Friday, January 21, 2011

Korea On Its Own Terms

You'd think I'd be familiar with culture shock by now, having lived overseas before. And I am. I'm familiar enough with that unwelcome house guest to know when it's moved in, but not familiar enough to know how to entice it to leave. But leave it will, and did, so now I can look at the mess it left behind and see what it all means.

I'm declaring myself free of Korean culture shock. For now. If I remember correctly from my year in Japan, culture shock has a nasty habit of dropping by unannounced just when you think you've gotten rid of it for good. Well, next time I'll be prepared.

So what have I learned? I have learned that I have to take Korea on its own terms. Generally when people experience culture shock they're fighting against the fact that their new host country is not like home. But for me, I was upset that Korea was not like Japan. I had adapted to Japan. I knew what to say when, what the cultural peculiarities were, and what the worse days to travel were. Now I was in a new country that looked a lot like Japan (and by rights should have been Japan, if JET had not forsaken me) but everything I knew was wrong. Speaking Japanese here was not only incorrect, it was likely to get me lynched.

Korea and Japan are similar, to an extent. Both have borrowed a lot from their neighbor, China, including bits of culture and elements of the language. Both are also hierarchical societies that stress seniority and deference to authority rather than individual will, and both have strong undercurrents of Confucianism running through them. The Japanese language is even considered to be an offshoot of Korean. But you would never confuse the two countries, just as you would never confuse France and Spain, or Germany and America, even though they share many similarities, both culturally and linguistically.

So I have come to learn. But not only have I learned it, I have accepted it, and doing this, embraced it. I don't want Korea to be Japan any more. I want Korea to be Korea, in all its messy, noisy glory. I am enjoying Korea for what it is. I am enjoying learning the language as well, which is close enough to Japanese that it's not a bear to learn but different enough that it's an ongoing, enjoyable challenge.

I look forward to what Korea has to show me next.

No comments:

Post a Comment