Opportunities for personal development and growth don’t tend to fall out of the sky and into our laps. There’s a little cosy place of restrictive refuge that exists which hinders all our potential for progression and development- we all know it as our comfort zone.
I’m going to recount the days which followed shortly after landing on South Korean soil. I will describe my own initial experience of culture shock, some of the people who helped me through it, and what I’ve learned as a result of emerging safely on the other side.
I arrived in South Korea in June 2013, full of excitement for my new adventure. Looking back, I was more than a little naïve in that I did very little research other than what some friends had told me. I also had no idea where exactly I was going to be living or working, even though I had a job and an apartment set up prior to arrival.
I think it’s just in my nature to go head first into things without much planning or organising; it’s how I like to operate generally. I tend to go with the flow and just see what happens; I’m more about the journey rather than the destination. On the flip side of that coin- the very thought of having everything strategically planned out to the finest detail, and meticulously sticking to that plan, makes me feel uneasy- but, I digress.
I remember being asked during my Skype interview if I was prepared for- or if I have ever experienced- culture shock. I proudly dismissed any likelihood that I would be affected by such, after all I had previously spent 6 months living and working in Qatar; surely it wouldn’t be an issue. Those of you who have spent time in the Middle East will know that it is extremely westernised, with familiarity existing around every corner; food chains, supermarkets, brand names, not to mention the majority of people speak English. During that time I also shared an apartment with three Irish co-workers, with whom I had a lot in common as we were all fresh out of college; we had internet, we had FIFA, we had tea bags, and we had a flat screen TV connected to a packed hard drive.
‘Culture shock? Not a problem!’
The first signs of anxiety began to slowly creep in as I was being escorted around the small, rural town of 순창 (Sunchang)- the place I would be calling home for the next year- by the teacher I was replacing, Peter. He was so very helpful and kind, but everything he was saying to me was going in one ear and out the other. I was looking around for some familiarity in my surroundings- to no avail. I was there in body only, floating around on auto-pilot.
As the evening drew to a close, I made my way back to my apartment. I was trying to comprehend the whole situation on the walk back; I somehow found myself in a completely alien world compared to what I was used to, and it was very unsettling. I thanked Peter, and he went on his way. I closed the door and surveyed my tiny bedsit apartment, it was completely bare. No internet, no FIFA, never mind tea bags- there wasn’t even a kettle, no flat screen TV connected to a packed hard drive- panic stations.
That first night was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I would consider myself a very relaxed and chilled-out person, but that night I had a complete and utter emotional meltdown. I missed my family dearly, I missed my friends, I wanted to talk to them but couldn’t. I had no phone, no internet, and no laptop. It was the most alone I have ever felt, with only my thoughts to keep me company- and they weren’t much use to me, because it was clear that I was losing my mind.
I cried like a pre-pubescent girl that night, and when the tears subsided, anger reared its ugly head. I had full-blown arguments with myself; what the hell was I thinking coming here, and how did I get myself into this situation. After rage, came hilarity. I broke out in fits of laughter at the absurdity of it all; I was delirious.
I pulled a Lee Child novel from my suitcase in the hope that Jack Reacher would take my mind off things, but sadly it seemed I had become illiterate in my emotional state because I couldn’t interpret any of the words on the page. I can only imagine what a strong and assured man like Reacher would have made of my feeble disintegration.
I packed my suitcase and started walking the streets in the early hours of the morning; my plan was to look for a phone to call Shem and ask him to put me on the next flight home. The lights were on in what seemed like a restaurant- judging by the pictures of the farm animals above the door- and in I went. I made a telephone gesture with my hand and directed it towards the man who I assumed was the owner. He muttered something in Korean, and must have sensed the fear and desperation in my demeanor as he motioned towards the telephone behind the counter. I dialed the extension- no luck.
I returned to the empty bedsit and lay staring at the ceiling, until it was time to catch the bus to school for my first official day. I wasn’t going to get through this alone, that much was certain.
(Note: I described a significant encounter I had with one of my students on the bus to school that next morning in a previous post; you can read about it here.)
My family and friends gave me some valuable support and guidance during that time. They are always there for me when I need it, and I’m very grateful for all that they have done and continue to do for me. Sometimes though, help can also come from some unexpected sources when you find yourself in a time of need.
‘Neil and Fletch’
One such unexpected source of support came in the form of two ‘sweet as’ Kiwis- Neil Matheson and Michelle Fletcher.
I met some of the other foreign teachers in my town for dinner on that first night- I guess there was a handful of us. Again, I existed in body only as I was coming to terms with the whole crazy situation, but I do remember exchanging details with some of them.
The next day I sent Neil a message describing my ordeal. He insisted we meet in town that evening, and we made our way to his apartment. When we got there, his girlfriend Michelle (‘Fletch’) was in the process of pouring out three stiff whiskeys. As the hard liquor flowed, so did the chat. I told them all about my episode the previous night- sparing no detail- and their words provided reassurance and instilled confidence.
Neil also handed me a map of the town which he had drawn up in school that morning, and it pointed out all the places I needed to know; including the supermarket, the gym and the 7/11. Little did he know that I was- and still am- a complete disaster when it comes to directions and reading maps, but I appreciated the gesture nonetheless.
As the weeks and months went by a pattern would develop between us, stemming from the events of that evening- one of having deep and meaningful conversations enriched with the flow of liquor! I quickly became part of a close-knit, multi-cultural family within that small, rural town- for which I will be forever grateful.
Daragh Meredith was one of the people I had contacted before I arrived in Korea. He had spent the previous two years living in 서울 (Seoul) and was a month into his third year in Korea at the time of my arrival, living in 부산 (Busan).
I had known Daragh (‘Dinny’, ‘Big Lad’) for many years; we grew up in the same small countryside village of Killenard in Co. Laois, we attended the same primary (elementary) school, we would kick our first ball on the same hallowed ground- The Old Pound- and we would line out together for the same Gaelic football team- O’Dempseys- at underage level all the way up to senior. We took to the field of battle together on numerous occasions representing our beloved club; we pushed each other in training during the cold winter months, and we celebrated together when we would emerge victorious on championship Sunday.
I would have certainly considered Daragh a friend, but that being said- and I think he would agree- perhaps we weren’t friends in the true sense of the word. Any previous conversations we had would have consisted of typical ‘dressing room’ chat- sport, pints and women- nothing more.
I found myself reaching out to Daragh during those first couple of days. To say that he was an immense beacon of support for me is a gross understatement, there’s no doubt I would have been on the next plane had it not been for him. I was full of questions and apprehensions. He talked me through the whole process of what to do and how to do it- in a calm and supportive way. It was also very encouraging to hear him describe his ‘first night’ experience, and how it was very similar to my own.
I jumped on his invitation to visit him in Busan for a beer at the end of the month, and it proved to be a turning point. As luck would have it there was a GAA tournament on that same weekend; and when the time came, some 9,000 KM away from The Old Pound on the other side of the world, we took to the battlefield together once more, this time to represent Laochra Busan.
We visited each other on occasion; a mere 4 hour trip across the country was made to seem worthwhile just to hear the sound of our beer glasses clink, as we toasted to life later in the night! We even ended up lining out on opposite sides when I made the transfer to Seoul Gaels later on in the year- and of course we couldn’t pass up the opportunity of marking each other! As for who came out on top in the individual battle, we’ll call it a stalemate- ‘an unstoppable force meets an immovable object’.
Over the course of the year ‘Big Lad’ and I would contact each other on a daily basis, chatting about any and all things; the events of the day, school, home, women, sport, and life in general. We still keep in touch most days even though the distance between us has grown, as he now lays his hat in BC, Canada alongside his beautiful girlfriend Katie.
If there is ever anything on my mind or some important life decision I need to discuss, he is one of the first people I call on for advice or direction. I know I can talk to him about anything, and I would like to think that he feels the same.
I feel indebted to Korea for so many reasons. This remarkable country has given me more than I could ever have imagined, but the way in which my friendship with Daragh has developed alone, makes me think that it was a worthwhile decision coming here.
Note: I also received an unexpected e-mail from Daragh’s mum Kate soon after arriving. Her kind and considerate words helped me so much at the time. Thank you Kate, next time I’m home I will be sure to drop in with a bottle of Soju for yourself and Noelers!
So, what did I learn?
Moments of clarity can often arise while taking the time to reflect on your past experiences. I now understand that in the act of reaching out to people, and expressing my feelings and concerns openly and honestly during that initial period, I was afforded all the help and support I needed.
There’s a lot to be said for simply opening up and talking to someone, and it’s something I don’t think we do enough of. Sometimes pride gets in the way, or a fear of being judged, so perhaps you keep it all in. You might think it as a sign of weakness by sharing your thoughts and apprehensions with other people, and in doing so you are pushing them away, or burdening them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sharing our feelings brings us closer together, and reaching out is a true sign of strength.
People are inherently good, and they want to help. The answers you are looking for will present themselves; that’s the beauty of the process of sharing. They either come from the people with whom you have shared, or they come from within and had been there all along. Let’s face it, even if you don’t find the answers, that’s OK too; the weight you had been walking around with has been lifted just by talking and opening up, and it’s worth it for that feeling of relief alone.
Now I know what some of you may be thinking; here is a piece of writing which centers on a persons experience of culture shock, and there was little or no reference to Korean culture itself. I felt it was important to write about my initial emotional response as a result of being immersed in this new and exciting culture, because coming through that was central towards my development. Only then could I fully appreciate the splendor of Korean culture- the kind and generous people, the delicious food, the beautiful nature, the high-speed internet, and everything else in between- all of which I will touch on down the line.
I can look back to that ‘first night’ now and laugh, even though it was no joke at the time. Culture shock isn’t necessarily some dreaded manifestation that you have to endure. It can be a valuable learning process- a means to develop and grow as a person- albeit in an extreme learning environment. If you ever find yourself in a similar state of delirium, try sharing your thoughts with someone; you may find the answers in a moment of clarity. And who knows, you might even look back one day and laugh.