It's official. The honeymoon is over. I've hit the Negotiation Phase. Culture Shock is a fascinating phenomenon, and one I've experienced plenty of times in my 23 years. I knew moving to Korea would prove challenging and would require extreme adjustments. Here I walk down the street and can barely understand what people say. Although I've finally mastered the Korean Hangul alphabet, street signs and menus still prove difficult.
I love the friends I've made here, am comfortable in my tiny apartment, embrace my options for travel, enjoy my new job and coworkers, and generally like my new life. But it was bound to happen. As I rode the crest of the honeymoon through September and October I hoped I could power through to 2011 unscathed by cultural anxiety but now I find myself frustrated and wounded in the trough. The week hasn't been the best one. I recently agreed to take on an extra class (6 more hours of teaching per week), lured by the prospect of some supplementary won to finance my upcoming winter excursions.
The students today were abysmally behaved: throwing things everywhere, full of blatant defiance, and refusing to focus. Today was the first time I ever punished a student. Granted the punishment wasn't exactly severe but it was still a new frontier for me. (I made him copy the sentence "I will behave." 10 times. I am pretty sure he has no idea what it means.) Then my fourth class was over and I assumed the rest of the day would be fine. But I was wrong.
My fall from grace occurred today at lunch. I've struggled with the midday menu at school all year - it isn't exactly what I am used to at home. But today as I glanced through the offerings held by the prison-like serving dishes in the cafeteria, my heart (and my appetite) sunk further and further. Kimchi: I hate kimchi. I am not afraid of the repercussions of this affirmation. Although every Korean enjoys this pungent side dish with every meal every day, I frankly can't stand it. One option bypassed. The second tray held what looked like a cold, floppy omelet in water. I spooned a small helping onto my penitentiary tray and hoped for the best. The third bin held tiny dried fish - loathsome dried fish! The fourth bowl cradled the dreaded topoki (a squishy white tubular item made of glutinous rice). Needless to say I didn't help myself to any. And then the rice. The rice which has always been my lunchtime saviour when all else seemed lost. But today it just didn't seem right. Didn't feel right. And finally, the soup. Really the "soup," usually a mixture of brown water and some sort of flaccid vegetable stirred in. I passed on it, as I always do.
I sat down at the end table in the cafeteria along with the other teachers. Then I just stared into my half-empty lunch plate. My appetite flitted away. I tried to force a few bites of rice down but I felt like my body was rejecting it. It kept saying to me, "Erin! No more rice! Seriously! This is getting ridiculous." And then it happened. I had to literally fight back the tears. I became so irrationally irate at the white lump of rice on my tray. I told my fellow teachers I had a stomachache and was going to return to my desk. I sulked up the stairs and back to my desk. And then I just sat there, staring at my computer in my dark English classroom. Then I realized what had happened. My honeymoon was over.
I know it will get better, as my friends here have already assured me. They are a major reason I keep going here. And my co-teacher is also fantastic. After lunch she came back to see if I was OK (I think she knew I didn't care for the offering today) and placed a meal replacement-like drink on my desk in case I was hungry. I'm lucky to be where I am, know who I do, and work at my school. I've already heard of people leaving. But I'm going to finish this, and I'm going to love it again. Maybe not today, maybe not even next week but soon. I'll be back to the Erin who love kimbap and mandu, who enjoys being out in downtown Daegu, and who gets excited every time she successfully orders in Korean at a restaurant. But for tonight, I am looking for solace in a cheeseburger and french fries, one of the most Western meals I can think of, a good run (ugh this marathon training - more on that later), a cold Hite, and some commiseration with good friends. It should do the trick.