Living and teaching in Korea is an absolutely fantastic experience that will open your eyes to a whole new world that you can never experience at home. Traveling in itself to another country provides an education that one cannot get from any book or receive from any university. Learning about and experiencing first-hand another culture, language and way of life is exhilarating, and once people start, they usually can’t stop. The largest majority of people who travel to South Korea to teach for a year end up staying longer than they planned, or end up continuing teaching in other countries in Asia and around the world.

But this does not mean that there are no difficulties; probably the single greatest threat to any person traveling to a foreign country to live for an extended period of time is “Culture Shock”. First identified in 1958 by anthropologist Kalvero Oberg, culture shock is a long term psychological stress that all human beings experience when they move to a completely new cultural environment. This term expresses the lack of direction, the feeling of not knowing what to do or how to do things in a new cultural environment, and not knowing what is appropriate or inappropriate. Culture shock usually sets in within the first few weeks of moving to a new environment, though sometimes can take longer to surface.

The Symptoms

Just as a disease, culture shock has a cause, symptoms and a cure. The cause, as stated above, is moving to a completely new cultural environment. The symptoms are very similar to those of depression, and can vary both in type and strength from person to person:

– Sadness, loneliness, melancholy
– A preoccupation with health
– Aches, pains, and allergies
– Insomnia, a desire to sleep too much or too little
– Changes in temperament, feeling vulnerable
– Powerlessness
– Anger, irritability, resentment, an unwillingness to interact with others
– Identifying with the culture just left or idealizing the country just left
– A loss of identity. Feelings of inadequacy or insecurity
– Trying too hard to absorb everything in the new culture or country
– Unable to solve simple problems
– A lack of confidence
– Developing stereotypes about the new culture
– Developing obsessions such as over-cleanliness
– Longing for family
– Feelings of being lost, overlooked, exploited or abused


The Phases

Culture shock has five distinct phases:

  1. The Tourist or Honeymoon Phase: Usually, everything goes smoothly for the first few weeks in a new country, sometimes longer, as the traveler is excited about being in a new place and experiencing a new lifestyle. The newcomer may have some difficulties, but usually accepts them as just part of the newness.

  2. The Emptiness or Rejection Phase: The small differences natives to the country see as very minor inconveniences begin to real grate on the traveler. The symptoms listed above start to present themselves in varying degrees. The newcomer may begin to feel aggressive and start to complain about the host culture/country. This phase is a kind of crisis in the ‘disease’ of culture shock. It is called the “rejection” phase because it is at this point that the newcomer starts to reject the host country, complaining about and noticing only the bad things that bother them. At this stage the newcomer may; move on to the third stage, seek comfort with a colony of countrymen “Colony Syndrome”, or simply call it quits and go home.

  3. The Conformist or Acceptance Phase: This phase is characterized by the traveler gaining some understanding of the new culture, its ideals and values. A new feeling of pleasure and sense of humor may emerge and the traveler starts to feel a certain psychological balance. The crisis is over when one starts understand and tolerate cultural differences and gains a feeling of purpose and direction.

  4. The Assimilation or Complete Adjustment Phase: In this stage the traveler accepts the food, drinks, habits and customs of the host country, and may even find some things preferable in the host country to things at home. One realizes that there are different ways to live and that no way is really better than another, just different. The traveler is now completely adjusted to the new culture.

  5. The Reverse Culture Shock Phase: This phase is usually overlooked. It occurs only when the traveler returns to his/her home country and tries to re-assimilate back into his/her own culture, the lives of family and friends, food, lifestyle and job market. The severity of this stage usually relates directly to the length of time that the traveler has been away. The longer that one has been away, the more things that may have changed and it takes a while to fit back into the lives of the people close to him/her and become at ease with the cues and signs and symbols of the home culture.


Minimizing Culture Shock

Everyone experiences culture shock, but there are many things that you can do, both before you leave home and after you arrive in Korea, that can drastically reduce how much you are affected. Go over the following list carefully:

  1. Learn as much as you can about the new country, its culture and lifestyle, before you leave home: Preparing yourself with knowledge and understanding about where you are going is arguably the most effective way to minimize the shock you will feel upon arrival. The PlanetESL site is a treasure trove of information and is specifically designed to provide our teachers with the knowledge and insight into Korean culture and lifestyle they will need to easier adjust to their new environment. Take the time to read the rest of this Living in Korea section, as well as the Working in Korea section, to find out just exactly what things are going to be like over here and the best ways to cope with the differences.

  2. Maintain contact with your friends and family back home: Keep up with what is going on in their lives, and let them know how things are going with you. It may also help to keep up with the current events of you hometown or country via internet news and newspaper sites. All this will give you a feeling of belonging and will reduce your feelings of separation and homesickness.

  3. Develop a hobby: Doing something fun and interesting in your spare time such as a sport, a martial art, a cooking class or learning a traditional game will help to prevent boredom, which is a strong factor in depression and culture shock.

  4. Learn the language: Learning how to read, write and speak Korean will not only gain you a valuable skill, but will enable you to communicate with people around you and will give you a strong feeling of confidence and security.

  5. Make friends with Korean people: Korean people are exceptionally friendly and love to meet new people, especially foreigners. Establishing relationships with them will open avenues to learn about their culture and lifestyle, give you opportunities to get out and see the countryside, experience the nightlife, and help you feel like you belong. It will also let you practice the language that you are learning and you just might make some friendships that could last a lifetime.

  6. Make contacts with people of your own ethnic group:There are lots of other teachers in your exact situation all over Korea. Making friends from your own culture will give you access to a support group through which you can ease your feelings of loneliness and alienation as well as gain information on things to do, places to go and where to get things you may need. As part of the PlanetESL community, you have access to a wide resource of people who are doing exactly what you are doing. If we can’t put you in direct touch with a PlanetESL teacher in your community, we will be more than happy to help you find out the local foreigner hangout in your neighborhood.

  7. Be open to new things: Always keep in mind that this is a new country and culture; their views, way of thinking and how they do things are not going to be the same. And it is especially important to keep in mind that their way of doing things is not necessarily better or worse, just different.

  8. Allow yourself to feel sad about the things that you have left behind: Your family, your friends, etc. These are natural feelings and you should not try to avoid or repress them. Acknowledge that you feel sad about being away from them, but that the experiences you are gaining and the friendships you are making are well worth it.

  9. Be patient: The act of settling into a new cultural environment is a lengthy process. It is going to take time.

  10. If you feel stressed, look for help: If you have not established any support group of your own, PlanetESL is ALWAYS here to lend a hand via email, phone or even in person. With PlanetESL, you will always have a friend wherever you go.