A little over a year ago I arrived in Japan for the first time. I’d dreamed since a child of seeing the country after becoming captivated by chinese landscape paintings at an early age. The interest developed over time, leading to a focus on eastern philosophy/religion in my undergraduate studies, eventually bringing me to the area itself. Stepping off that plane was a an experience I’d looked forward to and imagined since a young age. I remember my first ride into Tokyo from Narita Airport admiring the landscape outside the train window, all the rice fields and bamboo trees. I found it interesting, especially the hanging rings (to hold for balance) and the purple fabrics of the seats. I remember a japanese woman across from me curiously watching me and smiling. I don’t know how I appeared, but I remember just feeling wide-eyed and so excited. I’m guessing she could tell I was new to the country.
My first few months in Asia were characterized by a combination of severe distress and wide-eyed wonder. I’d never been alone and outside of my country, or even state (for that matter) for longer than 2 months and I found the experience very challenging. Added to the situation was that I wasn’t merely a traveller..There was a transition mid way through my trip from traveler to potential expat, upon meeting my current girlfriend in Seoul. Yet, even prior to this transition, my first month in Japan was a bumpy but amazing ride. I felt at times incredibly lonely and apart, and particularly, confused. I, however, was in awe. I was seeing the culture through young eyes. I hadn’t yet grasped the dark sides of the culture. I was aware enough of the problems I was perceiving both in Japan and Korea, but I wasn’t in a place to truly feel the effect of the problems myself. I was so caught up in my excitement upon arriving in a place that previously only existed in my mind, that I saw the cultures through rose-tinted glasses. I was in my “honeymoon phase” of culture shock. I felt the behavior and attitude of Korean and Japanese people really refreshing. Even if some of the behavior frustrated me, it was easy to overlook. It was easy to focus on the positives, because the whole experience was just such a relief for me. I was surrounded by people living life in a radically different way than I was used to. Looking back, I feel part of my motivation in visiting was a desire to just break away from the familiar and experience something very different. I was also frustrated with things related to my own situation in the states and tired of some of my own countries problems.
I eventually returned to the states after an unsuccessful attempt to secure a job in Korea. I brought home with me a lot of stories and recall describing to my friends and family the many wonderful things about Japanese and Korean culture. It’s not that my perception of the culture was incorrect, but it was skewed. I was so excited about this new life I’d experienced abroad that I was seeing in Asia mostly the positives and America mostly in negatives. I was stretched and pushed by my time in Asia to embody different attributes and characteristics. I was also appreciated in Korean and Japanese culture for personal qualities I felt were less appreciated in the states…For example, introversion. I was so relieved initially (and honestly, still am) that people here communicated less through words and more through feelings. I felt immediately that more communication was happening nonverbally and more space and time was allowed during conversation. The communication style was a relief for me. I felt like, eating dinner, having some silence wasn’t considered awkward. I’ve often been stressed by the extremely extroverted American culture, and the pressure to continually talk. I still find this aspect of Asian culture refreshing, yet, there’s a consequence of it. The consequence is that, in asian culture, emotional expression and transparency in feelings is not always valued, so there’s a lot of guessing games. The withholding of verbal expression can lead to some very challenging social situations. The point being that for each culture there’s a set of positive and negative qualities. Over time, I’ve had to become deeply acquainted with my host culture’s problems to develop a healthier and more balanced view of myself as an American abroad.
Through being forced to relate more realistically to Korea, I’ve gained an understanding of the types of challenges I face in Korea and the states. Both places come with challenges unique to me as a white, new england 25-year old American male. Neither country is better or worse than the other, and the problems aren’t necessarily more severe in either country – rather, they are just different. I have to learn to handle problems unique to me in America just as I have to learn culturally-specific problems here. There are things I miss and love about life in America but also things that really piss me off about American life. I can say the same for Korea. There are many things I love about Korea, but I’d be lying to say there aren’t things that really upset me here. I’ve had to take off my rose-tinted glasses here to perceive this culture and place realistically, and thus, in effect, perceive my home country realistically as well. As expats, we need to both relate to the culture with healthy criticism and appreciation. I’ve encountered expats who constantly complain about the ways Korea has it wrong, speaking nostalgically about American life. I always wonder, why don’t you just go home? I’ve also encountered expats who seem to be running from something, berating their home country or speaking of it in mostly negative terms. I can relate to both these positions, however, only temporarily. Some days I complain and am frustrated by lifestyle factors here as an expat, sometimes I’m reminded of things I hate about my home culture. Yet, in the end of the day, it’s not about one place being bad and one place being good, but both having strengths and weaknesses. It’s about appreciating that you are an outsider, you are from another culture that’s shaped you..that will never change, and your host culture has a personality just like people, it will come with aspects that work for you and some that don’t. It’s an incredible opportunity to expand your mind and learn about a new way of life, while getting to know yourself as a culturally unique person.