When Complacency Strikes, Part I: The Third Month Abroad

Last Friday marked my third month living abroad. In that time, I have stepped in front of a dozen classes full of strangers to pretend that I know how to teach them my language, made a dozen new friends from four different continents, and experienced the depths of both Korea and China. Though my time is still shy of 100 days, I feel like I have been here for years. When I think about my lives back in Florida and Colorado, they seem to be years in the past instead of mere months. I say that not to show that this time has felt interminable, but to show that I have experienced more in these three months than I am used to experiencing in year.

Although there have been adjustments, life in Seoul has not been a dramatic culture shock. Sure, things are different, but the differences are more subtle that I think many would expect. Though this may be my first extended trip abroad, I have not been shaken of the belief that we humans are all more or less the same. From a genetic standpoint, we are practically identical, and my experiences have supported that humans express that fact outwardly. There is no remarkable way that people behave or interact here. The technology and infrastructure more or less resemble those that I would expect to see back in the U.S., and once the language barrier is broken, communicating is much the same.

Though the differences may be subtle, they are absolutely real. I will not pretend that I have not noticed the difference in the way organizations run, coworkers communicate, and even motorists drive. As a Confucian society, Koreans are extremely hierarchical. Companies run on seniority, and I have seen the way that junior employees plan their lives on the beck and call of their superiors. If that employee is a woman, her life is all the more dependent. On the personal level, coworkers appear to operate in an almost haphazard dance around the task of the day. I may be jaded because of my own inefficient workplace, but I have a feeling that I am not the only one who has sensed that initiative and preemption are not common virtues in the Korean workplace. That lack of initiative translates to the roadways, and not in an obedient following of the rules. Streets appear as uncontrolled chaos in which motorists set a desired direction and simply react to the flow around them, regardless of traffic laws or signals. Though South Korea is still figuring out this whole driving thing (continually ranking at the top of traffic accident rates in the OECD), it’s not so bad that I’m terrified of getting in a taxi. These are all subtle differences that are not immediately obvious to those who are here for only a short period of time.

Albeit my desire to keep moving and exploring other regions of the globe has made my stay a bit uncomfortable, I continue to remind myself that I have gained knowledge and insight that many people will never have. Given that my life objective is to learn as much about this world as possible, I am grateful for the opportunity to delve into the inner working of a society in this manner. However, I have recently found it difficult to continue to pursue these aims. I have recently concocted a new plan for my future that would land me on five continents, take me through a couple dozen countries, and carry me over 10,000 miles of railroads over the next four years. As exhilarating as the thought of setting off on this grand adventure may be, I still have nine more months working a quotidian grind here in South Korea. As someone who constantly worries about the seconds of my life that are ticking away, I am determined to prevent these nine months from going to waste.

While bold and honorable, those words are empty. I have told them to you and to myself in nearly every post since I began consistently blogging. Since returning from China a couple weeks ago, I started to realize how comfortable I have become here. Though experiencing Chongqing was well worth every penny and second I spent, and I wouldn’t trade the chance to visit Luisa for anything, it was an incredibly uncomfortable four days. My Korean language skills may be limited, but they are leagues beyond what I could do with my small handful of Chinese. (Not to mention that the words I did know were only spoken; the written word was a challenge I didn’t even attempt.) At least in Korea, I can sound things out and toss together a rudimentary sentence well enough to get what I want (and many Koreans speak just as much English). Though basic, I have gotten comfortable with this method, but even that simple task I have begun to avoid. Recently I found a restaurant that serves a mixed vegetable and noodle dish to which I have become completely addicted. The best part about that restaurant, however, is that I can order via a kiosk by the front door, no human interaction required. Instead of exploring the city like I used to, I now get my machine-ordered noodles, find a coffee shop, and spend my afternoons sucking data from my computer screen. Though intellectually stimulating, I can get that information from anywhere with an internet connection. The opportunity to truly understand Korea on a personal level is just on the other side of this screen, and I have this opportunity for nine more months.

Perhaps motivated by the enthusiasm I have had for my new global adventure or perhaps out of fear of the possibility that I may allow this complacency to become permanent, I pulled out the oldest trick in the book: remove the option of complacency.

Many months ago, I wrote about my first steps along this journey when I walked clueless into a Korean church in Pensacola, Florida. When I passed through the front doors of the stuffy little block structure, the option to keep moving forward suddenly became infinitely preferred to turning back. In the depths of this third-month complacency – as I had been in the complacency of my perfunctory life in Pensacola – I have taken another first step to resume my movement forward.

It has become painfully clear that the only – not simply the best, but the only – way to learn a language quickly and effectively is through immersion. It does not need to be constant. A little practice a few times a week will do, but it needs to be fully immersive. You do not need to sell everything and move to another country (an apposite line that these polyglots used in their exposition of this phenomenon), but the fact that I did gives me no excuse. So, I have reached out. If you have done the same and are looking to make the most of it, here’s where to pay attention:

I found some language partners on italki.com. It is a simple website that connects language learners to other students and teachers to build a massive global community of people who want to learn a new language and share their mother tongue. A really cool note is that one of the first things I did when I got to Korea was to meet in person the language partner I had been practicing with while I was back in the U.S. Now I have a few language partners, but we operate on the “language exchange” idea. We’ll work on Korean for a little while, but most of our conversation is in English. (If I were better at Korean, it would probably be half and half). It was moderately helpful, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. After meeting a language partner whom I get along with particularly well, I asked her for help in finding a new Korean friend who will forgo the exchange part of the partnership and speak to me exclusively in Korean. I knew she could not fill the role because her English is excellent, and I knew I would constantly relapse into English when I panicked. I requested that her friend speak very little English. It took her a mere 24 hours to find an excited friend who wants to teach me Korean. She texted me, and we organized (completely in Korean) a meeting tomorrow afternoon.

Follow this blog to hear how it went!

3 thoughts on “When Complacency Strikes, Part I: The Third Month Abroad

    • Thanks! Actually, a part of what has made motivating myself to study so difficult is that I simply don’t need to know Korean! Yes, being able to read Hangeul (Korean writing) certainly helps, but you can pick it up in an afternoon. It’s very simple. I have coworkers who have been here for years, and still don’t speak any of the language. Most Koreans speak at least a little English, and many signs have English translations. Knowing Korean is useful, but certainly not necessary for working here.

      Best of luck!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. My sis in law has learned 5 languages from Rosette Stone. The family frequently travels abroad, and they were able to learn quickly. Hope this is helpful. Be safe! Jean


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