5 Ways to Deal with Cultural Differences, From a Girl Who’s Done it all Wrong

I wasn’t expecting it, so I stared at the floor for a few seconds working out that this was about to happen. I hadn’t even fully unfrozen myself before instagramming this thing they call a “squatter” and reporting back to my friends about the hole in the ground that replaces a toilet. Honestly I was excited though, because that was back during the snow shuffling months when my recent arrival in a foreign country still convinced me that I’m so brave.

At home, every move I make and all the words I speak come naturally. Even during moments I feel least confident or completely disinterested, I counter people with social cues that I’ve learned to balance out a conversation.  Here, I’ve been outside of my element, sometimes not knowing how to act or what to say.

These are just some of the situations I’ve encountered, and a few of the realizations I eventually stumbled upon that have made my experience as a foreigner much easier.

1. Remember that this is your new normal.

Right, so I have a job here. I write the date with a yellow marker and seconds later, my students exist in rows before me, being their innocent, endearing, lovely selves. They do things like cry after losing in our class jeopardy game, laugh so much when I demonstrate freeze dance, and other stuff that would make it impossible not to adore them. Then the bell rings and I watch these kids run, push, grab and shove each other to be first for the bus.

Sometimes the version of this I encounter myself happens underground in a hot, incomprehensible sea of chatty people moving towards two sliding subway doors. Another time, it was in a plane on one of Korea’s islands, when I used both hands to stop a lady from pushing me down the aisle as I was trying to reach the umbrella above my seat. Here, forcing people out of your way doesn’t seem to cue a passive aggressive eye roll from everyone else in the room. It doesn’t deem you an ass hole. That’s how it works in this country I’m visiting.  I come from Boston, a city filled with lots of aggressive people in a constant rush, but Korea’s the place where I’ve just had to learn to stand my ground.

2. Have a sense of humor about the things that seem strange in other cultures.

Things are different here, obviously. Usually these differences leave me so grateful and impressed. Once, I forgot my laptop at a clothing store after putting it down to take out money. I walked into that store hours later and they held up a familiar polka-dotted case that I knew contained the one device I could never live without. Then a few days ago, I stopped at my favorite smoothie store and the girl behind the counter said, “I missed you.” I’m super charming and speak as much Korean as I can, so she asked about a few English phrases. Now I hear “Your order is ready” whenever my order is ready.  But there’s one particular aspect of this culture that always compels my lips and tongue and vocal cords to form a sarcastic string of words.

I was not prepared for these hopeless romantics of the Korean Peninsula. You see, lots of times when two people here decide to “be boyfriend and girlfriend,” they start buying matching outfits and the same shoes and feeding each other at Pizza Hut. A few times I’ve sneakily taken pictures that maybe I should not have, but my friends back home quite enjoy a quick SnapChat of the couple wearing identical neon sneakers with royal blue striped sweaters. In public. After being here for a while, I’m starting to think this version of twinning is just a really funny way of being sure that the pair of eyes on everyone else’s face reflect your image, at least for a few seconds.

3. Think again about what you might consider normal.

All summer in Korea, people carry around umbrellas to avoid getting a tan. This challenges everything that’s ever made sense. I’m more familiar with a row of towels on the beach and one common goal of achieving the darkest tan possible. In the winter, my friends share a single mirror and pass around Mac mascara, agreeing not to dwell over how ghostly we’ve become. Here, it’s more common to wear white powdery makeup and cause already glowing skin to appear even lighter. As in, look pale. Intentionally. Is that weird? Let’s take a gander.

In high school, my friends and I bought tanning packages. (I just casually used the words “tanning” and “packages” right next to each other as if that phrase should naturally have a place existing in the world). These tanning packages would get us the cheapest deal on lying nearly naked under intense lights for 15 minutes until our skin was so damaged, it smelled differently and was physically noticeable in the mirror. Maybe that’s what’s weird.

4. Ask questions.

There’s this really popular chain of bars in Korea where the lights cause every picture to tint blue. Sometimes our ongoing 15-person Facebook message of foreigners reflects a common interest in meeting there. I have a couple good Korean friends, too, so I’m pretty lucky because even simple moments like these can leave me searching for answers. It’s curiosity about the song we’re all in a circle dancing around to, so our Korean friend shouts the storyline over loud, nonsensical lyrics. I wish I could understand for real, but her explanation and the few expressions I can translate on my own are satisfying enough.

Other times, we foreigners have spoken too soon about the aspects of this society that we cannot relate to. Once we even rambled on, in some disapproving way, about the absurdity of anyone agreeing to work so many long days and weekend shifts. We really shook our heads at that one. And then, our lovely Korean friends explained to their self-righteous onlookers a bunch of things we should never have forgotten to consider. We were reminded about how hard-working Koreans are, and about how it’s a large part of their culture. Since then, I’ve had some fascinating conversations. I’m a natural-born incessant question-asker anyways, so when it results in clarification of this (brave) adventure of mine, I’m all ears.

5. Try to be happy here, even when it seems impossible (which is hardly ever).

Korea almost always makes me feel superb. It’s very rarely impossible to be happy here, but I’ve had those moments. Sometimes when I’m missing home, I do this annoying thing where I convince myself that I genuinely loathe whatever happens to take place in that moment and then blame it on Korea. Maybe it’s thanking someone in Korean, or pressing an elevator button, or pouring milk. When I miss home, I am utterly bothered by whatever I’ve decided to do and this country is at fault.

Luckily, those moments are few and far between due to the fact that I’m really good at executing number five. It’s because I know that sometime, not long from now, I’ll be leaving and probably never coming back again. It’s been the best year of my entire life, so I can’t let the beatable feeling of homesickness cause me to ever wish this experience away. I’ve accumulated the type of incredible memories I never expected to have, and even the tiniest of moments that I’ll always remember for reasons I can’t explain. I once brought my laptop to a coffee shop really early on a rainy morning. At the table across from me, in a language I can’t understand, a little boy was learning from his dad to count slowly between thunder and lightning to track the distance of the storm. He had the whole room jam-packed with curiosity and, for whatever reason, I really wanted to write about it.

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