The Kimchi-ite: The Culture Shock Of South Korea

When I moved to South Korea, it was my first time in the country and I had no idea what to expect. Going from the airport to my new apartment, differences from my prior life slowly came into focus. Signs were now written in lines and circles I didn’t understand, brand new glass skyscrapers were poised next to traditional tile-roofed houses and all the cars were made by Hyundai. As I walked around my new neighborhood at 4 a.m. on a Wednesday recovering from jet lag, I was expecting to be alone on the streets. Instead, when I walked around there were plenty of people out in the city, eating and drinking at cafes, going to work, doing their shopping or just stumbling out of bars. This constant, 24-hour activity is something I haven’t seen anywhere else. As the sun came up, more and more people came to the streets. Crowds seemed to form everywhere and I would quickly learn that they are a big part of Korean life.

South Korea is a little larger than the state of Indiana but with eight times the people. About half of South Korea’s 50 million people live in the greater Seoul area, making it one of the biggest, most populated cities in the world. Subway cars overflow as people push their way in, which is when I learned that the Korean words for “excuse me” and “I’m sorry” are almost never spoken. Even when trying to get out of the city to do some hiking, crowds of thousands will be there too.

When moving to a foreign place, there are so many moments that you feel completely lost and worry that it will become overwhelming. Am I going to accidentally offend anyone due to our culture differences? Will I be able to make new friends? What if I get sick of eating kimchi everyday and just want some food from back home?

Soon, however, everything starts to feel normal and you realize that life isn’t really all that different. You still do laundry, McDonald’s is always around the corner and cash comes out of ATMs. There are still minor differences in daily life – you have to spend an hour online trying to find a translation of your washing machine, McDonald’s offers free delivery and you can transfer money directly to a friend’s bank account from an ATM – but it becomes difficult to imagine a life without these idiosyncrasies.

This constant flux of familiarity and strangeness is part of what makes life as an expatriate so exciting. Constantly experiencing new aspects of cultures, learning about different trains of thought, meeting interesting people, eating food that looks make believe and just constantly being surprised by the world.

[Photo credit: Jonathan Kramer]

Kentucky BBQ: Bring Your Own Squirrels, Raccoons, Possums And Porcupines

In Kentucky, you can get a porcupine hickory-smoked for five bucks. A squirrel or a frog will set you back just $2.50. I had no idea that one could kill an animal and then bring it to a place that would smoke it for a fee until I road-tripped to Kentucky last week with my family.

I travel because I’m curious by nature and I like to know how people live in other parts of the country and the world. But America is huge and it’s easy to get lulled into the notion that you have to leave the country in order to experience another culture. Within an hour of arriving in Kentucky last week, I was reminded of how very wrong that assumption is.

Owensboro is only 360 miles due south from my home in suburban Chicago, but the people who live there inhabit a very different world than the one I live in. In Evanston, my adopted hometown, people with extensive record collections and cars made in Scandinavia pay $4 for fancy cups of coffee and $3 for croissants at the weekly farmers market and shell out big bucks for organic treats at either of two Whole Foods locations that are only a half- mile apart along Evanston’s Chicago Avenue.

In Owensboro, people who get their groceries at Wal-Mart and drive pickup trucks can hurl a dead animal onto their trucks and bring it over to the Old Hickory BBQ restaurant, where the good people who run the place have been hickory-smoking meats since 1918. I know we were in a very different place from listening to the rush hour traffic report on the radio: the only traffic tie-up involved a deer carcass.

Old Hickory BBQ was our first stop in the state after spending much of the day driving south from Chicago and it was a perfect introduction to one of America’s most distinctive, and for my taste, interesting states. Coming from Chicago, where you have to clear out your 401k to get a sandwich in some places, everything on the menu appeared to be ridiculously cheap- sandwiches were around $4 and platters including two sides were about $8. The place was moderately full but if it were transported to Chicago with the same prices, there would be a 9-hour wait to get in.

Kentucky’s BBQ specialty is mutton but I was most interested in the burgoo, a stew native to the region that is usually mutton-based. I went up to the take out counter, where many of the BBQ specialties are on display, and Jordan, one of the kitchen staffers, gave me a taste and offered to show me the restaurant smokehouse after our meal (see video below).

I loved the burgoo and everything else I tried and was elated when the bill came. $22 for our family of four, or less than we sometimes spend at McDonald’s. And as soon as I stepped into the smokehouse, I was overcome by the glorious smell of smoking meat. Jordan yanked open one of the smoke chambers and gave us a little tour of the meats people had brought in for 24 hour smoke sessions.

“Here are some pork butts,” he said. “Over there we’ve got some deer hind quarters.”

He said that he’d seen people bring in just about every type of animal you could imagine: squirrel, possum, porcupine, raccoons, frogs, and goats among others. And he confirmed my suspicion that Owensboro wasn’t much of a hotbed for vegetarians. I’m not a hunter and I tend to limit my meat intake but I would have loved to have strung up a hammock in the smokehouse and just enjoyed the seductive smell of grilled meats for hours.

The following night, while staying in a cheap motel in Beaver Dam, forty minutes southeast of Owensboro, and I got another taste of the hunting culture. The hotel’s free breakfast starts at 4:45 A.M. to accommodate the hunters, who filled the place to capacity on the first Saturday night of the deer-hunting season. It turns out that Kentucky has a huge deer population and hunters converge on the state from far and wide. We heard them chattering excitedly in the hotel corridor at 4:15 A.M.

Despite the sleep interruption, we didn’t emerge for breakfast around 9 A.M and the breakfast room was empty until a camouflaged foursome came in and began filling up on biscuits and gravy.

“Seems like you guys are the only hunters who slept in,” I said to a bleary eyed young man with a hunters knife hanging in a long sheath from his belt.

“Oh no,” he replied. “We were down here right at 4:45. We went out hunting and we’re back for our second breakfast now.”

“Did you get any deer?” I asked.

“I saw one,” he said. “But she was too young. I just couldn’t do it.”

The young man explained that deer hunters, like photographers, need to be out at dusk and dawn to stalk their prey. I asked him a whole host of dumb questions that anyone who grew up in Kentucky would already know the answer to, but then was able to show off a little of my own newfound knowledge as well.

“You know,” I said. “There’s a place in Owensboro that’ll smoke a porcupine for just five bucks.”

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]

What To Do When Your Travel Destination Feels Too Much Like Home

Sometimes it happens. You’re excited to go on a trip to a faraway destination, away from the fast-food chains, honking taxicabs and hoards of English speakers. However, despite looking forward to culture shock, when you get there you feel as if you never left home. The truth is, you can usually drive to the next city over from your hometown and still find differences, whether it’s the architecture, the vibe or the type of people who live there. To help you feel more like you’re traveling and less like you haven’t left home, use these tips.

Seek Out Cultural Differences

Just because the culture looks similar to yours upon first glance doesn’t mean it is. Befriend knowledgeable, friendly locals like taxi drivers, hostel owners and tour guides and ask them what some aspects of the culture are that aren’t immediately obvious. Ask questions about rituals, customs, holidays, cuisine, how people interact, schools of thought, government policies and anything else that may affect the daily life of locals. You may even want to do some online research. Once you discovered some interesting tidbits of cultural knowledge, find out how you can experience it firsthand, whether through an excursion, class or site.Give Yourself A Mission

If you’re having trouble finding cultural differences, choose a topic you find interesting and set out on a mission to learn everything you can about it. Art, food, fashion, history and architecture are some good areas that can lead you to making cultural discoveries. Set out to learn and experience as much as you can regarding this topic, digging into its past, present and future. If nothing else, you’ll at least gain a new area of expertise.

Get Lost For The Day

One of the best ways to make cultural discoveries is to simply stroll the streets of the city and get lost. Although you’ll be wandering aimlessly, keep your eyes open for possible points of interest. Doing this, I’ve discovered artisan shops, unknown classes and tours, authentic eateries, unique architecture and have just been able to get a feel of the town’s vibe in general.

Head To Non-Touristy Areas

Usually, when you’re walking down a street with signs in English, overpriced restaurants, Burger Kings and myriad travel agencies, you’re in the touristy part of the city. While these areas often offer worthwhile shops and activities, it isn’t the best location when you want to feel culture shock. I recommend spending the bulk of your time in the more non-tourist spots, as you’re more likely to see deeper aspects of the local culture. Ask your hotel for a map, and have them circle non-touristy areas that are also safe to explore.

Stay Away From International Chains

Sure, McDonald’s is great if you want to grab a quick burger and fries on the go, but don’t expect to get any real value from your stop there. First of all, while people think these international fast food chains help them save money, the truth is eating at local restaurants and cafeterias is often much cheaper, healthier and tastier. Additionally, you’ll gain cultural insight by dining at local eateries and seeing what everyday people eat and how they dine.

Take A Local Class

When traveling to a new place, I love taking a class that is related to the local culture. I’ve taken Tai Chi in China, learned to tango in Argentina and cooked traditional mole in Mexico. Even if the class ends up not being something I would stick with, I always leave feeling like I learned something about the city I’m visiting.

Do Something You’ve Never Heard Of

In a new city, it’s always worthwhile to do something you’ve never done before; however, it’s even more advantageous to sign up for an activity you’ve never heard of or can’t do anywhere else. For example, when I was in New Zealand I saw a local agency advertising zorbing. At the time, I had no idea what it was, which of course meant I had to sign up immediately. The activity entailed jumping Superman-style into an enormous beach ball that had a pool of soapy water inside, and being rolled down a giant hill. It was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had in my life, and really showed me how much locals value innovative adventure. It’s no surprise New Zealand is one of the top adventure destinations in the world. Other one-of-a-kind experiences I couldn’t pass up while traveling include relaxing in the world’s highest beer spa in Bolivia, learning to play mahjong from a local family in China and doing shots at the world’s highest distillery in Colorado.

Skip The Hotel And Opt For A Homestay

For the most part, staying in a hotel is a surefire way to be blinded from the local culture. Sure, you’ll feel pampered and have access to a great restaurant and spa, but a hotel’s main focus is usually ensuring the guest has a comfortable and pleasant stay, not that they feel culture shocked. While there are some great experiential hotels out there, nothing beats a homestay when it comes to getting to experience the culture of a place. You’ll get to live with a family and learn about cooking, how the home is run, dynamics between family members and general daily life firsthand.

Revel In Your Comfort

If you are really having a difficult time finding cultural differences and still feel like you haven’t left home after trying the above mentioned tips, just go with it. Be happy you’re in a place you feel comfortable, and just have fun exploring and discovering new things.

[Images via Shutterstock]

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: go native or go postal

Have you ever seen an American walking through an airport in a flowing, beaded sari, a colorful African tribal dress, or Afghan shalwar kameez and wondered, what the hell are they thinking? Expatriates who “go native” while living overseas might seem a bit loopy, but “going native” is actually a fairly common way to cope with culture shock.

A traveler and an expat experience foreign cultures in completely different ways. What can appear novel to the traveler can simply be a nuisance to the expatriate.

After an expat has been in their new country for a while, they inevitably confront aspects of the local culture they dislike. Even in the best places, we Americans can find things to complain about. Some cope with culture shock by retreating into a bubble- surrounding themselves with other foreigners and doing their best to recreate the lives they had before they left home. Others go native- completely rejecting their home culture and everyone who isn’t local. And of course, the majority are hybrids who fall somewhere in between.

Nearly every Foreign Service post has people in both extreme camps- let’s call them cowboys and natives for simplicity’s sake. We had one native in Skopje, whom I’ll call Native Neil, whom I really liked, but he was considered highly eccentric for embracing the local culture a bit too warmly. For example, Neil took public buses to get around Skopje while virtually no other Americans did. At the time, one could take a taxi pretty much anywhere in the city for the equivalent of $1. A bus ride cost 20 cents but the buses were extremely crowded and had erratic schedules.

Occasionally my wife and I would see Native Neil waiting at a bus stop and offer him a ride, and I think it embarrassed him to be seen interacting with other Americans. Native Neil didn’t need to save the 80 cents; he just wanted to completely immerse himself in the local culture, which is perfectly respectable. But for other Americans, that immersion made him a bit flaky.I tried to stake out some middle ground between the cowboys and natives, and, over time, I grew to love Macedonia and its people. (well, most of them) But there were definitely elements of the local culture that I could never embrace, even if I lived there a lifetime. Those who read this column regularly might recall that I’m a light sleeper.

Skopje is not a good city to be a light sleeper in. My apartment building was located at a busy intersection near downtown and we had several large garbage dumps just outside the gates of the building. Roma riding horse-drawn carriages would stop by to sift through the bins at all hours of the day and night and would send the neighborhood dogs into a barking frenzy. Frequently, I’d be jolted awake at 3 A.M. by a chorus of baying dogs, who wanted everyone in the neighborhood to know that our trash was being violated.

Because it would take time for the Roma to sift through all the bins, the barking would sometimes go on for 15-20 minutes, maybe more. I was friendly with the buildings’ caretakers, Blagoj and Nikola, who spent the bulk of their days in a windowless room staring at a wall, so I asked Nikola what could be done about the barking dogs. He agreed to speak to the owners and, in my American naiveté, I assumed that they would do something to try to quiet their dogs, who slept outside in front of their homes.

But Nikola’s détente came to naught.

“They love their dogs, there’s nothing we can do,” he reported back.

“But couldn’t they let them sleep inside?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

They were guard dogs and guard dogs belonged outside. I turned to my good friend and neighbor, Georgi.

“Well, Macedonians have a different way of dealing with such problems,” he said.

He went on to tell a story about how, as a youth, a favorite family dog had been poisoned with tainted meat by a neighbor who was annoyed with its barking. So rather than knock on the neighbor’s door to complain, they had simply killed the dog. I was told that this was not an uncommon approach in the Balkans. But I wasn’t about to annihilate the neighborhood dogs over lost sleep, so I just lived with it.

But a bad neighbor whom I dubbed Evil Atso was another matter. Evil Atso was a Mafioso thug who lived directly above us. He and his obnoxious wife used to let their little rat of a dog out into the hallway to piss and shit in the common area and would often park all three of their luxury cars in such a way that they’d block other residents in their spots. No one said a word because everyone was afraid of him.

Evil Atso was doing a major renovation of his apartment, and, despite being very wealthy, was actually doing a lot of the work himself- always at odd hours, like midnight during a work week, or at 6 A.M. on a Saturday or Sunday. The building had a no noise/construction on nights and weekends policy, but everyone was afraid to call Evil Atso on it. Except me. Our bedroom was directly below the room he was renovating and we would often awaken to the sound of jackhammers, literally right above our beds.

At first, I complained to Blagoj and Nikola, who were supposed to enforce such matters, but they were terrified of him.

“He has a lot of money,” Nikola said. “He can do whatever he wants.”

But as an American, I simply couldn’t accept that sort of grim fatalism. No, we Americans think that we can confront any problem, any nuisance, while people in other countries, like Macedonia, just learn to cope.

The first few times I confronted him, I was pretty civil, but that approach didn’t work, so one early weekend morning, when he was jackhammering away above our heads, I went up to his apartment building carrying a big old ghetto-blaster with a Metallica c.d. in it. After I knocked, the noise ceased and he let me in. Rather than start in with my usual complaints, I simply hit play and held up the ghetto-blaster with both arms outstretched just inches from his fat, villainous-looking face. The volume was all the way up and the angry words to “Sad But True” came spilling forth, half distorted, impossible to avoid.

He thought I was nuts and told me that he’d “break my neck” if I came back up to his apartment again. The disturbances continued for a couple more weeks and then, eventually, did cease. All along, the Macedonians had been right. There was no point in going postal over some lost sleep.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Photos via Flickr, Todd Huffman, blhphotography, Wonderlane, and B Rosen.

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Escape from a rock-star elevator in Skopje

Trapped in a private, “rock-star” elevator in a seemingly half-finished apartment building on my first day in Macedonia, I turned, in desperation, to a phrase book. I had spent the previous six months in language training at the Foreign Service Institute, studying full time in a class of two, to prepare for an assignment at the American embassy in Skopje. But I didn’t know how to say, “HELP!”

I was the lone member of the embassy trained in the country’s minority language- Albanian- which is somewhat akin to posting a diplomat in Washington, D.C. with only Spanish training and no English. I lived in a part of town where Albanian was useless and, at this moment, was happy to have found the word for “help” in Macedonian in a phrasebook I had fortuitously stuffed in my backpack before leaving my apartment.

“U-Poh-MOSH!” I yelled. “U-POH-MOSH!”

I’d later learn that I shared my “rock-star” elevator with 3 apartments beneath me, but these other residences were all under construction. I had heard someone hammering just outside the elevator and the noise ceased for a minute after I let out my cry.

There was silence for a moment and then I heard a most unwelcome sound: laughter. I considered the fact that I was pronouncing the word wrong, so I tried various other iterations of the word. Eventually the laughter ceased and the workman started talking to me, in Macedonian. I had no clue what he was saying.

“Please, just get me the hell out of here!” I yelled.

But the man seemed either powerless or disinterested. After about a half hour trapped in the elevator I started to feel claustrophobic and short of breath. It finally dawned on me that I had the cell phone number of my new boss, whom I’d met at the airport just an hour before. We had only exchanged pleasantries and now I had to call her, at the start of a three-day weekend, to bail me out of an elevator. Only in the fishbowl world of the Foreign Service could such an uncomfortable supervisor-subordinate introduction take place.

“Hi Karen, it’s Dave Seminara, we just met at the airport,” I said, making my very first call on a new mobile phone I’d been given.

“I seem to be stuck in an elevator at my apartment building.”

“Stuck in an elevator?” she asked, incredulous. “Well are you sure you hit the right buttons?”I was 29 years old and, by that point in my life, felt reasonably certain that I knew how to go up and down in elevators. But given the circumstances, I refrained from making a sarcastic response and my new boss said she’d make some phone calls to try to get me out.
I sat down on the floor of the small elevator box, and listened to the workman’s music as he ignored my occasional ravings. After about twenty more minutes, I felt a sudden jolt and I was hurdling down, presumably towards the lobby, at top speed.

I stepped out of the elevator, feeling very much like a released prisoner, and Karen was standing there looking concerned, alongside an attractive, nearly six-foot tall young woman named Saska, a local employee at the embassy who also lived in the building. They were both nice to me but I think they suspected that my elevator mishap was somehow my own fault.

After they left, I took a long, depressing walk down Vasil Gyorgov, the street my apartment was located on in Skopje’s Kapistec neighborhood. The sidewalks were filled with parked cars so I had to walk in the street. I kept getting splashed by demented Yugo drivers who targeted me, the lone fool out for a walk in a city of some 500,000 inhabitants.

I passed row after row of shabby Soviet-era apartment blocks before coming upon what looked like an oasis: The Beverly Hills Shopping Center. I walked in and meandered up to a pizza kiosk. Teenagers were taking turns unloading the contents of a ketchup bottle onto slices of pizza that looked hard enough to knock rabid dogs unconscious.

There were cafés with names like Prestige and Trend and a whole host of dark, drafty little shops selling burned cd’s and software. The higher-end shops were selling pirated cd’s that had photocopied liner notes, but a few others were simply selling what appeared to be burned copies of their own personal collections. I bought a homemade cd of Nirvana’s Greatest Hits for 100 denars, a bit less than $2, and returned to my apartment. I took the stairs.

That night, my embassy social sponsors, Blake and Adrianna, took me out for pizza and a brief tour of the downtown. The highlights were the country’s only working A.T.M. machine (or so they claimed), the two best pubs- creatively called the Irish Pub and the English Pub, one on each side of the Vardar River- and the Gradski Trgovski Mall, which offered a slightly better selection of burned CD’s and pirated software than the Beverly Hills Mall.

We met up with a young, local, married couple, and when I told them that part of my duties at the embassy would include interviewing visa applicants, the young woman concluded, “You’re going to be the most popular guy in Macedonia.” Or perhaps the least popular, I thought.

The following day, Blake offered to take me hunting, and when I declined, he seemed put out. The three day weekend passed slowly and on my first day at work at the embassy, I was already famous. Over and over again I heard the same thing.

“You’re the guy who got stuck in the elevator, right?”

It was a perfect introduction to the Foreign Service- a peculiar little world where there are no secrets. The local employees in the consular section asked me to recount the story and all gathered around me in rapt attention. They howled in delight; it was as though my debacle was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. I liked them immediately.

I would spend the next two years of my life living and working in this fishbowl. I never socialized with Blake again, Saska’s husband became a good friend, and I never ventured back into my rock-star elevator.

Next: Ciao Macho Man

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.