seoul. You get all of the service too, as the busses leave on the dot, seats are assigned so there’s no scramble, and there’s plenty of luggage room.
Even for foreigners, using the bus is easy. You show up at the local bus terminal, go to the window, ask for a bus to X location at Y time, and pay. The end. No figuring out specific bus companies, as long as you can mumble the name of your destination and date, you’re in the clear. Not only that, but the tickets themselves have English to tell you the platform, time, and seat number. If Korea became a more popular tourist destination in Asia, travelers would consider it one of the easiest countries to get around.
Comparing Korea and the USA in terms of an intercity bus system is a little bit unfair–Korea is a much smaller country. The longest bus in Korea would probably be about 7 hours, while in the U.S. busses could take days to travel cross-country. Still, there’s a lot we can learn from Korea to make busses a more attractive option to Americans, which could ultimately have a positive effect on the environment and overall congestion on our roads. In Korea, there are designated bus lanes, so that even during the busiest traffic busses stay on schedule. The rest stops are palaces to motorists. Most cities have both express and inter-city bus terminals, the former serving all of the major routes non-stop, the latter hitting all of the smaller towns.
Pundits often suggest, as I have, that America should step up in creating a world-class rail system; perhaps encouraging public transportation through busses would be a good place to start. For now, I’m going to continue to enjoy exploring Korea with inexpensive fares and in relative comfort!