Combatting Culture Shocks and Loneliness

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Arts + Sciences

Authored By:

Liana Young

   Coming to South Korea for a study abroad experience with CIEE is undoubtedly one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life. I don’t regret it for a second. That said, especially in my first few weeks here, I was incredibly overwhelmed. Suppose you’re like me and must transition from the countryside to a city. In that case, you have to transition to a new country and language and an entirely new way of living. Trying to use the subway for the first time was humbling, to say the least, and it gave me a sharp reminder that everything, even down to how I navigate life as an adult, has changed. And to my complete and utter shock, that realization was terrifying. It took weeks for me to venture out and expand my horizons, and it took even longer to finally get used to life in a foreign city. While I don’t have regrets, I sometimes wish that there were things I had realized sooner or started implementing to make the transition from my life in America to my life in Korea just a bit easier. This brings me here to give advice to future generations of CIEE. 
    First of all, prepare to be humbled. I took Korean for two years before coming to Korea, had Korean friends with whom I had had extensive conversations about the Korean language and culture, and friends in Korea that I knew would have my back if I ever needed them. Upon touching down at Incheon Airport, I thought I would be fine in daily life. I was severely incorrect. Anytime someone spoke to me, I would freeze, trying to desperately remember what I had learned in my Korean classes, to no avail. When I took the placement test for Intermediate Korean at the Korean Language Institute at Yonsei, I tested into Level 1. I felt humiliated after two years of language classes and an in-depth knowledge of the best language learning practices. Like a mistake had been made. Well, future me is here to say there were no mistakes. These pills were tough to swallow, for sure. Still, after a round of feeling sorry for myself, I realized I had let my ego get in the way of my progress. If I wanted to improve in the language and adjust well to the culture, I would have to overcome and persevere. Which brings me to my second point. 
    Don’t get caught up in culture shocks; never forget you are a guest in the country. The famous saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” literally could not be more accurate. There’s so much that is different between the cultures of Korea and America. Example A: you get scolded by a waitress for taking too long to eat at a restaurant, and you’re frustrated because, as a patron, you expect to be able to eat and spend time with your friends since you’re paying for the meal. In Korea, that is mostly incorrect. People go to restaurants to eat and be with friends and co-workers. However, unlike in America, not every restaurant is meant to sit for an hour. The cultural norm in Korea (generally that I’ve seen, keep in mind I am still learning every day) is to eat quickly, then go to a cafe to talk. Neither the sit-down-for-an-hour culture in America nor the hurry-up-and-eat culture in Korea is wrong. They’re just different, and you have to be willing to understand and adjust to the new cultural norms and foster a mindset where you eagerly anticipate them and seek to implement them during your time here. It’s certainly okay to make mistakes, but don’t get so caught up in your perceived norms that you forget that, as a guest, you must respect the differences and act accordingly.
    Now that culture no longer seems like a real word, let’s move on to my last point. Do not be intimidated by the people in your classes. I especially struggle with this because I am intimidated by people in general. You may notice that the Korean students don’t interact with you unless otherwise prompted. In my experience, most of your classmates are quite kind and willing to be your friend, but they’re intimidated by you! Presumably, most, if not all, of your classes as an exchange student will be taught in English, which means that, hypothetically speaking, all of your classmates should be able to converse with you. But English is so hard! Not to be a linguistic nerd, but English is a Category 5 language for Korean, Japanese, and Chinese speakers. AKA, it takes over 2200 hours to learn, and that’s with dedicated practice and use. Plus, native English speakers don’t necessarily have the best reputation for encouraging ESL learners. Test the waters with the people in your classes because if you don’t, then in my experience, you’re going to feel left out. But also, don’t forget that even if you cannot get close to your classmates, your CIEE community is always willing to cheer you on and be in solidarity with you as you embark on your study abroad adventure.