Culture shock: for me, it’s a theme all too common in my experience abroad. Having lived in the Americas, Europe and now Asia, there’s been plenty of adjustment to undertake. Adjustment to life from one continent to another, I supposed that culture shock was to be expected. Moving from South Korea to China? I didn’t expect to experience any culture shock, but I was mistaken.
By way of introduction, in speaking of the culture of Korea and of China, I am not an expert on the topic, and do not want to be regarded, judged or perceived as such. This article is merely derived from my personal experiences living in Korea (Seoul and in Yuchon near the DMZ) as well as my limited experience in Suzhou, China. I don’t speak for the whole of China or for other foreigners.
in Korea and elsewhere in the world, I heard so many viewpoints
regarding China. The rest of the world has conflicting ideas and certain
perceptions regarding China, and upon leaving South Korea, I felt ready
to discover the REAL China. What is this land of diverse peoples,
intricate language, sprawling landscapes and epic dynasties?
My culture shock started with some differences I started to notice in daily life. Culture shock for me happened in comparing my Korea life to that of China. There were moments when colleagues needed to remind me, “You aren’t in South Korea anymore…”
In Korea, I have heard the Chinese referred to as “rude” and “having no manners”. Here, in China, people say, “Korea is antiquated and with its bows and intricate rules regarding respect, hasn’t moved on from the past. The cultural rules seem stifling.” On either side, there is definitely love-hate relationship that most seem to acknowledge.
I feel that some of these opinions derive from not only history and politics, but also cultural differences in mannerisms and showing respect. I used to think that a hierarchy was less powerful or existed to a lesser extent in China. This is not always the case. A social hierarchy–especially in the work place – does exist, yet it’s more subtle and I have found it more difficult to navigate.
In Korea, I grew to appreciate bowing and the differences in addressing those of higher working station. It was 100% clear to me what the working relationship would be and the expectations regarding respect. The workplace was a tightly-knit community and worked like a well-oiled machine. I hold no illusions: it wasn’t perfect, but still…
In November 2017, I was sick for 2 weeks. Once, with a cold where I could hardly walk and another time with an innocuous cough and sniffles. During that time, I have come to know a certain truth regarding training centers in China. At certain centers, management sometimes mismanages things. Teachers are sometimes scheduled for classes without being told they are teaching and the contract is often tested. At times, one may not get what one is entitled to have unless one moves forward and is assertive.
With sickness, I have learned to always advocate for myself. Although my employers feel like my family in China, work is work and I have learned that company policy and work has priority over health for some members of the training center community. Sick days aren’t so much a thing — even for Chinese nationals — so I have learned to be my best advocate when I am ill and to always provide a doctor’s note.
I also learned to ALWAYS translate labels and to ask about side effects. Unbeknownst to me, the cold medicine here, in addition to curing cold symptoms, often acts as a sleep aid. Taking this kind of medicine before work is a nightmare of vertigo, dizziness and overall nausea. I don’t recommend it!
I was shocked by my experience being sick in China, as I had never had so much backlash being sick in South Korea. Rather than being forced to work while sick (in South Korea), I would be sent home. During my time in China, this was not the case. I had to learn to fend for myself. Working in a company environment, I had to be my best advocate.
Teaching: “Smile, you’re on camera”
Another aspect of teaching in China that surprised me is that everything is filmed. My classes, office… everything is on CCTV camera for safety reasons. I think that this is a great feature which allows for transparency, but was taken aback to see grandparents charging into my classroom after seeing his/her grandchild not singing a class song.
There is safety with CCTV, but there are also extremes. Some parents sit on the edge of their seat watching the class screen in the school lobby. Thus, I must always make sure that my body language is positive to avoid anything being misconstrued. As an educator, these things go without saying, but, especially at first, I felt a bit on edge and shocked knowing that every second of class time was under scrutiny.
This article is the embodiment of my experience with culture shock while moving from South Korea to China. Culture shock is random, subtle and sometimes is difficult to navigate. It also looks different for different people. A new environment brings new challenges which often arrive unexpectedly. For me the shock happened while comparing my life in South Korea to my life in China.
With this being said, despite my initial struggles, I have adjusted to life in China. I have found cultural adjustment to be a journey in respect, awareness and learning. I have learned to experience each country without judgement and to avoid comparisons along the way. The transition from one country to another — even on the same continent — can be difficult. More from one country within Asia to another was my most difficult of experiences.
A new continent is a clean slate, but somehow the lines between my life in South Korea and China were bore semblance, yet were completely different. A new start should bring new perspective. While it is tempting to reminisce on past experiences and compare cultures, it has proven more healthy for me to stay grounded in my China life and the make a clean transition.