"I just don't understand why they do it that way." This was probably my most used phrase during my first month in Korea. It wasn’t my first time abroad, but I was experiencing a lot of new things - like the traffic rules, the banking system and a new style of management at work. My first few weeks in Korea was a time of huge change. It wasn’t just eating kimchi with most meals - in fact the new cuisine was something I really loved about Korea. It was more about feeling out of place and accepting a new way of doing things.
I think this stage is a natural part of living abroad. You can't really prepare for it or turn it off. You will always be inclined to make observations about where you live. And sometimes those observations are that your way of doing things is better. It can sometimes feel a bit like your new home is working against you. Things can feel strange and even hostile until you adapt to them. I know that’s how I felt at first. But after those first few weeks, I started to adapt. What did that look like? Well, it meant getting involved with the community more. I was lucky in Jeonju to meet some great friends, both ex-pats and Koreans, who helped me to explore. Making friends with the locals also means that I got to ask questions about Korea and the way things work here. I have had so many parts of Korean culture explained to me, and it all makes much more sense now!
Adapting also looks like being open-minded and flexible. In fact, I think these are the two most important things to take with you when you move abroad. Being open-minded meant admitting to myself that maybe there are better ways of doing things than my own. It also meant doing a lot of listening to my Korean friends and co-workers and allowing them to re-shape my preconceived ideas about their culture. If you have the chance to befriend your Korean colleagues I would really recommend it. They helped explain the workplace environment to me and patiently answered all of my questions. My open-mindedness and willingness to learn from them made for some genuine and long-lasting friendships.
Being flexible makes a huge difference to life in Korea too. Learning to go with the flow made my time in Korea so much more enjoyable. For me, this meant letting go of any schedule or time-frame I had in mind. I wanted to learn Korean in six months - I didn’t even come close! I wanted to have my apartment set up, phone plan and banking sorted, language lessons started, all within a week. Again, not even close. But I learnt to be flexible with timing and celebrate small victories. Every time I did get something done I figured I was one step closer to making Korea feel like home.
Adapting is an important part of settling into a new country. It's an ongoing process that is never complete. People go through it differently but there are ways you can be successful. For me, the process takes time. It’s about learning to fit in with my new surroundings and make an effort to understand the ways there. I have to remind myself that I’m the guest and of course it isn’t like home! I just landed, but the cultural norms and traditions of this new country have been around for hundreds of years. I learnt to take the role of observer. No judgment, no urge to change things, just observation.
My final piece of advice for adapting to life in Korea is to have a sense of humour. The ability to laugh about stuff is a great asset in adapting to a new country. One of the biggest things that struck me when I moved to Asia was the blunt comments directed at me about my weight, appearance, accent, everything! If I weren't able to laugh about these things I think I would have gone crazy. That's another wonderful thing about belonging to the community in your new home. It's a real relief to sit down over coffee or wine and share stories about life in Korea. You will soon realise that many other people are in the same boat - adapting one day at a time.
Brittany Mackie graduated from Massey University with a Bachelor’s in Communications and is from Christchurch, New Zealand. She has been teaching and travelling in Asia for the past three years. She loves living abroad learning from the people she meets overseas. She loves photography and hiking and can always be found at the nearest bookstore. Her time in Korea has been full of adventures and learning curves. She has loved the opportunity to experience life in Jeonju and work with some amazing kids.