The Power of the word “Waygukin (외국인)” and Culture Shock

This past Wednesday was the solar new years for the world. In Korea it is not as much of a big deal as in the Western world. There are big television concerts and they ring the big bell in Seoul, but even this year they just showed a few of the rings and went back to the Kpop televised concerts. For this new years, my mother-in-law’s friend came over with her son and spent the night. The next morning, my husband prepared the Korean new years rice cake soup with dumplings while I helped. After all this was done and my MIL and family were eating the soup, I heard them discussing it. Something in their conversation really struck a chord with me, though. The son of my MIL’s friend said that my hubsand made the soup and me, the “waygukin” (which is Korean for foreigner) made the dumplings. I had been introduced and my name had been used in front of them a lot in the previous twenty-four-hours, but he still referred to me as the foreigner. My reaction to this was initial anger, then sitting and thinking about it, and then crying. I felt disrespected in my home, disregarded, and just like I was the white elephant in the room that no one really cared to talk about or at least to include.
In Korea, people are usually called by their title. This isn’t uncommon in collectivist cultures where social hierarchy is important. In normal situations, my title might have been “Auntie’s daughter-in-law” or “HB’s wife” or something to that effect, but since I am not Korean, I wasn’t given that title. This really bothers me lately.

Korea has been my dream for four years. I have been visiting since 2010, and the entire time, people have told me, “It is different living in a country than it is to visit it.” I never thought they were wrong, but I didn’t realize just how right they were. I grew up in a small city in suburban Georgia all my life and hadn’t moved until I came to Korea. I always had my family, my home, my culture, my language. When you don’t have any of those things, you start to struggle not only with your new culture but yourself. My husband and his family, though, I am completely grateful for. They are so nice and never, ever treat me differently. That alone has made this transition bearable. A month ago I was really struggling with the move and a friend of mine really hit if on the head with what I was going through; culture shock was the culprit. I know so many people go through this everyday when they move. I am very fortunate to have my Korean family but many don’t. But I did look on the internet for answers to better understand culture shock and what I was going through.

Culture shock is often described as stages the foreigner goes through in relation to their new host country. This one from the JET programme represents what most models show:

1 Initial Euphoria (Honeymoon Period)

Anything new is intriguing and exciting.

2 Irritation and Hostility (Culture Shock)

…often feel homesick and have negative attitudes towards the host culture.

3 Gradual Adjustment

…start to adjust and the culture seems more familiar.

4 Adaptation and Biculturalism

…are completely adjusted to the host culture and may even experience reverse culture shock upon returning to their home countries.

I think at this time, I am somewhere between two and three, but I am working to get to that final stage. I feel once I get a job and I have a routine it will help. Here is another model I found online I thought was interesting.

Culture Shock Model (Including Re-culture shock)

With everything that I read, I found it is important to get out there in your culture and make friends, establish a routine, and get to know your new country. I am still working on this, slowly.

…Going back to my previous anecdote about being called “waygukin” and my reaction to it. I have wanted to come here so much, but many times and most places I turn, I am reminded I am an outsider, I don’t belong to this country nor culture, and in the minds of Koreans, I will always be someone visiting (and I feel sometimes intruding) in their country. I know many foreigners come and go here, but for those of us who chose to stay, it makes having a life here a little hard. Koreans are generally very kind and accepting, sometimes it is shocking how much so. I do love the Korean people, and I want to be a part of them, but a part of me is also struggling with the fact that we both know I never be. I think this is something important to consider when moving to another country and something to be kept in mind.

What are your reactions to culture shock? How did you end up dealing with it? Are there anything in your host cultures that bothered you? I would really love to hear your stories.


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