Advice for Expats
Dealing with Culture Shock"
My first experience with "culture shock" was in South
Korea. Since my life in Korea, culture shock has been less
shocking, because I had come to expect it. Let me first discuss my
culture shock in Korea. (Much of this is discussed in my blog
about my life in Korea).
Well, I guess my first shock was to realize that my preconceived
notions about Korea (and the Far East in general) were totally
wrong. Before I got on the plane, I had expected everyone to be
wearing the traditional clothing of Korea. Not so. Everyone
was dressed like me.
My second shock was to see tons of females walking hand in hand, very
affectionately, and tons of males walking arm in arm, almost too
affectionately for my culture. I honestly thought that I was in the
"gay" part of the country (for certainly the whole country
wasn't gay, because that wouldn't lead to the 45 million people). It wasn't until later that I realized that
friendly affections are publicly displayed in their culture (and that
homosexuality is actually very frowned upon, even to the point that some
people will deny its existence).
My third shock was at my job. My boss gave me no materials and
no instructions. He just said, "Go in and teach."
Sure, I was a licensed professional educator, and sure, I new the content well (as English
was my first language); But, come on! Right?!!!
My fourth shock was what is called the "Ddong Chim" which
means "Poop Push". Little kids in my classes would think
it funny to stick their fingers in my butt hole, while I was writing on
the board. If you want a shock, that'll do it. I literally
jumped up and almost hit the ceiling. I was furious. My
privacy had been invaded. But, over time, you learn that in
different cultures, people have different ideas about what is
private. For example, Koreans love to parade their newborn sons
nude, to show the world that they have succeeded in giving birth to a
son. Other people greet the son by grabbing his little penis and
shaking the penis in adoration. You get the picture, don't
you? Male children are prized more than female. You see no
photos of naked female infants. While you see photos of naked male
infants adorning the living room walls, even restaurants of the
Koreans. After giving birth to a male child, it is traditional to
hang a string of chili peppers outside the front door of the home, the
chili pepper being the obvious phallic symbol. So, my fifth shock
was that males are prized more than females. I did NOT like this
attitude, because I was judging it based upon my culture and my
upbringing. If you see it through the "eyes" of the
Korean culture, it doesn't seem so bad.
In Korean culture, if a couple has no male child, there is no what we
in the U.S. would call, "social security" or "pension
plan". You see, in the Korean culture, when the couple gets
to be senior citizens and can no longer work, it is the firstborn son
who takes care of them, and in return, inherits everything the couple
has. Female offspring marry into OTHER families and take care of
the husband's parents. She is literally taken off of her original
family register and put on the husband's family register. When,
you understand the culture, it is not so easy to judge harshly the
desire for male offspring, is it?
Speaking of male offspring, Can you imagine having pretty much the
same values and only being allowed to have one offspring? Yeah,
I'm talking about China. Does it make it right that millions of
female babies are aborted? Heck no! But, you can understand
the desperation that some couples feel to have a male offspring, when
their whole future is predicated upon it. Again, I'm not
saying that it is right. I think that China's leaders should have
anticipated the problem when they made the stupid law that one couple
could have only one offspring. In fact, I think that the law is
beyond stupid. I believe that the government has NO right to interfere in
the personal decisions of family life, such as how many children a
couple has. It is better to educate the people and distribute prophylactics.
I hate it when governments get involved in people's personal
lives. I hate it when governments try to legislate morality.
It is not the job of the government to legislate morality, except when
people hurt other people. As long as people do not hurt other
people, let them do their thing. Governments are supposed to
ensure the safety of the people, not micromanage their lives, and
instill their values upon the people.
Sorry. I did exactly what I warned we shouldn't do, didn't
I? I made a judgment. WELL, let me explain something.
I'm not judging the culture, I'm judging the government. I think
there is a difference. I judge all governments that think that
they have the right to micromanage the affairs of every human being
under their jurisdiction. That is NOT their function. If the
government in China would stay out of family matters, there wouldn't be
so many abortions. And if the government is so interested in
morality, then legislate no abortions, right? Why cherry-pick
which moralities you will enforce and which ones you will not?
What's up with that? [Be it known, I am equally critical of my own
government, which is partly why I am an expatriate]. I have a
solution to the abortion problem in China: Instead of paying for all those abortions, the
government should pay for invitro fertilization. YEAH! Why
didn't they think of that?!!!!!
So, let's get back to culture shock. Food is part of any
culture. And, we all experience "food shock" when we
visit foreign lands. It is fun for some to sample some of the
local cuisine, and mortifying for others. I'd say that if you want
to live in a foreign country, you've got to be ready to expect the WHOLE
package, which includes the food. At least try some of the local cuisine. If you are
a vegetarian, I wouldn't go to Korea. Every single dish is served
with meat or bullion of meat. I'd go to India, if I were
you. Japan has one dish with no meat: miso. But, are you
going to eat miso for every meal? I don't think so. Don't
get me wrong. It is
possible to live in a foreign country if you are a vegetarian, but it is
hard. [I know some people who've managed it.]
My first "food shock" was my second day in Korea. My
boss came over with a tub of kimchi that his wife had made, and some
cooked rice. He served it to me and sat there and watched me eat
it. I hated it. It was utterly disgusting, and smelled bad,
too. Yet, I ate every single bite and smiled while I did it.
After he left, I was faced with the problem: do I pour out the tub
of kimchi in the trash can and say that I ate it? Or do I trudge
through the whole tub, whether I like it or not? Well, I'm not the
kind of person who likes to waste food. So, over the course of the
next two weeks, I forced myself to eat all of the kimchi. By the
end of the two weeks, I was hooked, and I was begging for more. My
boss smiled and said that he'd give me one more tub, but after that, I'd
have to buy my own kimchi.
So, it is possible to overcome "food shock".
My second "food shock" was with dried squid. Koreans
seemed to love as it was sold all over the place. You could even
see the dried squid hanging on strings in the open-air markets.
They sold it on the roadsides for motorists. I was mortified.
It looked absolutely disgusting. In fact, I'd have put it on par
with the thought of eating bugs. One day, my boss bought a dried
squid and encouraged me to try some. I didn't want to be rude, so
I did. Much to my surprise, I loved it! I loved green eggs
and ham! I did! I loved them Sam I am!
Language is also part of any culture. My first "language
shock" was when I learned that Korean has three (sometimes four)
levels of speech. I was going around saying, "Anyeonghashimnigga?"
to all the children, until one day, one of the children told me that I
was wrong. I should say, "Anyeong" to little children,
because I'm older. "Oh!" I thought. The book
didn't teach me that! Yeah. Get used to it. My
experience with language books that try to teach foreigner how to speak
the local lingo are VERY lacking.
On the flipside, many foreigners learn to speak (not from books) and
they make the opposite mistake (which is worse in my opinion).
Because foreigners are often perceived (by some rude Koreans) to be
"outside" their hierarchy system, the rude Koreans will use
"low" language to the foreigners, and the foreigners learn the
low language. They naturally think that it is polite and start
using it anywhere and to whomever. I often cringe when I hear this
My second "language shock" was in learning that different
languages have different sounds that I had previously not been exposed
to. It was quite difficult to master those new sounds, but it was
so important, because the wrong sound can change the entire meaning of
the word. It takes time and effort, but it can be done. You
can master those new sounds.
STAGES of CULTURE SHOCK
There’s a book out, entitled: “The Five Stages of Culture Shock” by Paul Pedersen. I mention it, because Mr. Pedersen, deserves part of the credit for what I’m going to discuss today, namely the five stages of culture shock, and how I’ve passed through them all. As you read, you may be interested in identifying which stage you are
(1) Honeymoon Stage
The first stage of culture shock is called, the “Honeymoon Stage”. As the name implies, it is a wonderful time. The newcomer is enamored with the new culture. We enjoy shaking hands with people in Mongolia, when we accidentally bump each others’ feet. We think it is a cool custom. Most of us enjoy the titillating smells and tastes of our new abode. We find the vast, open landscape of Mongolia refreshing from the concrete jungles that we call home. The tourist attractions are enticing and it is fascinating to learn about the history and life-styles of the locals. Every country that I’ve been to has provided me with a honeymoon-like experience. Mongolia is no exception. When I first got here, I fell in love with the place. The people I met were so nice and accommodating. The housing was adequate, not like home, but adequate. The airport was small, but had all the usual conveniences. The food was good. The autumn air was cool and fresh, compared to other places I had been, like Seoul and Hanoi. But, then, reality set
(2) Disintegration Stage
The second stage of culture shock is the “Disintegration Stage.” This is when we begin to see the bad side of a culture, and we begin to
dis-integrate from the locals with whom we had previously been enamored. We step into a mud puddle in the middle of a side-walk, or rather where there is supposed to be a side-walk. We stumble over a rock or into a pot hole. We can’t find what we want in the local markets, and we can’t communicate; so, we can’t ask for directions to find what we want. We notice filthy fields, the broken bottles, the unconscious and unkempt bums lying on the street, the very little vagabonds vying for our money, and the menacing and potentially malignant un-covered manholes. While we are gawking in awe at the atrocities that surround us, we get robbed, usually by pick-pockets. And, please don’t even get me started on the traffic. This stage is accompanied by feelings of fear, anxiety, and caution. Taken to its extreme, expatriates will not wander far from their domicile and spend as little time as possible associating with the
(3) Reintegration Stage
The third stage of culture shock is called, “Reintegration Stage.” This is when we begin to make adjustments to our environment. We decide to walk around the puddles, despite the inconvenience. We feel anger and resentment to our host culture for making us take the extra five seconds to walk around a stinking puddle. We decide to be more vigilant and watch out for bums and un-covered manholes that may lie in our path. We curse, if not vocally, then under our breath for actually having to pay attention to where we are walking. We selfishly shoo away the little vagabonds that charge us double or triple the normal price for their wares. And we curse the culture that would allow little children to have to work for their supper. Heaven forbid! Then, we start to learn the language in order to meet our wants and we complain about it the whole
(4) Autonomy Stage
The fourth stage of culture shock is called, “Autonomy Stage.” This is when we begin to see and acknowledge that there is good and bad in all cultures, including our own. We therefore begin to accept puddles and pot holes as a good trade for a privately owned federal reserve bank that makes fiscal policy without any congressional oversight. We begin to accept un-covered manholes as a good trade for failing economy and rising unemployment. We begin to accept that entrepreneurship in young children is a good trade for increased crime.
(5) Interdependence Stage
The fifth and final stage of culture shock is called, “Interdependence Stage”. This is when we become fully bi-cultural. We become fully comfortable in both cultures, and able to function well in both. I don’t think I’m quite there yet. I won’t be until I learn the language. I’m working on it, though. I have achieved fully functional
bi-culturality in Korea. Having done it before, I’m confident I can do it again. I envy those who’ve already achieved this level of functionality in Mongolia. I know from experience that it takes a long time to learn a new language, but I’m impatient. During my stay in Korean, I didn’t really feel completely comfortable and fully functional until after having lived there for four years. That’s when I met my wife.
There is another aspect of culture shock, which isn’t a stage of culture shock, but rather a kind of culture shock. It is often referred to as “reverse culture shock”. Reverse culture shock is when one attempts to reintegrate into his/her original culture, and finds difficulty in doing so. I have experienced this kind of culture shock and it was perhaps the most shocking of all. After living in Korea for ten years, China for one, and Poland for one, I decided to go back to my original culture. Whoa! It was tough! Please allow to
There is a saying: “You can never home.” I understand that now. Koreans are hard to get to know, but once you get to know them, they are very faithful and loyal friends. In America, making friends is easy, but they may not be sincere. Some are what we call ‘fair-weather friends’. The concept of a fair-weather friend is foreign to Koreans. Once they let you into their circle, you become like family. Yes, I know that that can happen in America, too, but not as often. And, speaking of family, the whole concept of family is different. In Korea, parents take care of their children as long as necessary. They do not kick their children out of the proverbial nest until the children are completely self-sufficient. In turn, when the parents become elderly, the children take care of the parents. In America, parents are eager to push their children out of the nest; and when the parents get old, the children put their parents into a convalescent home. Koreans find such practices
When, my wife left me with an infant to care for, I wanted to move back in with my parents, or siblings. This was unacceptable. I was told to get a job, move into my own apartment, and put my infant son in the hands of strangers while I worked. To be fair, I was offered financial support, but that’s not what I wanted. I wanted to have familial support. Was I too
Koreanised? Perhaps so. Perhaps, had I never left my own culture, I never would have asked to be taken in when my wife left. Perhaps I would have been too proud to go back and live with mom and
I’m still quite new here in Mongolia, and I don’t know Mongolian culture all that well, but I suspect that the Mongolians look upon family and friendship much the same way as the Koreans. Only time will tell.
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