A Fulbright Scholar friend of mine, who studied in Korea with me a couple years ago, is headed back to Seoul to study Korean art. He sent me an email the other day, anticipating his future culture shock:
So I’m heading out in a few weeks. I feel pretty freaked out. I feel like I’ve become a lot more ‘American’ since I got back from Korea. I think the first time we were there everything was so new and we were so innocent that we just accepted everything that came to us and loved it. I feel like I’m going to be a little more ‘picky’ this time, if that makes any sense. I know I’m going to miss a lot of stuff about America. I was sitting in a small neighborhood pub the other day having a beer with [my girlfriend] and I realized that there is nothing like that in Korea!
It’s an interesting idea, this notion of shifting between being ‘Korean’ and ‘American.’ What my friend is describing here is not a sense of ethic or national identity, but a kind of cultural mindset that is developed by adjusting to another place. In order to truly travel, we give up a part of our known selves to embrace a new way of life, and a new perspective.
This friend uses the word “innocent” when describing ourselves back then, which is accurate enough. But before living in Korea, for me it was really naivete. My previous mental constructs of the country were based on pictures, pop culture, second-hand stories and textbooks – media that could never express the complexity of a place. When I experienced the country firsthand, my preconceived ideas were overwhelmed – nothing fit the framework, it was all too big and beautiful to grasp.
About a month after my arrival, these feeling of being overwhelmed culminated in personal breakdown that coincided with a pretty terrible illness; in a feverish haze, all I wanted was something familiar. Inevitably, I started to recover (both physically and mentally), and began to simply let go. I let the color of the Seoul wash over me, and happily threw myself headlong without ever looking back – as my friend said, “we accepted everything that came to us and loved it.”
It’s been a long time since I was in Korea, but the memories are as vivid as the taste of the coffee I’m drinking right now. I know my friend still holds the mental pictures from that time close as well, but I hope he doesn’t hold them up to the light of his new experiences as he heads back to Seoul. Comparing the two doesn’t compute – images of the past are frozen, but the reality is dynamic. You can only choose your experiences to an extent, the rest will simply happen.