Culture Shock

Some time ago I read a little dumbed-down pop-anthropology.    Mostly what this made me realise is that you really need to study a subject before understanding it and that some things just don't lend themselves well to the "Idiot's Guide To..." approach to complex concepts.    One of the little nuggets I do remember gleaming from it though was an interesting way to categorise societies, based on three or four different criteria, and possible orientations of a society towards each of them.    This was called the Kluckholm Model, and it divided societies according to their views on the Nature of Good and Evil, the importance of Activity, the role of Social Relationships, and the focus on Time etc.    I realise now that I should have taken better notes, but it went a little something like this -
Human Nature Basically Good Neutral / Mixed Basically Evil
Time Sense Tradition Bound Situational Goal Orientated
Activity Being Being and Becoming       Doing
Social Relationships    Here it gets a little complicated, and I don't exactly remember the details...

However I do remember that the Social Relationships section was full of helpful little teasers, like the following:

Which of the following statements do you agree with most
  1. There are leaders and there are followers.
  2. If I hae a serious problem, I like to get the advise of family or close friends to help solve it.
  3. All people should have equal rights and complete control over their own destinies.
Now that's fine and all, but what should you do if you agree with all the above statements, more or less equally?

Still, the little bit of Anthropology I did read was thought-provoking, as well as confusing.    For example, if you ask yourself, "What's a successful life?", I think that we in the West would almost certainly think of success in terms of what you have done, rather than how you have been or felt.    So that pops me into the "Goal Orientated" orientation on the "Time Sense" question in the table above.

So what?    Well, I was reading all of this just before I came to Korea, and I was wondering about the causes and effects of Culture Shock.    Here I was coming from a goal-orientated society into what I assumed to be a tradition-bound one.    If you've got a problem, it's not what you can do to make things better, but how you can be to improve your situation.    Interesting thought.    Just how much of a difference would attitudes like that make to my daily life though?    And what was this culture shock thing anyway?

Apparently, according to the one book I read, the skills you need to avoid the worst of culture shock include:

  • A Tolerance for Ambiguity.
  • A low Goal / Task Orientation.
  • An Ability to Fail
There were some other "skills" that I'd rate myself a little better on, but on these three?    I thought I was going to frustrated pretty quickly in Korea, if that was the measure of how to settle into another society.

However, I don't think it happened exactly like that for me.    There's supposed to be an initial euphoria at being in another enviroment where everything new and wonderous seems either quaint or magical or full of mystery in some ineffable way.    For me though, I was dumped straight off a chain of not-great flights and into the hell of work.    Jetlag and Korean kids, it's not a formula for euphoria. :-)

On the other hand, one of the things that is predicted as a common reaction to another culture is some initial confusion, before you find your feet.    Surprisingly though, you find your feet and carry on happily for three months or so, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, your mood just plummets.    This happened to me about a month ago.    There'd been a lot of little things that annoyed me about Korea.    I'd pushed them aside and hadn't worried about it too much, but suddenly someone jostled me in the elevator, or a Korean man made a disgusting spitting noise in a restaurant and it was just the straw that broke the camel's back.    Fortunately, this feeling of revulsion with the society you're in is also pretty fleeting.    Initially you found your feet, but at this stage you get to really plant them and feel like you're finally settled in.    That's where I think I am now.    I like to know what I'm doing and where I'm going and understand how I'm feeling, and there are little things about Korea that just continually surprise me.    Things that you totally take for granted at home but you'd never suspect could be different elsewhere.    Actually, that's not it exactly, it's more that you wouldn't even think that they might be different.    It'd never cross your mind.

It's the little differences:

  • In Korea, a pear isn't pear shaped.    It's shaped like a large apple.    In fact, it's not a pear, despite what the phrasebook might say.    Yet everyone here calls these things pears, so now I do too.
  • Oranges.    Oranges are still oranges, but one day I was eating one in class, and the kids were staring.    I peel an orange by making an insertion somewhere about half-way down, and peeling more-or-less in a spiral.    In Korea, you make an insertion near the top or bottom, and then remove the skin in segments, vertically.    This has the advantage that your hand never touches the orange.    Nice.
  • Bananas.    I open a banana from the top.    That is to say, the end nearest the tree.    They open them from the other end.    Surely of the two possible ways to open them, it's just easier from the top?
  • You beckon someone to come over to you by extending your hand, palm down, rather than palm up as we would.    Our way of doing it is an insult to humans, and is only used here for animals.
  • Fractions.    We see 3/4 and say something like, "three over four", whereas Koreans say, you guessed it, "four under three".    Neither is right , but it's still one of the things you just have to deal with.
  • Kids, and adults, regularly put their index fingers together, and sneaking up behind their friends, crouch down and shove their fingers up the unsuspecting victim's bottom.    This hilarious little jape is known locally as the "dung rocket".    Ha, ha, very funny, but at home it'd be regarded with more than a little disgust.

Some of the other things are not so little.    For example, Korean guys are very tactile with each other.    They regularly hold hands or link arms on the street.    More than that, on an overcrowded bus I saw three guys sitting down in the aisle.    The guy furthest back sits down, his friend sits on his lap, and the last guy lies down using his friend's crotch as a pillow.    Very Nice.

It gets worse though.    (or of course, not worse, just ... more intense)    Korean guys regularly sleep in the same bed together.    We might do that too, but only at need, and even then it'd be well known that the guys involved are in danger of falling out from the edges of the bed to which they're clinging. (the pillow of course would be vertically down the middle formingly a decently protective barrier).    "Worse" again though, they sleep in the same bed and embrace.    "Worse" again, they often pretend to have sex.

A Korean guy asked me if that happened in my country a lot.    Hmmm... no, no, maybe not a lot .    I was thinking of going camping with this guy and his buddies, now I'm not so sure, but at least if I do go I'll know what to expect.

Culture shock?    Yes, most certainly.    I can accept the upside down fractions, and I can even see that there's no harm in the pretend-sex the guys engage in, but can I ever accept that you peel the banana from the other end?    Could I ever join in the midnight madness that men here have fun with?    I try to be open-minded.    I try to be flexible, to accept other cultures and to take it all in good humour, but I just wont't do that.

So what does this tell me?    Well, some of the ex-pats here get really frustrated and downright angry when they are jostled on the street, or shoved aside whilst queueing.    There's not the same concept of forming an orderly line here.    Nor is there the same ability to have so much personal space.    I don't know if there is personal space here, but if there is it's a lot smaller.    This annoys the hell out of several of my co-teachers, who think it's terribly rude.    For me though it's fine.    I guess I got used to being jostled about in other places with the same ethos before coming to Korea, and now I just think of it as normal.    Indeed, it's probably even better - at home when you accidently bump into someone, both people go through a meaningless ritual of false politeness.    Here you can dispense with that.    There are a lot of people all the time, and you get knocked about.    Get used to it.

That's the point though.    I am used to that, but there are so many other things I just can't accept as normal, or right, or equal.    Men being physically affectionate with each other, for example.    I might understand Korea just a little bit, and I try as hard as I can to accept Korean views and attitudes, but something in me holds back.    I can inform myself.    I can understand a little.    But I just can't accept it.    That's Culture Shock.


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