Monday, December 5, 2011

The Three Phases of the Expat Experience

When I first arrived in South Korea they told me at the EPIK orientation that I would experience three phases during me time here.  These three phases are typical among young expats: Honeymoon, Negotiation, and Adjustment.  For the individual expat the degree and length at which they are experienced can differ, but most everybody goes through them at one point.

The Honeymoon Phase happens when one first arrives and the experience seems new, exciting, and romantic.  One can fall in love with the new foods, the cultural differences, the possibilities, and all there is to see.  This usually lasts for a few months.  For me I think it lasted about 9 months.  Way more than normal.  However, traveling is a great passion of mine, so I was extra excited.  When other people complained about their life in Korea I mostly brushed it off.  While I found some things ridiculous, I took it with a grain of salt.
Where Korea and I used to take baths.

The Negotiation Phase happens when the differences between the old and new culture become more apparent.  One can become annoyed with the differences.  Frustration, anxiety, and depression can set in.  I believe I started to slide in to this phase in the Summer, then I recognized it was happening after I came back to Korea from my Summer visit to the USA, and it really peaked after a number of shitty incidents in the beginning of this Fall.  I had been denied some things in Korea solely out of racism too many times in a span of a couple weeks and that's when I became what some people like to call "jaded".  I really didn't want to become jaded but it was just unavoidable.
Korea!  WTF!

Now finally, after being here for about 15 months, I'm starting to fall in to the Adjustment Phase.  The Adjustment Phase happens when one knows what to expect and the host country no longer seems new.  One becomes concerned with basic living again, and things become more "normal".  I might still be a little jaded and can understandably become frustrated, but now I mostly accept that some things are just going to be different.
Agree to disagree.  Now bump it.  Or shake.  Or awkward handshake.

To better illustrate how these phases work let me show you some examples and how my thoughts compared in each phase.

In Korea the students have to clean the school almost everyday after school.  There aren't really any janitors, so how clean the school is depends on the students.  The method for cleaning the bathroom consists of a hose, spraying the bathroom down with the water that comes out of the hose, and then letting the water drain on it's own.  No soap, no mops, no buckets.  Just hose.

Honeymoon Ryan: "Hey so the students clean the bathroom with a hose huh?  Just give it the ol' rinse down.  That seems sort of easy.  There's standing water on the floor and water dripping from the ceiling.  You kids are funny.  Oh well, gotta pee."

Negotiation Ryan:   "IDIOTS!!  How much piss, poo, and snot particles are in this standing water right now?  DUMB IDIOTS!!  My slippers are getting wet.  Even the #@$&ing handle is soaked.  SOAP!  If you're going to clean a room where bodily fluids are abundant you use soap!  You clean a birdhouse with a hose!  $&#*@ING SOAP!!  USE IT!!  Water has dripped on my shoulder and I hate this place."

Adjustment Ryan:  "Ok they're still doing the spray down technique.  Just going to pee and try not to touch anything.  Yes, it is very wet."

There is a tradition in Korea of being as silent as possible on public transportation.  I don't know why but on buses and trains you just don't really get above a whisper if you're speaking at all.  Naturally for us foreigners it is very awkward to be sitting in silence for a long period of time with your friends.  There is going to be talking.  There just is.  Sometimes this talking is too loud (this is often associated with alcohol) but usually it is at a respectable volume.  Most of the time it is politely tolerated but once in a while a Korean will straight up shush the pants off of you.  Being shushed can be an unsettling experience when you don't see it coming.

Honeymoon Ryan:  "Wow, ok... um I didn't think we were being loud at all.  But we'll turn it down I guess.  Sorry.  A little bit.  Not really, but it's your country and I respect that.  Anyways..."

Negotiation Ryan:  "Oh no you didn't grandpa!  I DO NOT appreciate that shush you just threw at me!  I did not deserve that shush and you sir are the most hated person in my world right now.  I hate you.  The more I think about it the more I think I hate you.  WHO SHUSHES?  I choose to rudely ignore your request.  In fact, if you shush again you will have declared war and I rain fire down upon you!"  Or something like this:

Adjustment Ryan:  "Ah whatever, ya ya ya, fine ok.  Go back to being miserable now."

So the best thing to do is take the good with the bad.  While some things are still unacceptable, especially the racist stuff, I don't mind it as much anymore.  Korea is Korea.  And overall I still enjoy my time here.


  1. I'm convinced that the racism and the shushing go hand-in-hand. Do you ever see them shushing other Koreans who are being loud? No, just us foreigners....

  2. I was told they are quiet in public because of the influence of Confucianism. They were told being silent is calming to the soul and helps with reflection and whatnot.

    And visit my blog. I just got here two weeks ago and I need advice!!!