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On a blind date with the city

Irina Alexandra Iles
Guest reporter

Dear Seoul,

I remember arriving here. A winter wind welcomed me with a frozen hello. Unintelligible words on the streets warned me that I knew nothing about the place I had alighted at. Unfamiliar faces stared at me as I was making my way through the crowds. There I was, pursuing my dream half way around the globe. My adventure had begun although I could not tell my excitement and my fears apart. 

The following days went by just as movie scenes in which I was the main character and the set was my life. Everyone seemed to enjoy it but me. I felt like an alien, not the kind that has to register at the Immigration Office, but the one that scientists marvel at. I was different. I was the tourist, the foreigner, the European, the Romanian girl. None of these statuses made it easier for me. 

The culture shock was huge. I had read several books about Asian cultures before, but my knowledge could not keep pace with the real world. Notionally speaking, we largely agree that over time different cultures have grown around the world, but our awareness regarding them is raised only when confronted with a concrete situation. Often, observations on cultural differences are based on our own weaknesses and reflect our inability to connect with that culture. This is the premise on which I shall write from now on.

Excuse me (not)!

We, Europeans, usually maintain a certain distance from one another when walking. And we get oddly quiet when forced to do otherwise (taking the elevator, for example). We do not bump into each other and, if somehow we cannot keep our distance and accidentally touch the stranger next to us, we say, with no exception, “Excuse me.” Things turned out to be a little bit different here. Koreans squeeze their way through the crowd by cutting in front of you and you never hear even a whispered “I’m sorry.” Recently, I realized that this city is so packed with people that you should feel sorry with every step you take. Thus, I agree that it is more effective to accept less personal space.

Surprised by surprise reactions.

People back home seem more reserved. I mean they don’t seem to be as expressive when it comes to surprising events. I have noticed that here, in Korea, there is more excitement sparked by events from the most shocking and spectacular ones to things as little as a slightly stronger wind. If back home, this would result in a mere displacement of one’s hair, a sudden lift of a jacket, and perhaps a raised eyebrow. Here, on the other hand, these natural events are accompanied by verbal signs of amazement and awe such as “oooo…” or “uaaaa…”, and maybe “aiiii….” As uncommon and a bit funny as this may have seemed at first, it has now become quite normal and also kind of catchy. I myself have let a few similar gestures slip on several occasions. Strange, funny, and hard to understand, some local customs are quite contagious and soon I have found myself blending in with the crowd.

Lost in translation.

Korea is a high context society. This means that you must always pay attention to the underlying content when engaging in a conversation with a local. Language barriers become even more tremendous when both partners use English as a foreign language. Too used to the European scene, I have falsely presumed that, if met by a non-English speaking individual, I would be able to get my idea through by using some basic all-time classic words. But Europeans share a common cultural background whereas here this assumption is no longer valid. The problem lies somewhere in grasping the mechanism of a language. Behind the words and the rules, there is a whole other universe you need to conquer before you can communicate effectively and convey your message as intended. And that universe implies cultural codes, body language, and principles.

At first, I had that typical attitude: I am a foreigner. They shouldn’t expect me to live by their rules. Koreans read this attitude as condescending. And they were right ? it was. That is saying that when differences are not perceived as different, there is a tendency to perceive them in terms of right and wrong. But judging is not a manner to adapt, pride is not the attitude to shake hands with, and stereotypes do not favor intercultural relations. I have learned some hard lessons prior to the above conclusions, but, fortunately, people seem to understand me more nowadays as I am more careful, I listen thoroughly, and I integrate body language in my overall interpretation.

Public displays of affection (PDA) - a faux pas.

Unwritten laws that lie in peoples’ minds can sometimes be harsher than the ones stated in official documents. As a foreigner, I might have missed certain prescriptive Korean behaviors. My perspectives upon right and wrong were somehow westernized. As a European, you are probably used to holding your boyfriend’s/girlfriend’s hand as you are walking down the street or even in more formal circumstances. Well, that’s not exactly so in Korea. Here you have to be careful with revealing your emotions overtly on some occasions. For example, PDA might be seen as too intrusive, borderline disturbing actions by senior citizens, and you risk getting some very weirded out, downright angry looks. Particular gestures of affection can cause you to be seen as socially awkward because of the rooted customs of the place. Back home, lovers walking hand in hand or with their arms around each other was a common sight and probably one that made people smile as they were thinking of the beauty of such feelings.

However, this scene would be regarded as a bold attitude in Korea. The circumstances are very different, and as people define the place, the place does not welcome the PDA with the same warmth, but rather with surprise and sometimes disapproval. If you want to get along with people here, you should try to stay within the socially acceptable lines. In other words, mind your PDA! Rather than Public Display of Affection, go for Private Display of Affection, and you will fit in a lot easier. The positive aspect is that by doing so, these gestures of affection are no longer just routine as they were back home. Instead, they have become precious intimate moments with a more profound meaning. Therefore, I am seriously thinking of importing this local custom in Romania. 

My staying here almost a month has shaped my thoughts about Korean culture and how to adapt to it. And it wasn't easy for a European girl with attitude back home. I am now educating myself in order to be able to live here. I am learning to understand the society's values and principles, manners and judgments, behavior and taboos, and struggling to blend in. I have been caught in some cultural difference traps, but I have learned my lesson.

My amazement about Korean society is ever greater as a new school of thought, so to speak, is being revealed in front of my eyes. It is like being a child again who must learn to obey a set of rules. The difference here is that I am such a visible foreigner and I am seen as such. Sometimes I feel as if the entire city is watching me. My experience is stunning, but beautiful and worth telling about.

And here I am, continuing my not-so-blind-date with the city and its culture. I am still a foreigner, but more of a guest in Korea. I am just beginning to wade into the river of intercultural relations. I am more patient, more cultural sensitive, and more tolerant. I might be discovering a new and improved version of myself.

Thank you, Seoul!



Irina Alexandra Iles  irina.iles@gmail.com

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