I am no stranger to culture shock. Arriving to Canada from the countries of Bosnia and Croatia in 1997, I was impressed to see that the roads are paved here, and that no babies are being sacrificed to sea goddesses, and that soccer is played on an actual soccer field and not a minefield. Therefore I was pretty sure I had this whole culture shock thing down pat before going to South Korea, but regardless of how many things we read and people we spoke with, nothing can fully prepare you for those first few days.
First impressions, especially with people, are very important since they set that initial tone. With countries this is amplified. Being in a foreign country for the first time it’s very easy to see something strange and think that it is indicative of the whole society, but I think that that’s how people cope with these situations: find something utterly strange in order to reinforce your own normalcy.
Nowadays, thanks to their fabulous boy bands, Starcraft tournaments that pack whole stadiums, and a little video that, at this moment, has had two and a half billion views, we all presume that Korea has its…quirks. By the way, I just want to say that PSY’s Gangnam Style is correct in that every time you go to that district of Seoul you have to, have to, walk around riding an invisible horse, it’s kind of their thing. But back when my fiancée and I went there, we only had these wonderful ladies to prepare us for what we were about to witness.
Getting off the plane in Incheon, Paige and I were lucky in that the owner of our school and his wife picked us up. We heard some horror stories concerning new teachers landing only to be greeted by a taxi driver and, well, taking a taxi in Korea is a hell of a culture shock that I wouldn’t experience until some time later, but that’s a story for another time. Mr. Park and his wife drove us to the small city of Ilsan, east of Seoul, and by small I mean a city of one million people. The neon lights all around us were a very new experience as we quickly realized that this city never sleeps. We arrived on a Tuesday night, got to our apartment, and were told be ready to go to our health evaluation early next day.
If you’ve ever seen an episode of the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Jetsons you’ll recall that there was always a conveyor belt to transport the people to wherever they wanted to go. Korean hospitals are only missing that conveyor belt to make their health evaluations even more efficient. It’s highly impressive how effectively, almost robotically, they take your blood, weigh and measure you, take an x-ray of your chest, and have you pee in a cup. We were in and out in less than half an hour and we went straight to the school where we watched educational movies for the better part of the day. I drank so many coffees to combat the effects of jetlag and the thirteen-hour time difference that I’m pretty sure it replaced my blood and I became a walking espresso machine. Finally, we got back home to go to sleep and the next day was a holiday, and that’s when we decided to get acquainted with this new country of ours.
Ilsan has a manmade park named Lake Park, home to the Royal Spectacular Musical Fountain (that’s actually the name). Lake Park is, at this time, the largest artificial Park in all of Asia. A big lake filled with Koi in the middle with greenery all around it and a five-kilometer path going around with a side for walkers and joggers and a side for bikers. There is an artificial waterfall, a cactus arboretum, a play-park, large memorials, big open areas for concerts, and even a toilet museum (yep). It is very impressive and romantic.
Coming to Lake Park we started walking around while fully taking everything in. There were all kinds of people walking around and enjoying the day. One part of the park has a kind of footpath with different rocks that you’re supposed to walk on for relaxation even though it looks extremely painful. At that place there is also a hill with trees and an almost invisible path going up the hill. Paige and I decided to walk up it…and it was one of our best decisions ever.
Climbing the hill we started hearing these intense grunting noises. They were extremely rhythmic and forceful. We didn’t pay much attention to them until we came upon a clearing and saw an elderly, tall, Korean man just giving it to a tree. Now he wasn’t naked or anything like that, he was fully clothed in a baby blue tracksuit with both of his hands on the sides of the tree and he was just thrusting his pelvis into the tree. He was doing this with such force that you could hear every thump that went along with his grunt. Paige and I just stood there. I mean, you hear these stories about the East being very strange, kind of like the vending panty machine in Japan that I looked for everywhere and didn’t find, and I almost jumped with joy when I saw this because I knew I had a story I could tell all my friends. It was so weird and my mind quickly went from, “oh how great it is to be in a different country” to “great, we’re surrounded by dendrophiliacs and they’re busy making saplings”.
Of course, this line of thinking was wrong. I looked over to see these two elderly Korean ladies looking at this guy with the same expression that was on our faces. After we left this man with his wood and his wood we rejoined society on the walking path. We also never saw anything like that again, and, to be fair, I’m pretty sure that since I’ve been back to Canada I’ve seen drunken people make love to trees in the lot next to my building every Friday night. But you have to understand that we were tired, very tired, in a foreign country and we just started to get used to everything when we witnessed this. I’m pretty sure that many of the things I found strange over these last four years traveling Asia are actually not that strange, but because they happen in a foreign country they are that much more pronounced. Strange or not, I can’t wait to tell you more about my culture shocks.