Adaptation; or, I’ve Been In Korea For Only 3 Weeks?(!)

Oh hey! They named a bike after our mountains! But they didn't use spellcheck (click for larger image if you can't see the misspelling)

I arrived in Korea on the 17th of February, exactly 3 weeks ago. 21 days. But being in Korea already feels normal, like I’ve been living here for months. And that’s despite the fact that I still only know about 60 words in the language, and most of those are things like “teacher” and “pharmacy”. Being unable to converse with 98% of the human beings who live near me doesn’t feel odd anymore.  That familiarity is itself really odd when I stop to think about it, but I suppose it’s a testament to humans’ capacity for rapid adaptation to new contexts.

But I doubt there is any precedent for this sort of displacement in our evolutionary history. I woke up (at 3:30am, ugh) in Virginia, and 21 hours later I was 7,000 miles west, on a different continent. It’s actually sort of impressive that this sort of thing doesn’t have disastrous psychological consequences on us. And under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that the few dozen English speakers here in Chungju would tend to stick together, an island of English in a sea of Korean. But what’s interesting is how the need to have friends who speak English steamrolls over personality differences and our interests in different hobbies. Basically, when you have only one or two dozen people to choose as friends, you can’t be picky.

That said, some of us are really interested in trying to learn the language so we can actually make Korean friends, while others of us plan to stick with English and depend on that smaller network of folks.  It’s an interesting situation. If I were a psychologist I’d apply for a grant to do a study. But I’m not, so I won’t. I myself fall more into that first category, with my desire to meet and befriend Koreans providing a great impetus to study the language. That latter option will be harder here than in a larger city–Seoul has a huge foreigner population, and even whole sections of the city that are known as foreigner districts (see Itaewon). But I’ve met people who have worked in Korea for years who still can’t hold a conversation in Korean, so presumably you can get by that way.

Korean Catholic women in Mass

That’s not to say that I’m avoiding my fellow foreigners, and in fact I experienced my first Shrove Tuesday pancakes on Tuesday with about a dozen other teachers. There’s an Irish couple working here and they invited us all over and made us some delicious, thin, crepe-like pancakes. Which they like to cover with lemon juice(?)–or ice-cream. I opted for the latter course, myself. I also attended an Ash Wednesday service at a Catholic Church here (my first Ash Wednesday service, in fact). This was the second Korean church I had visited, and noticed something that really caught me off guard at the first one, which leads me to believe this is a common practice at Korean churches in general: most of the women had a sort of small, white, crocheted shawl over their heads. This sort of thing basically fell out of practice in the West a century or two ago, so I’m really curious what place it has in Korean culture. Is it linked to a similar practice in traditional culture here? Or was it borrowed from the West under the influence of a few Bible passages that mention head-coverings for women?

More interesting questions for me to research once I get a paycheck and can actually get some books on the history of Korean Christianity.

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6 Responses to Adaptation; or, I’ve Been In Korea For Only 3 Weeks?(!)

  1. Nancy says:

    Being female in the military encourages the same sorts of “we have nothing in common” friendships. Sometimes it’s really good- I’ve been exposed to and become good friends with people I would never have met, much less gotten to know, in the civilian world. On the other hand, I sometimes find myself hanging out with people I turn out not to like (especially when I’m new to a place and don’t know many people yet.) That makes me feel two faced. I’ve learned to monitor “friendships” for excessive complaining about the person to others, so I can end them. Or at least back off to the large group outing level.

    • staplovich says:

      Yeah, it definitely seems like a mixed blessing. Facebook also makes it a lot easier, to be honest, because we don’t all live in the same apartment building, and it also facilitates finding which other foreigners you might actually share some interests with. I think most of the folks here pretty much want to go out and drink most nights, and are more interested in seeing the big cities on the weekends. I spent last weekend hiking, which is more my speed, so I’m trying to figure out which people might be into a slower pace like me.

  2. Carly says:

    As someone who has lived abroad for extended periods three times now, I definitely can relate to looking around my social circle and thinking, “Do we actually have common interests? What do we even talk about over all these drinks and dinners?” I’ve found that, unlike you, it takes me at least a month or two to even begin to feel comfortable in a new country, much less make genuine friends. Though even during that adjustment period, I also have noticed that not being able to converse with those around me doesn’t feel as odd as you’d expect. This was more so the case in Sri Lanka, where I was only putting up a half-hearted effort to learn Sinhalese, than here in France, but I’m surprised how little it made me nervous or uncomfortable that I couldn’t communicate verbally. Though in the same breath, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Italy recently in extremely social settings, and not speaking the language makes me feel like a real asshole.

    • staplovich says:

      One of the things that really facilitated us GETs (Guest English Speakers) making quick friendships with one another as that we all came through the same program and went through orientation more or less together. Having a group of people around with whom you share your first week in a new country is a powerful context for bonding, of course. And I imagine you didn’t have anything like that context when you traveled to Sri Lanka or France. That said, I didn’t make many friends at orientation (plenty of friendly acquaintances of course); the one closer friend I made was the only other vegetarian in my group. So that was sort of obviously going to happen.

      But yeah, now that I’m beginning to be able to speak in really short phrases in Korean, I love finding excuses to use them, which provides even more learning opportunities and impetus to study. So it’s a virtuous cycle. My Korean co-teachers are also helpful, although they also sometimes laugh at my awful pronunciation (which is to be expected but is still discouraging. Something for me to remember as an English teacher).

  3. Bridget says:

    Hi — I know this is a rather late comment on this post, but a brief note on the head coverings: the lace “chapel veils” were actually ubiquitous in Catholic churches in the west until the Second Vatican Council — so US Catholic women would have worn these until about the mid-60s. These look identical to the kind of head coverings that western Catholic women would have worn, so I suspect it might have more to do with certain changes that followed the Council, and were encouraged by the simultaneous women’s lib movement, not taking hold in Korea? In more conservative US Catholic circles, you actually see these veils making a slight comeback today. All best!

    • Scott says:


      Thanks for the info! I actually didn’t know that head-coverings were so common even in the States in the 20th Century. They’re common not only in the Catholic churches here, but also in Anglican ones (I haven’t been to any other Protestant churches so I can’t speak to their presence in any other denomination). My guess is that you’re right; the habit just hasn’t died out here. And the sluggishness of feminism here is, like you suggested, likely tied to that.

      Thanks again and thanks for reading!

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