There's no place like home (Korea Times)

Many Koreans have asked me if I ever suffered from culture shock. No, I tell them: “Why should I have been shocked when I expected things to be different?” As I explain it: “Culture shock” is a polite way of saying, "Some people aren’t mentally or emotionally prepared to live or travel abroad.”

The late curmudgeon Paul Fussell argued that there are three kinds of people who travel: Tourists, travelers, and explorers. Briefly, tourists stick to the familiar. Travelers get somewhat involved in the local culture. Explorers dive right in, often "going native.” (I confess to being a traveler. I have been mistaken as being an explorer, although "unorganized” is more accurate.)

What about those who live abroad? Some of the complaints make sense and can improve things, but some border on paranoia. I have heard more than a few expatriates complain that Koreans avoid sitting next to them on public transportation. I wish I had that kind of magic repellent. For those brief moments the seat next to me is empty, I can always count on a passenger with two or three bags squeezing in next to me.

What about the reverse? If someone avoiding sitting next to you when there is an empty seat means that you are being discriminated against, what are we to conclude when Koreans single out expatriates and demand that they sit? If one action is discrimination, then the opposing action would seem to be favoritism.

This is not to deny that there are some Koreans who avoid sitting next to expatriates. In that case, consider yourself lucky. Who the heck wants to sit next to a xenophobe? Let them stand. Just give them a big smile and enjoy your ride.

Other expatriates are bothered by the personal questions many Koreans ask, the lack of personal space, and even impromptu English lessons. As Celeste Chua wrote, we can easily find the good or the bad we seek. That is certainly true in a population of 49 million. By far, the most incredible complaint I have heard is that some expatriates feel unfairly singled out by smart-aleck children saying/shouting, "Hello!"

As a kid growing up in Texas, I would have been surprised to learn that an adult was attaching cultural or national significance to my actions. Through a lot of practice, tossed with just the right trajectory from the roof of a house, I could hit an unsuspecting friend/enemy square on the head from 30 yards away with a water balloon. We had fun randomly shouting dirty words at each other, trying to create entire sentences out of them.

Ringing someone's doorbell and then running away before they could open the door was fun when we were bored. When passing cars interrupted our football and baseball games on the street, we’d stare angrily at the drivers, wishing we had prepared water balloons to bombard them.

But I digress. In our own countries, when encountering rude or playful children, we say, "stupid kids." In Korea, far too many expatriates will say, "stupid Korean kids," attributing even the greeting of "hello" as to being a character flaw in Koreans overall. Korean youngsters, winding down from another pressure-packed day of studying for 18 hours, really shouldn't be yelling "hello" at hypersensitive people. They should be yelling something much more appropriate, like "Yankee, go home!" And ``home" is where some people need to be.

There's truly no place like home. Some people never should have left.

The writer is a visiting scholar at the Liberty Society in Seoul. He can be contacted at cjl@post.harvard.edu.

Korea Times