Culture Shock

Erin and I like to browse the discount airfare websites for crazy deals. It's mostly harmless fantasy. We imagine where we could go if we had time and money. $500 round trip to Johannesburg? "Hey, honey! You wanna go to South Africa?" 900 bucks to Kiribati? First: where the heck is that, and Second: you pronounce it how? it's all fun and games, until I actually find the deal, the one that's so good I can't pass it up.* And then I spend a day packing like a lunatic (Can't forget my passport! Oh my God, the toothbrush fell in the toilet! Where are my pants???) for a flight I didn't even know existed a few minutes ago.

Which is how I found myself visiting the States this past Father's Day. And it's also how I found myself neck deep in culture shock.

I know. I'm from the U.S. I've only been away for a few years. How bad could it be? Well, my perspective has warped, let me tell you. And here's a list of the things that hit me hardest.


1) Maybe it's time we all got a treadmill.

Koreans are tiny, tiny people. And disgustingly fit, mostly. The streets of Seoul sometimes feel like a fitness commercial, or the set of a movie. Everyone's fashionable and beautiful and svelte.

Then I got off the plane in Seattle and wow. Just... wow, America. We are a whole nation of fat bastards, aren't we?

Full disclosure time: I'm not a small man. I have the spare tire off a dump-truck girdling my midsection. Yes, it makes me stand out in Korea, but I've gotten so acclimated to the staring I barely notice anymore. So when I say Americans are fat, I'm not casting any stones that aren't hitting me right smack between the eyes, too.

That said? Seriously, people. My first thought off the plane was that the whole country had really let itself GO. Then I looked down, saw my big old belly, and remembered... no... wait... this is the way it's always been. I've just spent waaaay too long around tiny people.


2) What the hell happened to the food?  

I'm not going to lie. I was straight up salivating at the thought of some good old, stick-to-the-ribs American-style eating. Yeah, yeah... after that last entry, you'd think I'd lay off. But I've spent the last three years with kimchi, rice, and fish soup. Now, I had ten days Stateside, and I was going to fill every second with gluttony.

Yes, I am a living stereotype.

So first things, first - it was time for a hamburger. I got off the plane for my west coast layover and found a decent restaurant - none of that fast-food crap. I wanted the real thing. I grabbed a seat, ordered my meal, and waited an agonizing ten minutes for the kitchen to cook it. Then it arrived, smelling like God's own dinner delivered right to my table - juicy and charred and covered in cheese. I wanted to weep into my faux leather booth.

I took my first bite.

Then I got a little sad.

Not the good kind of sad, where I cry because it's just so wonderful. The bad kind, where I'm confused because something unpleasant happened where all the happy was supposed to be. And it all came down to salt.

American food is SALTY.  I didn't expect this, because Korean food is ALSO profoundly salty. I mean, kimchi is basically cabbage packed in salt to cure, then dumped into red pepper sauce and allowed to ferment for a few months. It is salt incarnate, in vegetable form.

But somehow, the hamburger was different. Maybe it was the added salt. Maybe it was something else. Whatever happened, my meal tasted like it had been marinated in the Dead Sea. Which wasn't all that appealing, when it came right down to it.

Then I had a second shock, as I realized there wasn't anything green on my plate. I had a smattering of fries, a big, fat burger, and a little fancy bowl of ketchup. And that's it. No salad. No soup full of cabbage and onions. No fruits.

In Korea, EVERYTHING comes with vegetables. I go to a greasy spoon diner in Seoul and get a side salad (and it's BIG, too). Dinner out means a table full of green stuff, all carefully prepared in individual dishes. It's impossible NOT to eat ridiculous quantities of veg here.

Which meant that every time I ate out in the United States, I felt profoundly unsettled by how few greens were present on the table. It was like they'd been excised, the Food that shall not be Named.

I couldn't decide what was freakier: that vegetables were so invisible in the American diet, or that I missed them enough to notice.


3) Driving is just weird now. 

I walk almost everywhere in Korea. Groceries? Walk. Going to a movie? Walk. Time to see a soccer game? Walk. Got to run to the bank? Walk (quickly). Visiting Seoul? Okay... there I take a bus. But intercity travel is it. Otherwise my feet are my primary mode of transport.

And Korea is designed for walkers! There's a grocery in every major apartment complex. You can't go ten feet without a convenience store. And every neighborhood has a cluster of shops and businesses: tailors, dry cleaners, hair salons, pet supply shops, tteok jibs... You don't have to go far for the necessities. And even the big stuff... furniture, electronics, home appliances... are all available within a mile or two.

When I came back to the States, I had a lot of errands to run. I had to get my driver's license renewed, had to apply for international driving permits. I had to go shopping for a variety of things we needed for our future travels.

And I couldn't walk to anything. My shortest trip was the grocery store... a ten minute drive. If I'd gotten stubborn, I could have walked there. It would have eaten most of two hours, including time to shop. And that's the only place I could've walked. Everything else was just too far.

I'd literally forgotten what it was like to live in a city where I couldn't get around on foot. I even went for a walk around my parents' neighborhood one day. Just their neighborhood! And in the time it took to circle their subdivision, I could have bought groceries, had a haircut, and grabbed some take-out Chinese in Chungju, all without getting into a car.

I missed the convenience a lot.


4) Personal Space is an awesome thing.

This is one I didn't notice until I got back to Korea. I spent ten days in the U.S. with vague sadness about the food, about the driving... but there was an underlying sense of relief that I never even understood.

Until I got off the plane at Incheon. If you've ever arrived at the international terminal there, you'll know that you have to take a shuttle train back to the main airport before you can go through immigration, get your bags, and finally get out into the city.

I followed the trickle of passengers heading for the train. Then the crowd got thicker. Then thicker still. Finally, I had little old ladies elbowing my kidneys, grandfathers giving me sour looks as they body-checked me into walls, little kids ricocheting off my knees... AND THIS WAS BEFORE WE PACKED INTO THE TRAIN!

It finally pulled into the station and the crowd surged. I was helpless by this point, flotsam in the tide despite my size (or perhaps because of it). I ended up pressed against a back window as an elderly woman did her best to grind some additional space out of the small of my back.

I was in Korea once more.

In America, everything's deliciously spread out. That does come at some cost (the driving springs to mind), but it also means I have room to breathe, to stretch my arms as I walk down the street. If I tried that here I'd probably kill someone, or at least deal out accidental black eyes.


My trip was only ten days, but the culture shock was profound. Next? We're going to Thailand. I fully expect my brain to not know which way is up for several months. Then I'll get used to it. Then we'll move somewhere else and the process will start all over again.

Still... it does keep life interesting.



* If you were curious about where I got my crazy airfare, there's a Korean website called Near as we can tell, it's a site that allows tour guides and agents to unload plane tickets dirt cheap. What happens is, the travel agent buys forty tickets for a package tour. But then they only sell thirty-eight. This leaves them with two spares. They can't do much with them, so they try and resell them, generally very, very short notice. And that's how I got airfare from Seoul to Chicago and back for $650. Normal price for tickets runs over $1,000, if you're lucky. Closer to $1,500 if you're not.

Now, there are some caveats with that site. 1) It's ALL in Korean. If you speak that? You're golden. Happy ticket hunting. If you don't? You're a bit out of luck. We were lucky. Erin knew enough to muddle through most of it, and we had friends to help with the rest. 2) The site focuses on flights going to or from South Korea. There may be a way to search other flights, but we haven't figured it out yet (see caveat 1). 3) You don't actually purchase the ticket through the website. You reserve a spot at a given price, but then the travel agent contacts you to confirm. And we have been told that sometimes they can suddenly raise the price, or change the dates of the flight, or perform other shenanigans. So shopper be warned. But for us, it was a success.