Studying abroad: questioning norms and accepting others

Written by Muleskinner Staff

Story by LEAH WANKUM, for The Muleskinner—
2043When I first got to Korea, I didn’t think I’d get culture shock.
After I lived with my roommate Hyunjung for 10 months, I had already experienced culture shock multiple times right in my own country.
The chopsticks, the kimchi, the bowing and the language barrier, just to name a few.
When I spent time with Hyunjung and our other Korean friends at UCM, I missed out on hours of conversations that I couldn’t understand.
Because of Hyunjung, I’d already opened my mind, and she shared her knowledge about all things Korea: clothing, music culture, traditions and modern norms, North Korea, honorifics, table etiquette, appropriate behavior, and of course, she taught me how to use chopsticks.
I felt prepared for the most part when I first arrived in Korea.
Take, for example, Korean etiquette during a typical meal like Korean barbecue.
While having Korean barbecue with five other friends, each person has their own bowl of rice, and then there are bowls for two different dipping sauces, at least four different side dishes, a water jug, a bowl of stew and a steamed egg dish that are shared with the group, and a plate for the raw meat, which we prepare ourselves on the grill in the center of the table.
It is crowded, messy and chaotic, and people reach across the table, often shouldering me in the face, on their way to the side dish on the opposite side. There is no, “Please pass this,” or “Can I have that?”
At first, it annoyed me, but then I suppose I got used to it. There is grab-and-go, and you better hop to it or you’ll starve, and the bill is usually split evenly.
Second, people often stared at me like they’d never seen a white person before. Perhaps they haven’t, but naturally, they made me feel uncomfortable.
This became a constant reminder that, no matter how hard I try to assimilate, I will always be a foreigner because I just don’t look the same.
Also, many Koreans told me I look so beautiful, because my nose is “tall” and my skin is “pink.” Awkward…
Third, while entering or exiting the subway and buses, older Korean women would literally shove me aside to get through. In Missouri, we have wide open spaces and little need for pushing.
I see them as aggressive. They see me as passive and uninterested in getting down to business, so to speak. I learned to push back, and I never felt bad.
Fourth, on a more serious note, I often saw war veterans with no arms or legs lying on the street with tin cans and music players blaring Korean children’s music.
Because they lay right in the middle of the sidewalk, and the streets were so crowded, that twice I almost stepped on one of them.
I also saw men wearing black sunglasses and playing harmonicas, walking from car to car in the subway and holding a collecting tin.
The images stuck with me, and when I asked for explanations, why nobody was helping them, my friends told me that most Koreans think these are scams for money.
They said the “blind” beggars probably weren’t blind, and that the money donated would end up in the hands of a scammer anyway.
Fifth, eye contact, or lack thereof, is vital to Korean etiquette.
In America, eye contact initiates conversation and ought to be maintained throughout dialogue, as it elicits feelings of mutual trust and understanding.
In Korea, eye contact initiates conversation, and the younger person must constantly look around, first at the eyes of the older person and then away to show respect.
American culture stresses eye contact in conversation. This is one habit I haven’t been able to shake, even when I spoke with older Koreans, nor do I wish to, as eye contact is an asset more often than not.
Finally, bowing is a vital and distinct part of Korean culture.
Bowing is the way of greeting. Between two people, the younger person should bow deeply, while the older needs only to nod his head.
Two people about the same age bow equally to each other.
Because of Western influence, businesspersons often exchange bows and shake hands simultaneously, but always with the younger person or the one with a lower status bowing more deeply.
Even though I knew about the custom before arriving, it took awhile for me to become accustomed to bowing.
Soon after arriving, however, bowing became more natural to me than shaking hands.
For instance, one day in late October I met a white woman who looked to be in her 50s. When she greeted me with a big, “Hello!” I responded by bowing and mumbling, “Annyonghaseyo,” the Korean greeting of hello. She gave me the strangest look and walked away.
It was about that time that I started checking myself, reminding myself of who I am, where I come from. I thought about what my own expectations as an American are, and how I should fulfill them, which leads me to my final point—reverse culture shock.
I certainly didn’t think I’d get reverse culture shock and I thought that when I came home, everything would be pretty much the same as when I left.
When I flew home to spend Christmas break with family and friends, I experienced minor reverse culture shock (“Where are my chopsticks!”). I bowed when I greeted the older people in my church, and my friends and family said I spoke differently, using small vocabulary, and I made mistakes I usually wouldn’t. Habit, even just a few months long, is forceful indeed.
All in all, Korea has been a life-changing experience. I’ve been pushed to question my norms, and accept others.
Being part of the globalizing world is invigorating, frustrating and inspiring, but four months just wasn’t enough.
This is why I chose to extend. Now that I’ve mastered the basics and have found my footing, I’m ready to start Korea Round Two. See you in August!