I grew up in a small town in Canada and I guess you could say I was a little bit like a frog in a well. So when I first moved to Korea, I experienced a huge culture shock. Everything was different. People were talking a different language, everyone seemed to be in a massive rush, and the rules of social interaction all seemed to be different.
Now after almost 17 years of living in Korea, I have found that I am becoming more like a Korean each and every day. The days of being excited over every new experience have long since passed, and now I feel like an old veteran passing on my wisdom to the fresh new faces who come to Korea each year. I would like to share with you some of the ways that I have changed since I came to Korea, for the better and the worse.
Changes in Body Language and Habits
It was quite a shock the first time my coworker decided to point out something trivial with her middle finger. I didn’t know you were allowed to do that but now it turns out that I really enjoy giving everyone the middle finger. I just have to be careful so that my mom doesn’t find out. If she does, I am a dead man!
I now have a difficult time remembering the proper hand motion to call people over… am I supposed to do it with the palm up or with the palm down? When I was younger I was always worried about trying to look as masculine as possible so the palm was always held up and I called people with a jerking motion. Now though, I am just as comfortable expressing my feminine side with a gentle wave with my palm down.
Koreans have a really cool ability of being able to complete a conversation on the phone without ever even having said a real word. I think I have mastered this skill of grunting my replies to any question that is being asked to me.
Back home, we often scratch our heads or stroke our chin when we are thinking about the next thing to say or trying to think of a response. However, now I realize that the best way to stall for time is to suck in air through your teeth.[sucks in air through teeth]. Now, what was I talking about?
I was surprised to see that Koreans use umbrellas for every kind of weather when I first arrived. In Canada, we use umbrellas for the rain, but here in Korean people grab an umbrella if it’s raining, snowing, or sunny out but now it just makes sense to me. Now, I would glue an umbrella to my hands if I didn’t think I would fly away on windy days.
Going to the bathroom is always an adventure in Korea. In some of the older bathrooms, I am always worried that I didn’t stuff enough toilet paper in my pocket before having a poop so there are times that I put a roll of TP into my backpack just in case. Even worse is when you get stuck with one of those old-fashioned toilets in the ground. Grrr…
Changes in Way of Thinking and Speaking
As you all know, the use of Konglish is pervasive throughout Korea. More English words and expressions are being mixed often into the Korean language every day. The opposite is true for me, however. Now, every time that I am trying to speak in my native language, English, some Korean words and expressions seem to be sneaking in there. I notice it to be especially true for certain exclamatory expressions. I use the word “아이시” (ai-ee-shee) every time I stub my toe and “아이구” (ah-ee-goo) a lot as well. One of the biggest problems is that when I was first learning Korean, the teachers were mostly females so I now talk using more female mannerisms I think. Now that I think of it, maybe the title of this article should have been “I am slowly turning into an ajumma”.
Other people’s age has now become so important to me. I have grown to truly appreciate the importance of respecting one’s elders. But maybe that is just because I am getting so I am hoping to cash in on all the free respect that I can get for free without having to earn it. I still feel uncomfortable asking people’s age when I first meet them so I find myself having to act like Sherlock Holmes looking for subtle clues to let me know whether they are older or younger than me.
Apart from trying to figure out the person’s age, there is another habit that has become like instinct for me when I first meet someone. That is, the bow. Now, instead of reaching out for a handshake I give people an embarrassingly huge bow. And this is not just for Koreans. I find myself bowing to other foreigners as well. This becomes a real issue when I go home to Canada for a visit and I end up bowing to everyone. My parents think it’s cute but I’m sure that everyone else must think I am completely crazy and I think I am getting back problems as a result.
Well, that’s about all for now from the Land of the Morning Calm. Love from Korea.