You can probably imagine how hard it is to leave the place you’ve grown up your entire life and travel to live in an unknown place thousands of miles away. What you most likely can’t imagine is how it feels to be back in that familiar place after you have lived in a faraway place for two years. What the experts call, “reverse culture shock” really exists. As much as it feels like I never left home and my two years in Korea were all just a dream, there are still some things that I’ve been internally struggling with since being home. These struggles are difficult to explain, but I’m going to try my best to outline some of the “shocks” I’ve experienced.
I’ve been back living under my father’s roof in my hometown, where I was born and raised, for just about two months now. That, alone, has been a shock, but I won’t go into too much detail. I’m very fortunate to be employed in a job in the field that I want to be in, ESL, so I really can’t complain. But what you need to know is my adjustment hasn’t been as smooth as it looks from the outside. I have been going through a roller coaster of emotions while trying to find my niche again.
One of the first things that has been a difficult adjustment, which may come as a surprise, is actually speaking English again. Of course I spoke English while I was in Korea, but it’s not the same English that I speak here. I’m used to going into public places and asking questions and responding to the workers in Korean and the English I’m used to using to communicate with Koreans is very elementary. While in Korea I also spoke slightly different with my fellow native English speaking teacher friends, but we were all in the same boat together. When we had conversations we would even note at how much our English was deteriorating. (Ooo! brownie points for a 6 syllable word!) Anyways, after returning home I found it hard to not say things like “thank you” in Korean to the cashier at Target or not to bow to someone when saying hello. I started a new job recently and I even find it awkward to join in a conversation with my co-workers during lunch because I’m used to eating lunch in silence while listening to incomprehensible conversation in Korean.
Appropriately, another thing that’s shocking to me is my ability to understand conversations surrounding me. In Korea I became so accustom to tuning everything out that I forgot what it’s like to understand everything that people are saying. Now I actually feel much more comfortable in a place like New York City where people around me are speaking foreign languages rather than when a stranger is loudly speaking English and my attention is distracted because I can understand what they are saying. When I’m stopped by a stranger who needs directions or a salesperson who is trying to help me find something in a store I freeze before I realize, “Oh yea, if I need help I can actually ask someone who speaks the same language as me.” This may sound ridiculous, and I’m having a hard time explaining all of this, but this is the best I can do.
I never appreciated the words, “please” and “excuse me” but now I realize how much I missed hearing them. In a city with 9 million people you don’t have the time or patience to say “excuse me” so instead you push them out of your way. I have never been pushed and shoved more than when I was in Asia. In Korea there is a word that means “excuse me” and I wrote it on an index card and memorized it, but I never heard it used in context. I said it to a Korean once and they didn’t know how to react. They were utterly shocked by my politeness.
Shopping has been the most positive part of reverse culture shock. I have gone from a size 10 to a size 4/6 without losing any weight! How, you ask? Because a size 4 in America is the equivalent to a size 10 or larger in Korea. I used to dread clothes shopping in Korea. Most department stores would only carry size XS-S. The only sizes I could fit into were “free size” flowy tops, dresses, and elastic waist pants. When I walked into Macy’s and accidentally grabbed a size 4 skirt and realized I fit into it, my self-esteem immediately shot up. (Not that size means anything), but when you drop down a few sizes without changing your body of course you’re going to feel better about yourself!
Grocery shopping has been both the easiest transition and the most overwhelming. Out of all the Asian countries I have been to, Korea is truly lacking in the grocery store department. They have a poor selection of foods to begin with and there is no variety. The cereal aisle alone is maybe 1/4 of the size of our cereal aisles here in the USA. Needless to say, I can navigate the grocery store here much better, but I feel blown away by the size and selection of things. The aisles are much larger, the stocking shelves are much higher, and there is so much variety. If I wanted to buy eggs in Korea I had maybe two kinds to choose from, but here there are “cage-free,” “organic,” “large,””jumbo,” etc. I honestly had a hard time buying eggs for the first time.
Going from City Life to Suburban Life
I definitely have mixed feelings about living back in suburbia. On a positive note, I will say that I appreciate the comforts of a home and a backyard after living in a box crammed in the middle of a concrete jungle. It’s nice to be able to walk down the street or through a mall and be totally alone instead of fighting through crowds just to go to the grocery store. I feel a lot less claustrophobic. However, there is a part of me that misses the convenience and hustle and bustle feel of the big city. Even when I lived alone in Seoul, I never felt alone because I was always surrounded by people. So many people that I often couldn’t wait to find solace in my small apartment. Whenever I needed something I could just walk a block or two down the street or take the subway two stops to the nearest department store. Now I have to get in my car and drive at least fifteen minutes to get something. On the plus side, I don’t have to watch what I buy at the grocery store because now I can throw everything in my car. I don’t miss carrying groceries up to my apartment.
Public transportation. That is something that my hometown lacks. Luckily I have a car so I won’t complain too much. I do miss the convenience of Seoul public transportation. That’s one thing the Koreans got right.
My social life has pretty much come to a standstill. In Seoul I was surrounded by friends and had places to go and people to see every night of the week if I wanted. Now I have no idea where the good hang-outs are and not only that. After two years out of the country, you wouldn’t believe how many of my friends are now married or have kids!
I think I’ve finally come to the point where I’ve stopped saying, “Well, in Korea….” (which must have annoyed many people especially my father). And I thought I kicked the urge to bow except for the other day when I awkwardly did a head nod/half bow to my principal (I don’t think she noticed though). The cycle of culture shock has been a wild ride and it’s hard for anyone to truly relate unless they’ve been there. All you need to know is that even after you leave the country you’ve traveled, the aftershocks will follow you home.