Well it has been 1.5 months of staying in S. Korea and as can be expected, my impressions of Korea have changed a lot since I first arrived. I have definitely fallen victim (which is not the word I am looking for) to Lysgaard’s U-Curve   stages for cultural adaptation, a.k.a., culture shock. Mind you, I have always prided myself on my ability to adapt seamlessly to cultures other than my own, so experiencing the stages of culture shock fully is novel and a bit taxing.  (For more information on the U-curve, please see: Univ. of Toronto’s website on Culture Shock.) I suppose this experiential learning process is a good thing as it will help increase my ability to empathize with my clientele, of whom will mostly consist of expats. It will also be helpful for my work in January when I join two of the most talented MFT professors in taking a group of mental health practitioners/students to Chennai India for the Immersion Program 2011. While I can find the positive aspects of the experience, I have to say it also sucks. (Yes, that is a clinical term…) – although I do believe that any experience is a good one, even if it feels bad. Culture shock (or cultural adaptation) is not easy and there are definitely gradients of experience in each stage. And from day to day, it can change from loving where you are to the complete opposite. So, I would say that I am in between the “Conflict” and “Critical” stages, which are grouped into ‘Anxiety’ on the U-curve. This is coupled with my introspection and self reflection which enables me to rationalize that I am simply adjusting and I am still able to enjoy and be curious about Korea, even if I am feeling acculturative stress. I find that I am more irritable and easily frustrated and feel out of place. Usually, I am quite extroverted and these days, I find myself wanting to hibernate. And the humid, rainy weather makes it all that much easier to do so. In the past when I’ve spent time abroad, I was with a group of students and participated in programs where daily interaction in English was possible. And in all those situations but one, I was taking a language course, which I found to be incredibly helpful in increasing my interest in the culture. Here in Korea, I have not made the opportunity (and I have many valid reasons/excuses as to why not) to take a class and take learning the Korean language seriously. And I find that it makes a huge difference in my cultural adaptation and general experience of Seoul. So the previous entry on linguistic impotence was not written in vain – language is freedom.

So examples examples… in the past week… the evening when SB’s sister arrived in Seoul, we took her out for the infamous SB’s favorite easy Korean BBQ place by his apartment. A group of locals walked in before us and were seated immediately. We walked in, I gestured to the server that we were three, she said something in Korean and shook her head no, I responded mimicking her head shake to ensure I understood no correctly, and she made the popular gesture (crossing the forearms together which means “no” or “out of”) and said a few more things. Then SB intervened and asked if what she meant was there were no more tables. Then we saw SB’s favorite waiter named Phil and salutations were exchanged. Phil speaks some English. And Phil said something to the woman, and suddenly we were being led back to a table.

My experience of that was that she was going to seat us, but said something in Korean to me, saw that I didn’t understand, knew we were foreigners, then decided to give us the Korean forearm gesture for “no.” And the only reason why we ended up seated was because we knew Phil. I was upset.

Well, come to find out later from our lovely English speaking waiter, that it was crowded and they ran out of tables right when we stepped inside. The woman who spoke with us didn’t see the extra table in the back, Phil told her it was there, and we were seated.

This single 15 second interaction was able to upset me. And I was upset enough to have created an entire narrative of why we were not seated initially – and one that made the host culture the villain might I add.

This is not my proudest moment, needless to say. I would much rather say that I had an accurate understanding of what was going on and was able to navigate through it without experiencing any negative emotion. But being in the midst of the “Conflict” part of the U-curve, I made it a negative experience.

Allow me to reiterate… that was 15 seconds followed by a few minutes before learning from Phil the truth of what occurred. If an individual has a similar 15 second experience a day and does not have a Phil to communicate/explain what occurred, it is easy to see why an individual may have a hard time adjusting to a culture.

Most importantly, my self analysis:
so the interaction occurred, I made a judgment, told myself a story about the interaction that made it negative. Stop here. Why did I not tell myself a positive story? What influenced my thoughts to go down the road of negativity and paranoia rather than the road of objectivity and calm (a road I usually take because I like it and it’s pleasant)? What other factors prior to this experience impacted me in such a way that my automatic reaction was to take the road of negativity? So the emotions I felt were anger, rejection, frustration, and dislike. Continue. The situation was explained to me; I accepted it. The emotions I felt were relief, and a little stupid. And I’d also throw in a little guilt – for not giving them the benefit of the doubt. The hardest part of this was facing myself. Why oh why did I assume the worst?

I have a few ideas… do you?