Year in Review: What I’ve Learned

Reflection has always been a key strategy for me to learn from my mistakes and to plan for the future. I regularly journal to process my experiences and learn from them. This has been particularly important throughout my travels in the past, and now in Korea.

This week marks a year of living and working in Korea. It’s the longest I’ve lived away from home. To reflect on my first year in Korea, I’ve written three “Year in Review Posts”: What I’ve learned, How I’ve Changed, and my Loves and Strong Dislikes of living here.

When I started writing the “What I’ve Learned” post, I thought I would write a few different points to expand on. Of course I’ve learned a lot in the past year living in Korea. I’ve learned a (very) small amount of Korean, I’ve learned about the culture, and I’ve learned a lot about teaching. But I wanted to focus on what I feel is a much deeper learning about myself:

I’m not as open and tolerant as I thought I was, or as I’d like to be

My studies in community development and anthropology brought terms like ethnocentrism and cultural relativism into my vocabulary. If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, ethnocentrism is viewing and evaluating another culture from within the context of one’s own (frequently producing negative views of the other culture) while cultural relativism refers to understanding a culture from within it’s own context and perspective.

For every cultural immersion experience I had before living in Korea, I told myself I was a successful cultural relativist. Sure I came across things that seemed strange, even made me uncomfortable. But if I viewed these experiences from within the context of the culture, I could assure myself I was being a good traveler–a global citizen rather than a “globetrotter.” A community member rather than a “voluntourist.”

See something I don’t like or I’m not comfortable with? No problem! I’ll try it anyway, immerse myself in the culture, and become a better person from it. And this worked beautifully. In Ecuador, I tried fried grubs and fish brains, and in Cuba I learned about the story of economic blockade from the Cuban perspective. These were all incredibly enriching experiences, and setting aside cultural differences was essential.

After spending an entire year in another culture though, this attitude can become exhausting. It’s difficult to just laugh and brush off the ajummas pushing me out of the way because their time is somehow more valuable than mine, or the drivers who decide that their rush to get to work is more important than my safety as I try to cross the road. These little snippets of life in Korea have changed from light-hearted anecdotes to frustration and even anger.

The frustration is inevitable, but the important part is how I choose to deal with it. I have my fair share of complaining about these daily experiences. But I also take the time to explore where these snippets of culture come from. Through this, I’ve learned that extreme cultural relativism can be just as problematic as ethnocentrism.

In the case of being pushed over by individuals of the older generation as they shove their way ahead in line for bus tickets, or to get through to the subway first, forcing myself to view this as a circumstance of cultural difference that shouldn’t bother me just doesn’t make sense.

Korean youth are also finding themselves frustrated with this system and are slowly rejecting it. Sure, there’s nothing I can do about it. But at least I can feel justified in my frustration knowing it’s a reality that young Koreans similarly begrudge. I absolutely think elders deserve respect, but I think Korea takes this attitude to an extreme at times, particularly where it comes at a cost of respect to youths.

Another example of my more critical feelings is the obsession with looks. First off, I don’t look down on individuals who go to extremes to achieve the “perfect looks” – like hour-long make-up routines, extreme dieting, and plastic surgery. It’s an unfortunate reality that many Koreans have to live with in order to get a job, partner, and respect from others. But I think this reflects a larger cultural issue that shouldn’t be ignored for the sake of cultural relativism.

Depression, dangerous procedures, and even suicide are just a few symptoms of this acute focus on looks. I’m fortunate that this doesn’t deeply affect me as a foreigner, but being told I’m fat, I need to work on my skin, or should wear make-up to avoid looking sloppy is frustrating.

Perhaps this means I’m not as open and tolerant as I always imagined. But I think there is a point where it’s fair to be critical of pieces of other cultures. However, it’s important that this critical lens doesn’t apply to individuals or the culture as a whole, and especially that it doesn’t generate hate. Rather, it should be a tool to understand the challenges that individuals in other cultures face as well as reflect upon our own cultures.

What have you learned from experiences with cultural immersion?

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