When in 2010 the opportunity to go to Asia came up to me, it didn’t take me long to make a decision. My university offered a student exchange, which was focused on two subjects: globalization and opening the borders between Asia and Europe. The chance was exceptional. On one hand, I had a chance to study in a country so different from Poland, on the other hand I could conduct cross-cultural research and cooperate with the Koreans professionally. The capital of South Korea, which was to become my home, place for work and development for more than half a year, seemed to me a little unusual, intriguing, but still very distant.
I’ve never been to Asia and my friends’ holiday stories didn’t seem enough to help me with preparing to settle down there. It was also significant that South Korea is known mainly in the context of its complicated history and political situation. The other aspects are not entirely discovered and understood, even some kind of exotic. Before leaving, I decided to collect as much information as possible about Korean way of life. Unfortunately, it wasn’t easy. There was a lack of reliable guides and books about Korean culture. I found only generalizations about the Asian collectivism. I was very disappointed, so I started interviewing my friends, who were in South Korea and knew something. It was a mistake, because each of them introduced me a different picture of Korea. Their stories and experiences seemed to be quite far from each other. Some of the stories encouraged to go, others scaring with the cultural barriers. I was surprised that people who were in the same country perceived it so differently. Can our perception play games with us so much? – I was thinking. I was confused, but I made a decision. This is the end of any suggestions. I’m going there with my eyes and ears open. I will check how is it by myself and I will find my own Korea. At that time I didn’t know that this trip will be a great lesson of humility toward Asian culture.
Seoul – a new dimension of crowd
The first step I made in the adaptation process was to tame the city, where I had to live and work. It was a real challenge! First days were difficult and I felt overwhelmed by the new reality. The capital of South Korea paralyzes with noises, colors and scents. It is definitely a city-behemoth: more than 10 million inhabitants, 11 lines of modern, superfast subway. Nobody is surprised that metro ride from one end of the city to another takes about two hours. What is Seoul like? My first impression was that the city never sleeps. There are people everywhere, all the time. Restaurants, cafes, shops and clubs are eternally open and illuminated. Returning from a night club at 4 a.m.? There is no problem with eating a meal in an exclusive restaurant or grab a coffee at Starbucks. Speaking about cafes… Koreans not only drink a coffee there or learn during the day. They also sleep with their heads on tables (literally), waiting for the first morning subway after a long party. Sometimes it was hard to find a place to seat a 4 a.m., because cafes were packed with sleeping Koreans. And it was completely normal for them.
Another aspect was the crowd. Since I returned from Seoul, crowded Warsaw bus in rush hours or a line in the supermarket on Saturday afternoon were not a problem anymore. Living in the Korean capital makes you understand what a crowd really is. For example, exit from the subway station takes 30 minutes, when normally it should be about two.
It could also be a challenge to get to the nightclub in entertainment district Hongdae on a Friday night. It takes nearly 2-2,5 hours. Unless you won’t fall asleep in a line of 200 people. Luckily, there is a trick for this. However, it’s not our merit. As a white tourists, we can get in without waiting. It’s very unfair to the locals, but it’s hard not to take this chance when the level of frustration starts to reach the peak.
There are a lot of Koreans. For us, Europeans, far too many. The country policy focuses on increasing the birth rate, which is not easy, because young Koreans are not willing to have children.
During my first days in Korea I made another useful observation, which simplified my life there. You should be prepared for a different way of understanding kindness and manners. Politeness is a relative term and for Koreans means something else than for Europeans. We have been taught that when you push someone on the street, you should apologize politely (otherwise, you will be seen as a jerk). In Korea it’s quite the other way. The streets are crowded, so you are pushed by people around you (you do it too, hell yes!) and no one will bother to apologize for it. After opening the subway’s door, people, who want to get into a carriage, don’t wait until passengers get off. They just push in at the same time, bumping and poking each other. Annoying? Yes! But we can’t call it rude. Continual struggle for place and living space is deeply rooted in Asian culture. If you don’t behave this way, you won’t get into the subway or cross the street – you will wait endlessly until somebody will let you go.
Appearance is undoubtedly another point, which will help you to melt into Korean reality, and thus, gain respect among your colleagues. Forget about jeans and t-shirts on Korean streets! People there are strongly focused on fashion and trends. They prefer to wear outfits, which look for us like evening dress. It’s not a surprise for anyone to see a woman in full make-up, with perfectly styled hair, short skirt and sky-high heels at the dawn. I saw many Koreans with hair rollers on their heads, doing their make-up while running to work. Forget also about shortcomings. It is similar with men is similar: they are always stylish. The contrast between Koreans and foreigners (at the beginning) is even funny. However, most of them quickly soaks into fashion madness and become equally voguish. Anyway, there is no point to resist this trend, because fashion is a topic of conversation, a way to get the new contacts and condition of merging in crowd (according to strong collectivism). It is very desirable and seen positively.
Korea is incredibly Americanized. You can find foreign shops, fast-food and coffeehouse chains at every step. As my Korean friend told me – you don’t exist without a Starbucks paper cup in your hand. That must be something! Since I’ve started to pay attention to it, every second person passed me on the street, proudly holding a cup of steaming coffee in hand. Why Koreans choose consumerism with its fetish for Western culture? The answer is simple. You just need to look at the social and political circumstances. Korea is a country, which grows with incredible pace, technologically ahead of other nations. In the last few years we can notice a tremendous economic growth. Population becomes wealthier, the standard of living gradually increases. Koreans can afford going to the café and spend vast sums for electronic toys and appearance. We might say that they cherish the possibility of spending money.
However, such a lifestyle affects the way of receiving reality. Pop culture mash-up, like TV soaps, comics, floor shows (modeled on the basis of the American way of spending time on couch) completely overwhelmed the Korean minds. It causes a kind of anesthesia, sometimes a lack of empathy. You can feel it only when you ask for disinterested help, doing something for others. They reluctantly spend their free time in that kind of way. I heard about it from my friend, who works in nongovernment organization. She has a big problem with recruiting volunteers.
I know it also from my own experience – persuading Koreans to do anything beyond their daily professional duties is virtually impossible. I have devoted weeks for the negotiations in order to arrange an extra meeting out of working hours, or the ability to give me 15 minutes to fill-up a questionnaire. Unfortunately, I failed in most of these attempts. This appearance is also a reflection of Asian culture: a principle that it isn’t polite to refuse somebody in something. I remember a lot of situations, where I asked the directors of companies whether I can give a paper survey to employees (it was part of my cross-cultural research). First response was always positive – it would seem, that they have nothing against it. But when I appeared at the appointment, I heard, that it is not possible. You should have in mind, that Korean “yes” rather means “maybe”. The awareness of this mechanism will save you a lot of nerves at work or at school.
***All the pictures in this post were made by my super-talented friend Tobias Kalleder***
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