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A comment on my last post, 93 hours and 13 minutes to China . . . yes, I’m counting!, has kind of sparked me up a bit to write about why I feel like I’ve got ‘cultural exhaustion’ due to my experiences in Korea.

The comment begs the question, “What does it take to adapt, survive, and thrive in Korea as a long term expat?”  I think it requires several things . . .

One thing it requires is a desire to plug into the Katrix.  Expats who don’t plug themselves into the Katrix don’t last past the one or two year mark.

But some ways of plugging into the Katrix are . . . well, this illustrates what I want to say.

Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?
[Takes a bite of steak]
Cypher: Ignorance is bliss.

If you don’t put on blinders and turn a blind eye to many of the things going on around you, I believe that as an expat you cannot maintain any semblance of sanity, or integrity of self, over the long term.  Yet you also have to let the Katrix alter your senses, your notions of gravity and time . . . pretty much everything about your reality has to be subjugated to the Katrix.

If you don’t learn to alter your perceptions of ‘good and bad’ and other dichotomies like ‘professional and unprofessional’ you simply cannot engender enough bliss to stay over the long term.

I’ve tried to plug myself into the Katrix but all I often get is a bad case of kognitive dissonance because a lot of the time I just can’t turn off the part of my brain that says “this is WRONG” when it comes to too many of the things I’ve seen in Korea.

Sometimes the blinders are actually part of the ‘uniform’ one must put on for the job.  For example, ignoring the fact that ‘nobody fails’ in teacher training programs, and not complaining about that to the administration and attempting to have ethical and professional ESL/EFL testing introduced into these programs.

All too often the blinders are not willingly put on but are forced on teachers because to speak up is to risk one’s existence in the Katrix–your plug will be pulled, and you’ll disappear forever (as in, “you’re fired”).

While some expats focus on becoming fluent in ‘Hangul’ as the best manner in which to survive and thrive within the Katrix, others look deeper into the code and attempt to work with it, manipulate it, and achieve the ability to dodge the bullets that fly when they say ‘no’ to a senior, or rather, an agent.  It is not enough to learn the language and culture, and then simply follow the conventions blindly.  One must learn to be an actor and not just a mindless puppet.  Saying “no,” however, can be fatal . . .

In fact, some expats learn how to read the code and manipulate it to the point where they can create enough status that they can stand and face an agent.

Expats who argue other expats that are critical of Korean culture ‘don’t understand Korea’ and haven’t adjusted properly to Korean culture essentially become ‘Agent Kims’ of the Katrix (most of the time anyways).

The motivations of expats who become Korean culture apologists and defenders of the Katrix need to be considered.  They have a vital interest in producing and reproducing a Katrix in which they can live and work.  They have a vital interest in maintaining the power dynamics of this Katrix because it gives them status and power that they would not have in their home countries.  When an expat threatens the status quo which they have embedded themselves within, or plugged themselves into, they then begin to fire ‘you don’t understand Korean culture’ rounds at those that threaten to create ruptures in the Katrix.

Imagine what would happen if all the native English instructors teaching at national universities of education and other places that train teachers were to blow the whistle on the day to day administrative and education practices they see going on, but do not speak out about because it would result in them being flushed out of the Katrix like they were nothing more than the waste product nobody wants to see or smell.  The ‘taint’ of truth contaminates anyone who speaks out . . .

Imagine what would happen if native English teachers organized protests about the still commonly practiced corporal punishment that is ILLEGAL in schools and hogwans . . .

But the odds are stacked against any of this ever happening.  The Katrix is a well-oiled machine, and native speakers cannot stand against the Agent Kims of schools/universities/hogwans and especially the agents of the immigration and justice variety.

I think some expats who are plugged into the Katrix are a kind of agent that has yet to be clearly seen because they maintain a high degree of tact and diplomacy all the while working within the system to try and slowly bring about an invisible revolution in the systems of the Katrix.  But they know that to speak out publicly and act in a visible manner immediately triggers attacks from the Katrix itself, and so they stay quiet and work towards their silent goals all the while appearing to be harmless.

Other expats have personalities that simply deal with the stresses of the Katrix better than others.  They don’t put on the blinders and plug into the Katrix bliss dream, and they do see what is going on around them clearly and know when something is simply wrong, and not something that they need to accept . . . it’s a ‘paradoxical truth’ for them in which they strongly dislike something about the Katrix and yet at the same time can coexist with it while not approving of it.

. . . .

Anyways, I think the point I’m trying to make is that I’ve never been able to completely plug into the Katrix because of my personality, and my philosophy of life and teaching.

The way I see the world, in particular the Katrix, is what makes me unique, and has enabled me to help improve different aspects of ESL/EFL education in the places I’ve worked.

At the end of my time in Korea I know I am leaving behind a small legacy that will continue to produce positive ripples and ruptures in the Katrix.


Scribblings of the Metropolitician articulates a lot of what I’m trying to say in a much more clear manner.  What I’ve experienced during my time here PALES in comparison.  I strongly encourage you to read his two posts.

Why You Should Always Do the Right Thing, or Why You Shouldn’t Fuck the Bears

Excerpt, “But on a few things, I won’t budge. To some people, me criticizing the mental (and formerly, physical) violence of the school system, or the ubiquitousness of prostitution, turning a blind eye to obvious and clear human rights abuses in the North, or the fact of the massive corruption that continues to eat away at Korea’s own values of equality of opportunity — makes me some kind of cultural imperialist. To me, these are either people who just don’t like me and will attack me anyway, or they assume that I haven’t thought about the fact that these values are shared by many Koreans themselves. The “right thing to do” is often clear and obvious, actually — the only thing that makes certain issues huge contestations is the fact that on one side stand people who want to do what everyone agrees is the right thing, and on the other side stand those who simply stand to use their power to exploit others.

To return to my question — what does living in an environment that forces you to make huge moral concessions do to a person — this society has huge moral and social problems that one either accepts or fights against. . . .” (my bold).

Also, “For all those who sit on the sidelines, criticize those who criticize Korean society — you all have the luxury of truly being outsiders. This is obviously the case. Because my social criticisms aren’t rooted in some abstract, America-based objection to the way things are in Korea because of the ways I think they should be in my own country — I’m not that fucking stupid. But I’ve been here long enough to see bright-eyed, eager children chewed up by the system and become the sad and cynical teachers who abused them; I’ve seen kids beaten within an inch of their lives and known of one who was literally murdered by the teachers who are supposed to love and nurture them; I’ve been forced to sit and accept a policy that would make me an accomplice in such huge corruption that I could scarcely feign moral innocence, even if I didn’t stand to get any of the money; when you’re deep enough within the system, you don’t have the luxury of choosing whether or not to take a position, or to be on one side of the fence or the other. You’re already there, and you make the choice whether you sit on your ass or standing up for what you believe in. For those who think it’s wrong to do anything, you’re deluding yourselves” (my bold).

More on the Fucking of Bears, or Do the Right Thing II

“The entire point of that post wasn’t really to talk about whistleblowers and grand solutions to corruption; more to the point, it was about the moral/ethical slides one has to make in order to live deeply within a foreign society for an extensive amount of time.

In order to adapt somewhere, one needs to make concessions, to make compromises. I do it all the time, I have for a long time. But you also learn which of those many things one cannot change, nor can be found acceptable” (my bold).

This is another post I started months ago and am finally getting around to publishing.

Here’s a wide range of videos describing the different kinds of apartments a native English teacher can find themselves living in when they come to teach English in South Korea.

hogwan apartment IN THE hogwan building

And now for the most luxurious apartment I’ve ever seen a native teacher get in South Korea (again, newbies, you will NOT get this kind of apartment so do NOT expect it! LOL!)

Also check out my post,

The Kimchi Icecream Guide for New EFL/ESL Foreign English Teachers/Instructors in South Korea, 2010 Edition – Public Schools, Hogwans, Universities, and Training Center/Institutes


A while ago, actually, like MONTHS ago, I was thinking about culture shock and writing and ruminating on my own “culture exhaustion” (a term I created (I didn’t see it being used anywhere on Google searches about ‘culture shock’ and ‘culture fatigue’) and wrote about in this post, How do you know when it’s time to leave Korea? — Julianne and Jason are going to China, WOO!) and while surfing the Net I ended up on youtube watching all these videos made by newbie native English teachers about culture shock issues.

There’s really not a lot to say as the videos do a great job of showing a wide range of issues, and a wide range of conditions . . .

Oh, NEWBIE TEACHERS! Don’t think that what you see is what you’ll get in these videos!  It’s a lottery–literally–and you might get a palatial apartment, and you might get an insect-infested-shoe-box-apartment . . . okay, that’s extreme but there is a HUGE range of conditions that you may or may not find yourself in–just come prepared to adapt to what you find yourself in.

Oh, and I’ll post a video I saw about a month or two ago of the absolutely unbelievable apartment two native teachers got that is by far the nicest and biggest and LUXURIOUS apartment I’ve ever heard of a native teacher getting in South Korea.

The Korean Shower (typical size and quality)

Culture Shock: The Telephone

Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern / Bizarre Foods – Live Soup In South Korea

My first day in Korea…horrible night before

Korea (and some Tokyo) 1/3 – Travelling Underground

Korea (and some Tokyo) 2/3 – Culture Shock

Episode 13: Fat in Korea

And now for the most luxurious apartment I’ve ever seen a native teacher get in South Korea (again, newbies, you will NOT get this kind of apartment so do NOT expect it! LOL!)

Oh yeah, I forgot that I put a list of culture shock items at the end of this post.  I might revisit them in a later post and write more about each–but I think it’s pretty clear what each item is and what it’s about.


When looking for a business think VERTICALLY.   Land and space are very expensive in Korea, so Koreans build vertically whereas most North Americans are used to horizontal landscapes.

School lunches . . . rice, soup, kimchi, something spicy, something spicy, and something spicy.

Collective responses from entire classes in 100% sync.

Scooters/mopeds/motorcycles on sidewalks.

Pedestrians do not have the right of way.

Bumping into people and not saying you’re sorry.

Public drunkeness.

Being openly stared at for long periods of time.

‘Squatters’ aka toilets in the floor.

Toilet paper as napkins.

Personal space is defined in an entirely different way, with an entirely different set of rules.

‘Everybody’ orders the same thing in a restaurant.

‘Everybody’ shares food with each other using their personal utensils.

Group culture and collective thinking.

Taking off your shoes when entering someone’s apartment.

Taking off your shoes to eat in a restaurant.

Sitting on the floor on a mat in a restaurant.

Smoking culture.

Drinking culture.

Same gender touching.

Not being able to say no to elders and superiors.

Bowing culture.

Invasion of privacy and personal info.

Typical size of living space is radically smaller than western culture, and the organization of space by function is very different too.

Appearance is everything.  Form over function every time.

Health care and treatment–getting your blood pressure and your blood taken in front of a group of waiting Koreans.

Work time and personal time do not have clear boundaries.

Korea is still primarily a cash culture–many places do not accept credit and debit cards.

Korean Internet and websites use Internet Explorer ONLY.

Violence in everyday interactions.

Violence in the schools (i.e. corporal punishment–you WILL see this on a daily basis).

Mountainous landscape over the entire country.

General Korean food culture.

Treatment of dogs.

Volume and proximity in public spaces.

Computer game culture and Internet Cafes.

Chinese Yellow Dust

Rainy season and humidity

Customer (lack of) service

Shopping and getting deals in the markets–not the same as other countries’ market cultures

Digital narcissim

Mirrors are everywhere

Public self-checking and preening

Portrait pictures MUST be taken with one of a limited number of fixed poses

Openly racist reactions to inter-racial couples

Antipathy towards Japan and America

Upon arrival and settling into apartment (sometimes/a lot of the time) not having access to: Internet, phone, cell phone, cable TV, washing machine, and other basic necessities.

NO DRYERS to dry clothes with.

Population density is very dense.

City design is pretty much haphazard, and can be difficult to navigate (though English signs are now fairly common).

Lack of easy access to things like deodorant, specific brand names of toiletries/shampoos….

Gender and fashion colors–PINK is not ‘gay.’

Touching when talking between same genders…

Rock, Paper, Scissors–decides everything.

Communal dishes–everyone’s chopsticks and spoons can and will go in the same dish, pot, whatever.

Slurping food and talking with your mouth full–somewhat common and not seen as rude but rather as a sign of enjoyment and that the food is delicious.

Radical nationalism in every day conversation.  Dokdo, American beef, and H1N1.

“You need to lose your weight.”  Telling foreigners they’re fat and need to lose weight is a common thing.

Shopping for clothes and shoes. If you’re bigger than an SMALLISH XL men’s, or size 10 shoes, good luck.  If you’re bigger than a woman’s medium or SMALLISH 8-10, or size 7 shoes, good luck.  GO TO ITAEWON.

The vast majority of Korean apartments do NOT have stoves with OVENS, usually they have a gas range.

The vast majority of Korean apartments do NOT have bath tubs.

Expect and assume other Koreans will look through your garbage and recycling when you put them in the bins.

Expect Koreans to openly and closely examine everything you have in your shopping cart all the while completely ignoring you.

If a Korean knocks it means they can come into your apartment–even without hearing you say come in or respond in any way.  LOCK YOUR DOOR AT ALL TIMES!

An unlocked door is an open invitation to enter your apartment.  (Female teachers need to beware of this!)

Every electronic thing in your apartment will be in Korean language.  The washing machine and water heater thermostat…


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