Monday, August 22, 2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Octopus

I'm pretty laid back when it comes to learning about another culture. I can embrace and learn to even appreciate the weird and absurd...even things like taking shoes off before going to business meetings or the small pleasures of using a bidet over toilet paper. But, since I started living in Korea, there has been one issue that I have taken a strong and vocalized stance against. That, my friends, is the consumption of anything with tentacles....especially octopus.

To put it graphically, here's my argument: how can you take something like this -

And defile it to this - 

It's wrong. It's cruel. I can't do it. My hate for this dish knows no bounds. I would starve over eating anything that resembles this majestic creature of the sea. Mostly though, the thought of eating it repulsed me to the point of gagging.

What I didn't know was that this inner hate was actually stemming from a resistance to Korean culture...or any culture for that matter. I was upset with my current living situation, and instead of lashing out I focused all of my anger on this staple dish that is literally everywhere. I'm not can find this at street vendors on half-abandoned subway station platforms near my city.

This was a textbook case of culture shock that I was (and, to a degree, still am) suffering from. I've traveled more than the average person, but even I am subject to this paradigm. Consult the diagram below:

If you go to any study abroad office, included in their packets is a graph similar to this illustrating the phases of culture shock that everyone goes through. Let me repeat that for emphasis: everyone who spends an extended period abroad will go through this. It might not be that intense for some, but you will experience these highs and lows. Stop pretending like you're tough and just accept it.

You start off with that 'Honeymoon' phase. Everything is new and awesome. You're meeting people. You're hitting the scene. You are invincible and awesome, the envy of everyone back home. Facebook is spammed with messages like "OMG I'm soooo jealous" and "You are so lucky!". It's an awesome feeling.

Then comes that first stage of shock that slaps you across the face. You realize that you aren't going home for months or even a year, and everything goes wrong over night. That kimchi doesn't taste as awesome as you had previously thought. Bus rides were cool, but instead of looking out the window you're now playing games on your iPod. The language barrier hits you again, and you feel overwhelmed. You can't talk to anybody, mostly because you don't want to. It sucks.

Luckily, you have your envious friends and family. At this point, they are still into your adventures and can sweep in to save you with words of encouragement. They tell you how lucky you are, and how you should travel while you're young and blah blah blah...either way, you feel better and you adjust. That adjustment comes quickly. Suddenly, you know how to order stuff off the menu. You have a routine, and you now have friends who reside in the country. Maybe you buy some furniture or something to make your room look like home. You start to settle in, and life becomes normal again.

The next stage, mental isolation, is the one that makes or breaks a trip. Everything hinges on how you react and get through. It's not uncommon for people to pull 'runners', literally packing their things overnight and booking it for the airport. I've seen it happen.

I was, and in a way still am, at this stage. You adjust just fine, but underneath you aren't completely whole. When you think of home, all you can think about is all things you are missing. You're missing weddings, birthdays, parties. You see friends who are sharing jokes and hanging out with each other, but you aren't there. They still love you, but you aren't the center of attention anymore. They are use to you living abroad, and suddenly you feel alone. It's a scary feeling, and it's self inflicted. You made the decision to come here, and in a way you feel like you gave up on all your friends to go.

So what do you do? You shut down. Everything becomes all dark and depressing, like some kind of Tim Burton movie. You'd rather stay inside than go anywhere. Inside is safe, it's your little den. You start 'nesting', and it's not uncommon to trash your apartment or give up on personal hygiene.

More importantly, you shut out your host country completely. It sucks and is inferior to you because it isn't America. It doesn't feel like home, and why should it? You weren't born here. You have very little stake in its future. Why should you care?

This is where the octopus comes in. I love my job here in Korea. Most days it drives me nuts, but I love it nonetheless. I love the people that live here. My co-teacher and her family is, in a way, my family. For that, I am eternally grateful and couldn't ask for a better situation. As for the country and culture, part of me didn't want anything to do with it. I was resistant to integrating. Give me a double cheeseburger and a slurpee, and I'll wear shoes where I please!

This was before I went to Japan. I escaped Korean culture for a week, and when I came back I felt...different. Not inspired or necessarily motivated...just different. I was adopting my old self again, the guy that I left back home in America. More importantly, I finally unpacked my orange sweater and hung it in my closet.

I'm still not out, but I'm getting to that point where I can call Korea 'home'. Everyone goes through these phases of culture shock, and even a veteran traveller like myself is subject to this emotional roller coaster. It takes time, but if you push through, you'll end up on top of that 'Acceptance and integration' phase. I've been there before, and it is the best feeling in the world...well, at least until you come home and you go through these same phases again. Best part is: when you get home, you'll have this amazing experience to share with your friends. You'll bask in their envy, and it is palpable. And, hopefully, you'll be able to manipulate that envy into action and inspire someone else to buy a ticket and take the ride. Gotta keep moving, right?

Oh, and I willingly tried octopus. It's chewy, salty, but hardly disgusting. I don't really remember why I hated this food in the first place....


  1. Oh I just love you, Ryan. I'm here for you when you go into Tim Burton dark movie phases, even though I know sometimes that phase is necessary. I guess I'm here for you when you get out of that phase. Well, I'm just trying to say that I'm here for you bfffb! Always!

    Also, you used the word "palpable" and I am very impressed. Haha. :)

  2. Great post Ryan! I'm a smidge jealous that my blog isn't as insightful as're a great writer and I was wholly entertained ;-)

    I can't decide which stage I am in with regards to culture shock. I think my stages have blended into one big "AHHHHH!". Guess I'm not quite ready for integrating and accepting.

    Props to you with the Octopus as well...I still can't do it.

  3. be warned however that while you think your new adventures and stories are interesting, not everyone back home is going to want to listen to you go on and on and on about your adventures! Their lives move on too and you have been somewhat removed from what really matters to the people back home. Be prepared for them to not really be as excited about things as you might be. Its the reality of going away - life goes on for those you left behind and what matters to you wont matter to them as much. Friends will have new friends, buddies will have new relationships, you will be the stranger when you go home too and will need to adjust in the same way when you come back to the USA

  4. Thans Anon! I've been in that position before with New Zealand, so I know how the 'reverse culture shock' works. You might get some attention, and there will be people who are genuinely interested in your story. Many aren't though, so you have to find that self fulfillment somewhere else.

    I find mine in knowing that I have this wonderful experience under my belt, and that I can look back on it for the rest of my life and smile. Nothing and nobody can take that away from you.

    Fitting back in is a way, impossible. You change dramatically faster when you're traveling, and your friends might not be your friends when you get back. It's nothing to be afraid of, though. You just have to look at it as another adventure!