Culture Shock, Baggage Fees and Coming to Terms with Reality
When I left for South Korea five weeks ago, it was with a smile on my face, looking forward to what I considered to be the year of independence ahead of me. I looked forward to shedding my dependency on the people and material possessions surrounding me and embarking on my journey to the other side of the world. I had been overseas many times before, and would no doubt transition seamlessly into Korean culture, and feel immediately at home in Asia. The reality, however, strayed slightly from this fantasy.
After arriving at Boston’s Logan airport in time for my 9am flight, I was greeted coldly by United’s staff of passive-aggressive workers, each of whom making it their personal mission to ensure I felt like crap during the last moments in my homeland. During check-in, I was informed by a woman boasting a thick, Greek accent and impressive amount of hair gel that my bags were 22 pounds overweight, and I would have to sell my first born child in order to get them onboard.
As I reluctantly forked over my credit card, I recalled the many hours I spent packing and re-packing my suitcase, during which I decided I couldn’t possibly move out of the country without my favorite poetry anthology, small collection of DVDs and the wall tapestry my friend bought for me in Istanbul. And my flannel sheets. Yeah, better take those, too. Okay, so maybe my anti-materialism wasn’t off to a great start, but I was still the epitome of independence- a young woman fresh out of college, embarking on a trip alone to Northeast Asia. Alone. Oh God, I was going to be alone. As in, you-don’t-know-anybody-so-you-might-as-well-stay-at-home-and-facebook, alone. This was not something I had considered.
While I had spent the past six months desperate to leave the US and applying to jobs in South Korea, I had little time to mentally prepare myself for the journey. On August 6th I got the letter I had been waiting for in the mail- Allison Margaret Collopy has been offered a position with the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education as an English teacher from 2010 to 2011. I was ecstatic. As I scanned the contract, a scramble of Korean and English on glossy, cream paper, my eyes settled on a small detail at the bottom of the page- You are to arrive in Seoul on August 17th. I stared blankly before daring myself to look again to see if the numbers had magically changed into a date which allowed me more than 11 days of preparation before moving out of the country. August 17th stared back at me. Crap.
I had no visa, no flight, no diploma and a savings account stuck in the triple digits. Not exactly the best case scenario. And so I spent my final days in America in a frantic scramble to gather together my required documents, say goodbye to close friends and get ushered to the airport before I had time to think about what was happening. In hindsight, I don’t know how it all came together, probably because it all came together while I was still working my full-time job, and my family and friends were going to the Korean Consulate and registrar’s office on my behalf. Strike one against my so-called “independence.” Finally, after weeks of stress, countless phone calls to government officials, 24 hours of traveling and many tearful goodbyes, my 72 pound suitcase and I found ourselves in Asia at last.
It’s been five weeks since I was last in America, surrounded by English and bagels and blond hair as far as the eye can see. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been gone for years, and I can’t imagine what it once felt like to be able to ask a bus driver if he’s going the same way I am, or to have eaten food that I could identify and name. Other times, it feels like I’ve only been in Korea for a few days, and am still desperately struggling to adjust to the culture and language.
My life in Seoul thus far has been fraught with language barriers, culture shock and me watching a LOT of Friends reruns on my laptop, but I like it so far. I may not have transitioned seamlessly into Korean culture, and would not yet call Seoul my home, but I’m happy here. Maybe the fact that living in Korea can be really hard sometimes, but I’m still doing it, is more of a testament to my love of traveling than if I had instantly adapted to all of its customs. It still feels weird when my students bow to me, and I may never get used to being asked if I am single immediately after being asked my name, but I’m proud of the smaller victories. I may not yet be the independent woman, or capable English teacher of my pre-Korea fantasies, but I’ve survived my first month on the other side of the International Date Line, and so far, I’m doing okay.