Korea will change you. That's a given. How? There's no one answer, and it will vary greatly from person to person. For some, it'll be little things like mannerisms or habits, for others, maybe larger things like your entire perspective or self-confidence. As the summer term comes to an end this week, my friends and I have fallen back into a recurrent discussion: What will it be like to go home after living in Korea? While my own repatriation is still at least a year away, I got a taste of it this past spring. And I have to say, going home was definitely a little weird, but not in a bad way. What I found was little pieces of Korea came home with me, in ways I hadn't quite anticipated...
From late February to late May of this year, I took a break from my branch to go home. I'd signed on for another year and a half, and part of the deal was taking time off to see my family and friends. As I approached my time away from Korea, I was full of questions. What will it be like to be home? Will I talk differently now that I've learned to slow and simplify my speech for ESL learners? Will I be overwhelmed by hearing English everywhere? Just how many people will I bow to before someone asks what I'm doing? Will I still know how to drive? How will I be able to survive without kimchi?
This is what I was bracing myself for: all of that standard reverse culture shock stuff. What I hadn't quite expected were all the mundane, little things that I would be bringing back to my old life, such as:
1. Piling my shoes in the entryway.
Of all the habits to pick up, this one seems so obvious, but I didn't really think about it before going home. It has legitimately become a reflex to take my shoes off when I enter someone's home, and it was actually difficult to override in my brain. (Think of how clean our carpets would be if we didn't constantly track in dirt!) While I was still trying to get myself out of this habit back home, largely because I was being reminded over and over not to worry about it, I would intentionally make myself be the last one to enter the house so I didn't hold up anyone coming in behind me...
I'm not always aware that I do this, actually. It isn't a full bend-at-the-waist bow, but just a small nod of the head. Always accompanied with a "thank you" in either English or Korean, I've found it's such a simple and effective way to express gratitude, and one that will definitely be understood here in Korea. Gestures of body language like that make a language barrier nearly irrelevant. Once I was back in a country whose language I spoke fluently, I caught myself doing this pretty quickly and made an effort to stop, mostly because I was on the receiving end of quite a few bewildered looks. The bagboy at the supermarket definitely doesn't know what to do when you give him a small bow before taking your groceries. Awkwardness ensues.
3. Eating spam.
I am so mad about this one. Let me clarify: I do not buy cans of spam. I do not cook with spam on my own. I do not, ever, actively seek out spam as something to eat. But, after being in the ROK for a decent amount of time, I have become... accustomed to eating spam. They love it here! It's in everything! And... I'd recently had the shocking revelation that I actually enjoy eating spam as well. Not in large quantities, but a bit of spam in my roll of gimbap? Delicious. Oh, is that a bit of spam in my soup? Excellent. While I was home? I was so mad that I actually missed spam...
My father took great pleasure in trolling me while I was home, taping spam coupons to the wall next to my pillow. He was quite amused/disgusted that I've come to like the stuff.
4. Pushing and shoving.
Being as Korea is packed full with a whole lot of people, and subway stations can get a bit intense during those busy hours, I have gotten quite good at pushing and shoving my way through a crowd without so much as a single "excuse me." When I first got to Korea, I was still trying to apologize for inevitably hip-checking strangers, but now, I just plow my way through like a pro. During my time home, I actually felt really bad quite a few times for my no-nonsense darting and weaving through a crowd. Sorry, everyone I may have cut off or bumped into at SXSW. I didn't mean to be a jerk. You were just in my way...?
Try making it through this kind of crowd without using your elbows. Godspeed.
5. Throwing up a peace sign in a photo.
Luckily, this seems to be kind of a thing everywhere right now? So my learned instinct to automatically pose with a peace sign next to my face just had to be toned down a bit. Friends did call me out on this though. Regularly. "What are we doing in this photo? Oh, are we throwing up peace signs? Again? Like Korean teenagers?" "Oh, uh... sure...? I, uh... don't even think I'm aware that I'm doing this anymore..."
I blame them (and my other students) for my new peace sign photo reflex.
6. Speaking in simplified English.
As is true with anyone trying to learn a foreign language, you find ways to express yourself whether or not it's grammatically correct. Sometimes, while it could technically be correct, it just isn't how people actually speak. English is a tough language, so I constantly hear little phrases from my students that sound awkward to my native English speaker ears, and yet do make sense. Sometimes, I'll use them myself when trying to explain something to a class with lower level skills. As a result, I've adopted some without meaning to. For example, while I was home, I don't even know how many times I've described the number (as in quantity) of something as "very many," immediately catching myself and laughing. My students say this all time -- "Oh, teacher, there were very many people at the Big Bang concert!" It makes sense, and also doesn't.
7. Speaking in Korean/Konglish.
While I can't claim to have a strong grasp of the Korean language, like, at all, I have found myself doing a fair bit of code-switching. Usually, this is in the form of various Korean vocab words being thrown into an English conversation. Instead of yes or no, I'll substitute the Korean equivalent. "Chincha?!" is used in place of "Really?!" Sometimes it'll be more complex sentences, like an English word followed by the Korean for "Give me, please." I frequently did this before going to Korea, instead with bits of Japanese, Spanish, French, or whatever foreign vocabulary happened to fit the situation. But now, the fact that it's actually practical/necessary to use my limited Korean vocabulary mixed in with English, it was much harder to stop myself from doing this at home.
I've also found myself using some Konglish that I've picked up from my kids. Strangee, not strange. Same-same, when comparing two things that are, well, the same. And, of course, nice-uh! You can imagine the looks I got from my family and friends when those came out of my mouth.
8. Eating uncooked ramen.
The best part about this one is that I hated ramen in college. I turned my nose up at it when my fellow poor college student friends would make some for dinner. This was not because I wouldn't deign to eat it, but simply because I thought it smelled terrible. Imagine their surprise when I came back from Korea and insisted we go pick up ramen from the Korean grocery store so I could eat it uncooked. While I will eat most packaged ramens uncooked (and prefer them that way), Korea has a brand that's actually meant to be eaten raw -- Ottogi's Ppushu Ppushu. And I am obsessed with it. Ob-sessed.
The barbeque flavor is the best, by the way.
I still don't know what it will be like to move home permanently. I'm sure the weight of that will come with a whole other spectrum of observations and feelings. My quick visit home allowed me to relax with the knowledge that I wasn't leaving Korea forever, making all of my newly acquired quirks entertaining and endearing. These habits and mannerisms have become my new normal. I really like the idea of a culture sneaking into your life, leaving behind little traces here and there of your time abroad.
With the end of this week, some of us will be saying goodbye to coworkers and friends, while welcome new teachers and starting new classes. Some of you reading this are probably in the middle of Chungdahm's training week, gearing up for your year in Korea. Who knows how your time in Korea will change you. Maybe you'll go home a different person. Maybe this will just be another adventure and stamp in your passport. Or maybe you'll just want to eat spam.
Do you think living in Korea has had or will have a huge impact on your life? Do you think trying to go back home will be strange (or strangee)? Share your stories and thoughts in the comments below!
Between studying Japanese and Asian culture in university and setting her sights on a teaching career, it came as no surprise when Zannah Smreker announced that she was moving to South Korea to teach for Chungdahm Learning. In November 2011, Zannah accepted a position through Aclipse with the Yeonsu branch in Incheon, just southwest of Seoul. When she's not teaching, she keeps herself busy with exploring Korea, eating all the street food, and hunting down strange English shirts. Check out her blog here for more of her adventures!