Culture Shock and Mountains

Well its June 8th, 2011 so I guess its time for a mid-week update.

Rejection phase of culture shock is undeniably in full swing. There is no doubt that my mood is different from a few weeks ago and my outlook towards life here and the Korean culture is changing. Although I must admit that it is not changing the way I thought it would. I figured the rejection phase would involve me slowly realizing there are things about Korean culture that annoy me. I figured I would start to become aggitated by my inability to understand daily social interactions. I figured the food would lose its flavor and the city would lose its charms. None of these things have happened. In fact my feelings towards the people, the food, the behavior and the city have remained largely unchanged. What has changed is my attitude towards life in general. Let me give you a ‘for instance’:

 I’m sitting in the lunch room at work. My co-teachers and I are eating lunch with maybe 10 other teachers. Everyone is chatting away in Korean and I’m focusing on my chopstick technique. Just as I’m bringing some rice to my mouth a bit of it drops from my chopsticks back onto the dish. At the same instant, most of the teachers at the table start to laugh. How do I react?

A few weeks ago I would probably figure the laughter was because one of the diners told a joke. If it even crossed my mind that they might be laughing at me for dropping some rice I would dismiss the thought as ridiculous. In the rejection phase I find I react to this same situation very differently. I instantly feel self-conscious and am positive that they are laughing at me because of my inadequacy with chopsticks and foolish ‘westerner’ behavior. I pretend not to notice or understand the laughter and go on eating, much more careful about getting every grain of rice into my mouth from that point on.

Paranoid? You betcha. Here’s another example of how my perception has changed:

I’m walking down the hall and kids stop and stare at me. Some of them say ‘Hi Tom teacher!’ (Pushing the boundaries of their conversational English ability). Later I sit in the lunch room eating my rice. Some students walk past the half open door and hesitate, then keep walking. Moments later I see half their head poking around the edge of the doorframe. They stand there for several minutes watching me eat. How do I react?

Before rejection phase I smile and wave, maybe say ‘Hi there’ or ‘How are you?’ and then allow myself a grin as they scream/giggle and run away. After all, I’m a freaking rockstar. In the rejection phase my reaction is different. I halfheartedly wave, or pretend not to notice and go on eating my rice, very careful to get all of it in my mouth so as not to give them anything to gossip to their friends about. I feel like a sideshow freak, why do they stare at me?

Hopefully you are getting an idea of how you might feel if you ever experience the rejection phase of culture shock. Of course both of these examples are slightly exagerated and I work really hard on fighting these paranoid/self conscious feelings. Being aware of it makes it much, much easier to deal with I’m sure. Apparently culture shock affects everyone differently and there is no telling how long each phase will last. With any luck being aware of the effect the rejection phase has on me will allow to expedite my journey through it, and so move on to the good stuff: Ajustment!

Rejection phase or not I’m still having a total blast. This weekend I’m road tripping to Gyeongju, a town not too far from Busan, for a two day Ultimate Frisbee tournament. The first day, Saturday, is a hat tournament, meaning everyone has registered individually and the teams have been randomly put together. I know 3 people on my team (from Sunday pickup games) but the rest are diskers from Daegu or other cities and I’ve never met them before. Should be an absolute blast. Sunday is the ‘Fantastic Fours’ tournament. Fours is a fast paced version of Ultimate played on a smaller field and with only 4 players per team on the field at a time. The teams are not random for this game and most teams were put together by experienced players. My Sunday pickup buddy Casey and I are on a team called ‘Disc Throw Inferno’ which is comprised of 3 other members from Daegu. I don’t know the skill levels of the Daegu teamates, but with a name like Disc Throw Inferno I can only assume they will be flaming frisbee demi-gods descended from Stonefist Discmaster, the neanderthalic inventor of frisbee, himself. I should fit right in.

You can expect a play-by-play of all the frisbee action early next week (cause I know you are all so interested).

I’d also like to mention that this past weekend featured some of the nicest weather I’ve experienced in Korea so far. I played some frisbee on the beach Saturday and on Sunday I hiked to the top of the second highest peak in Busan. Jangsan Mountain, rising 637 meters above sea level, isn’t as tall as Geumjeongsan (801 meters) but the view from the top is easily superior. The hike started out quite simply, a concrete path that meandered along a picturesque stream with light forest on either side (and plenty of washrooms, benches and brightly attired Korean hikers to spoil the atmosphere). Once you got past the two main attractions – a Buddhist temple overlooking the stream and, a few hundred meters upstream, a small waterfall – the path turned a little more rugged and the crowds of hikers thinned out a little. The ascent was through a bit of valley which offered ever more spectacular views of the city behind you (if you bothered to turn around and look) as you climb higher.

I’ve done a few hikes in Korea, and each time I find something new and unexpected near the top. Let me paint you a picture of Jangsan’s surprise. Hopefully it will give you a sense of the bizarre nature of the things you find on Korean mountains: Imagine you’ve been climbing a mountain for 2 hours. You are hot and sweating. You are on a narrow path through a forest, the monotony occasionally broken by views through the trees of the city stretched out below you, motivating you to continue and get to the summit where you will have the best view of all. The forest clears up ahead and you find yourself in a boulder field which stretches a few hundred meters above and below you. You rock hop and scramble over the boulders until you make your way back into the forest and onto the dirt path, rock and root strewn and pounded hard and smooth by countless hikers before you. Just ahead the path disappears around a corner; you hurry your step, eager to see what other wonders the trail holds for you. Practically running now you hear voices ahead – they sound excited. What is it? A great view? An animal? You round the corner and find….. A restaurant. People sitting under umbrellas on plastic chairs eating rice and kimchi on plastic tables like the ones you find at Canadian Tire. Drinking beer and Makgeolli. Wha….? Aren’t we on a mountain? How did this….? How is it…..? Where did this come from?

Finally we reached the summit, but not before passing the foreboding fences of the military base situated on the peak, or the signs warning you not to stray off the path (unless you want a foot blown off by a landmine). Honestly, the path at one point skirted a patch of forest that was (at least at one point in time) an active minefield. I considered playing a game of minesweeper, but after starting in a corner tile and uncovering a ‘1’ I decided a 1 in 3 chance of finding the mine wasn’t worth the risk (minesweeper fans holllaaa!).

Where was I? Oh yeah, the summit: What a view. It was a clear day so you could see clear out to the ocean. In the distance I could see my neighborhood, and the pathetically small looking Igidae park next to it. From my house all the way to Gwangalli beach, where I usually spend my weekends and past that all the way to Haeundae neighborhood. The view is hard to describe so suffice it to say I could see roughly 40% of the city, and you can check it out in the video I will post later this week.

Until then have a good one!

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About bnbnower

A recent graduate of Carleton University, set adrift into the real world with no tangible goals or properly defined aspirations, I decided to set off for South Korea where I am teaching English as a second language. In my spare time I read, rock-climb, play frisbee and watch movies and television.
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One Response to Culture Shock and Mountains

  1. mom says:

    If rthis is rejection, every teacher in the world is in trouble! Am sure your chop stick technique is 100% better than mine and most of us here…in moments like this, consider how others may feel when first faced with a box of pizza, no utensils at all, even chopsticks!!

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