[Disclaimer: Even though I only spent six weeks in South Korea, I learned a great deal and spent every day with several native Koreans, so I know a little something, but … I’m not a cultural expert, so all the things below are just musings by me. Take them seriously, don’t take them seriously, it doesn’t really matter because they’re just my opinions, right? :)]
After spending weeks immersed in South Korean culture, the mere acts of getting onto the returning plane and taking notice of my seat neighbors were startling in themselves. A few college students were sitting behind us, next to us, and just hearing them speak made me feel more alone than ever. Spending the last six weeks speaking as simply as I could and adapting to a new form of humor, hearing Americans speak in “American” triggered the first feelings I had of reverse culture shock.
Flying over the United States, I immediately felt a pang of sadness. Everything was so different, yet so unusually familiar. I think it was then that I finally confirmed to myself that yes, a part of my soul was left in Korea. I think that’s how it is though, with travelers & with traveling.
It’s now been almost two weeks since I returned, and everything has finally been settling in, both physically and mentally. At first, I was sleeping at 5PM and waking up at 3AM, but that problem has now been resolved. I was also accidentally using Korean in my daily life, but after a little discipline, I am now again a full functioning English speaker. Last week, I was furiously and actively going through old photos and videos, messaging friends from the other side of the world like no other, and constantly reminiscing, but that raging river has now been reduced to a steady trickle.
Anyhow, there are a few differences that I would like to address, and because I’d like to take a break from trying to write well in the English language here’s a list:
1. One of the first things I noticed was how comfortably, or can I say carelessly (?) most/some Americans dress. In Korea, a regular t-shirt and shorts kind of outfit were rarely seen in public, everyone was always dressed impeccably well. Crazy patterns and outlandish clothing combinations were also rare, subtlety is chosen. Clothes are worn simply, conservatively, and colors such as black, white, and blue were the most popular colors. This all could be lead to the hypothesis that Koreans care a great deal about appearance and connecting that to the fact that they are first in the world in the field of plastic surgery. Or maybe Americans just live more comfortably. However you wish to see it. I really appreciated everyone being so well dressed though (and such beautiful hair!!), every day was like walking through a fashion magazine. And I especially appreciated all the men being cleaned up and having such good taste, ah~ it really was a different world.
2. Many Korean strangers I interacted with, whether it be in a restaurant or convenience store, spoke softly and gently, repeating things graciously whenever they needed to be repeated, gesturing gracefully, nodding and smiling. Koreans are very good to their foreigners. It makes me a little sad that a lot of America (more than I would like) aren’t welcoming to foreigners, especially those that struggle with English. A Korean friend told us once that while interning in America, she was treated very badly and found the experience horrible. This is delving into more a more political side, but racism is such a cruel thing.
3. I quite liked the fact that Korea is land-limited, which forces them to build up instead of out. I think it makes everything seem cozier and so much closer. Coffee shops and restaurants are often squished into a small room which sometimes makes it hard to find seats, but don’t worry, there are ten more on the same block, just a couple steps away! And most restaurants are unique, chains are often only the coffee and chicken kind. Coming back to the States where chains are everywhere, fast food is everywhere, businesses so far away from each other, it’s a little different.
4. I obviously, surrounded by other Asians, felt racially at home, but my African American friend interestingly pointed out that she actually felt less singled out in Korea than back home in the States.
5. I am really thankful that I was able to make Korean friends during my stay, because through them, I learned so much about their social culture. Basically, if you’re older, you should take care of everyone else in your group that is younger than you, especially so if you’re a male. Putting it into words like this feels like I’m making it less genuine, but really, the oppa/hyung/noona/unni/dongsaeng relationship is such a genuine one (if you’re a male, you call an older male ‘hyung’ and an older female ‘noona’ … if you’re a female, you call an older male ‘oppa’ and an older female ‘unni’ … both females and males are referred to as ‘dongsaeng’ by older females and males … all of this only applying if you’re friends, close to the other person, or family).
In the friendships that I have had with Koreans, I noticed that they always put me first and themselves second. It’s not outwardly noticeable nor do they put a spotlight on it, but it’s all in the little things like gently leading me closer to the curb when cars are approaching, always paying attention to what I say, asking for my opinions on things, stuff like that. If I could sum it up, they really just take care of you. It all really goes a long way and greatly differs from the independent American social culture, something from Korea that I miss.
This study abroad experience has brought me through a whirlwind of emotions, and with those, I’ve grown. I have expanded my horizons, and goodness, I am not going to end this on a inspirational note because I’ve actually been doing that for the past couple of study abroad reflections I had to write, so .. just go study abroad and experience the world outside your own. Till then!