The (Un)Official Guide to Korean Culture Shock

Anyone who has traveled abroad can tell you about culture shock.

Anywhere you go there is bound to be some culture shock. I remember feeling culture shock the first time I went to Alabama.

Okay, kidding about Alabama (it’s low hanging fruit, I couldn’t help it).

But in all seriousness culture shock is a complicated process that almost everyone goes through when moving to a new country. It goes way beyond the average “Oh wow in France they use Celsius and drive on the other side of the road! How silly!” Culture shock is defined by certain and distinct periods. And while it is a cycle, everyone experiences the cycle differently. But since this is MY blog, this post will be dedicated to how I have experienced culture shock so far and how I am expecting to deal with based on my other new culture experiences.

Think of culture shock as a big U shape. Start high, go low, end high.

Scholars, (yes there are academic studies dedicated to culture shock) argue about how many “official” stages there are, and what exactly each stage means, but everyone can agree on the basic pattern of high, low, high. The most common system is a 4 phases but I identify strongly with an extra phase that many people tend to leave out so my culture shock post has 5 phases. I will use the same running example, of a bus being late, to show how the same event can trigger different reactions at different stages.

The Honeymoon – This stage everything is GREAT. No. It’s more than great. It’s FANTASTIC. This Lady Gaga gif sums up the honeymoon stage of culture shock perfectly:


You feel like you can take on anything. You think things like “I’m going to learn Korean in 2 hours” or “I love eating kimchi and cold unidentifiable fish with bones in it everyday.” or “I don’t think I’m EVER gonna leave.” Basically it’s the I Think I’m Going to Like it Here song from Annie playing in your head 24/7.

Example: The bus to work is late….BUT that’s okay because when the bus comes you’ll take your brand new bus card (that you got all by yourself!) and swipe it on the bus like a pro. You’ll even use your broken Korean to ask the driver if there’s a faster way, and it doesn’t matter that the bus is late anyway because you were so excited you left 3 hours early!

Alas, all good things must come to an end. Cue The Frustration Stage. I personally experience my Frustration Stage in two parts; the sad part and the angry part.

First up:

The Distress/Depression/Rejection Stage – Uh oh.

When the honeymoon is coming to a close you start to think: “Hey! Wait a minute! Living in a new place is actually really hard.”

Things that used to be so simple at home take a lot of effort now. Everything is challenging. And that doesn’t make your new culture exciting like it was in the honeymoon stage. Now your new culture is EXHAUSTING.  These thoughts are also coupled with the realization that no matter HOW HARD you try you will NEVER fully understand this new place. You start to realize that packing up and moving 7,000 miles away from everything you have ever known may *not* be as great as you thought. This the sad phase.

The confidence you had when you first got here? Gone.

The excitement you had about taking on new challenges? Gone.

The drive to learn everything you can about the language? Gone.

The want to be a perfect expat and subscribe to the culture like no expat has done before? Gone.

Your family and friends? Not really “gone” per say but you do realize they’re really not *there* with you either.

This is the stage where you start to feel self-conscious. Doubt creeps in. Thoughts like “Ugh I’m not picking up Korean as fast as I thought I would” or “Man, it’s so HARD to go to the grocery store because everything is so different” or “Why am I not fitting in better with my Korean coworkers here?” start running through your head.

Example: The bus is late to work but it’s not the bus’s fault, it’s your fault. If you could read Korean you could have read the timetable online and known it was going to be late. But you can’t read Korean so now you have to stand at the stop for 20 minutes like an idiot. Plus you need to put more money on your transportation card but you’re not totally sure how to do that, so you don’t want to do it because you know when you actually try, it’ll be a big production but you just want it to be easy.  Even though you’re trying, you’re not really trying hard enough.

But soon this sadness develops into another emotion entirely. The next step of The Frustration Stage.

The official name for this stage is “The Regression Stage” or “The Re-Integration Stage” but I like to call it:

The Pissed Off Stage – And this is exactly what it sounds like. All of that self-doubt and blame you put on yourself in the Distress Phase? You now turn all that outward and put it on your new culture. You criticize everything, you’re mad at everything, you dislike everything, you whine about everything. Basically you now hate everything. You idealize home in a perfect way. Everything was rosy at home. Everything was easy when you lived there. Basically you see your new culture as inferior instead of seeing yourself as inferior like in the last phase.

Thoughts like “I swear to God if one more person asks me how old I am I am throwing myself out a plate glass window.” or “Is it really necessary to ALWAYS take our shoes off?”  or “I know I am *supposed* to do it this way, but I really just could not give less of a flying fadoodle. I’m doing it the Western way.” run across your brain.

Example: The bus to work is late. Of course it is. Nothing is ever on time in Korea. No one is ever on time in Korea. I can’t believe they are so inconsiderate of me and my time here. At home this would never happen. All the buses run perfectly and everyone is on time and we run like a well-oiled machine in the USA, the USA is a perfect dream world. Why can’t Korea be more like the USA and not have buses that run late? I can’t believe Korean culture allows lateness to exist. I would not tolerate this at home. I hate it here.

But again, they’re called phases for a reason. They don’t always last. After wallowing in your own self-pity things start to swing up again in:

The Humor Stage – Technically called the Adjustment Phase, I call it the humor stage because humor is the by-product of adjusting.

Things start getting easier. The food becomes good again, the language seems more manageable, doing simple every day tasks becomes easier. Not easy, but easier. And people normally deal with this by making jokes. You’ve begun to create and reap the benefits of legitimate friendships and things you used to find difficult are now a mix of mildly annoying to outright hilarious.

You might go to a Western friend’s house for dinner and jokingly demand things like “Where is the kimchi?” or “Why aren’t we sitting on the floor?” or “I don’t use forks.” At any little problem or issue you might scream “Uh-oh! Kdrama!”. You might make an aggressively overly respectful bow to a  western person you just met as a joke on Korean culture. You’re starting to accept the discrepancies with more fun than hate.

Example: The bus is late to work. Oh, Korea you silly little country of 50 million people! Maybe the bus wouldn’t be late if you weren’t “the land of the morning calm” but instead were “the  land of the morning busy.” Maybe you are still annoyed that you will be late, but it’s met with a joke and a smile instead of sadness or disdain.

Then finally:

The Acceptance Stage – Now this does not mean you have been accepted by your new culture, and it also doesn’t mean that you love every single aspect of your new culture. It simply means you’ve realized that you actually don’t need to understand every single aspect of the culture in order to live a healthy and fulfilling life in your new country.  And while that sounds like an easy place to get to, trust me, it is not. You can be perfectly successful, and even thrive, in a place that you don’t understand fully.

Thoughts in this stage are along the lines of “Why did I get so worked up before? This is fine.”

Example: The bus is late to work. Well that’s annoying but buses are late sometimes. It happens. You react as you would in your normal home country.

Culture shock may seem like something you can shrug off, but trust me these feelings are real and extremely intense. It can feel overwhelming and like you’re totally in over head, but it does get a little easier if you understand where/why you are feeling this way. And while the lows are low, it really does get better.


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