As I reflect upon how living here in South Korea has changed, challenged and inspired me, I realize that there are two major paradigm shifts in my way of thinking and seeing the world. I grew up in a small town in Idaho but had always wanted to travel the country and eventually see more of the world. God has since blessed me with such opportunities; however nothing has so profoundly and subtly changed my frame of reference than actually living in a ‘foreign’ country.
First, living and teaching in South Korea has given me a greater sense of appreciation for my home country of the USA. I have grown to be even more enamored of America (my family, my friends, my way of doing things and particularly the food, which is a HUGE aspect of one’s culture!) as I live away from the comforts and familiarity of my home. For example, as it is the holiday season (and Christmas is not nearly as commercialized and celebrated here) I really miss the sights, sounds and traditions of home.
Moreover, living in Korea has made me realize how much I appreciate some of the culture and customs of America; which is not to negate the Korean culture. For example, I do like the general politeness and chattiness to strangers (common in the West Coast). In many countries and particularly in big cities all over the world, there seems to be a distant disconnect with those who are strangers to you, and this is true in Korea. Of course, there is always a danger of stereotyping when writing about different cultural norms, so I write even this with reservation because I know how widely countries vary within their own borders. There are exceptions to each region because people are above all, individuals.
Second, living here has taught me that no one country is “right” and the other is “wrong.” It is, as my Korean husband stated, “merely different.” Thus, even though I chafe against how Koreans sometimes react or respond to a situation, I remember that there are reasons, history and traditions which go back literally thousands of years, as to WHY they are behaving thus. Korea is such an ancient culture with much history; whereas America is a baby of a country in terms of history and traditions. We [Americans] have come so far in such a short amount of time, which might lend itself to a certain confidence and certainly, well-deserved national pride.
Certainly, I have said confidence in how we perceive situations and I subconsciously expect others to act and respond the same way, as pertaining to my American mindset. Consequently, I used to deem certain Korean actions and ways “frustrating” or “not making sense” merely because it goes against what I believe to be acceptable. Of course, I still struggle with this at times but am working towards not doing so because there are so many different ways of experiencing life. There are many roads that can still lead to the same destination. In the end, we are all human, with the same basic needs, desires, fears and hopes.
Jolie Lee is an English Professor at Korea Nazarene University. Jolie received her Bachelor’s Degree from Eastern Nazarene College in Secondary Education and English Literature and her Masters in Applied Linguistics/TESOL from Pennsylvania State University. She has visited 9 countries, and currently calls Cheonan, South Korea her home.