I have been here for three months now and feel that I have pretty much become immune to culture shock. The things that stood out as culturally insane when I first arrived are now just a part of my day to day life. I am used to strange looks and people constantly telling you their not so flattering thoughts on your appearance, I have fully adjusted to the fact that public restrooms never have soap and often don't have a sink, I have even started referring to myself in the third person as Peta Teecha. Even though this new found culture shock immunity is something I am pretty pleased with, I do genuinely enjoy when something happens that stands out as being very, very different.
Something that continually shocks me are the subtle differences in day to day activities, activities that are so routine and insignificant one wouldn't really think to look for strong examples of culture shock. To demonstrate my point, I will walk you through a few of these things including a haircut, a physical, and a cab ride.
I had my first haircut in Korea this past weekend, a process that I have been dreading since I arrived. It is in these random life need errands that you truly realize you are actually living in a place. I am not just a tourist. I live here. I have needs. I needed a haircut. Now that it is all said and done, I have to say that I am honestly looking forward to the next time I need a trim. I found a shop simply called "Scissors For Man" and figured that it was probably a safe bet. This shop just seemed to be, well, for me. I entered the store and was amazed to find that the hairdresser spoke better English than many of the Koreans who are teaching English at my school. As I sat in the chair the man asked if I would like to be massaged during my haircut, he then flicked a switch on the chair to show me just what this massage would entail should I choose to accept. The chair began to vibrate and rub my back and legs. Honestly, I hated it, but for more massage inclined patrons, this seems like a pretty impressive offering for a salon that charges under $6 for a haircut. I politely declined the massage. My eyes were then directed to the counter space below the mirror in front of me. The man pressed a button and a flat screen television rose out of the counter. He quickly flicked through the channels to find something playing in English and landed on a Nazi war movie with Jude Law. Nothing says haircut like a gory Nazi flick, and it truly made the 20 minute haircut fly by. I couldn't decide which was more entertaining, the video entertainment or the two Korean men in chairs to either side of me with their hair done up in curlers to obtain the so popular Korean man perm. As my first haircut in Korea experience came to an end, the kind barber quickly shoved a little trimmer in both of my nostrils to add new definition to the expectations one usually have of their barber. As I left, everyone in the shop, including the men in curlers, turned and waved to say goodbye.
I think the words hair pulling three year old tantrum throwing phobia are accurate descriptors of my feelings before a physical. I am a pretty big believer in personal space, and feel that the act of getting a physical pops your metaphorical bubble in a truly unpleasant way. When I first came here I was informed that later in the week I would be taken for my physical that is required of all foreigners upon their arrival in Korea. When the dreaded day came, I made my way to the hospital with my supervisor Jenny, her husband Charlie and my coworker Anthony, all of whom followed me throughout the entire physical. The entire process took under a half hour and is one of the funniest things I have encountered here thus far, though I am still not entirely sure I understand what happened. The best way that I can describe it is that you are shoved from room to room by doctors and nurses who speak little to no English, which means that you are never once told what is going on or what to expect. The process began in one room where a nurse wrenched open my mouth and pulled out my tongue and squeezed it for a bit, next room you are shoving your arms in some machine to do something I am still unclear on, next room is a blood test. I found it pretty shocking that gloves were not worn by any of the nurses at the hospital, even during the blood test. Next, they hand you a cup and give you directions to the toilet. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the bathroom was just under a five minute walk away. I finished the cup filling process and made my way back towards the room where I was told the cup should be deposited. The long walk with the cup o' pee was pretty intimidating, what can I say, I guess I just prefer being seen in public without a cup filled with urine. I tried to avoid thinking about what would happen should I fall, which is especially likely when you are surrounded by Koreans who are very inclined to push and shove. There were a few more exams that were very fast and totally confusing, and in a flash my physical was done. I would take a physical in Korea over one in the states any day, though I still would prefer to avoid the whole experience all together.
Cabs are amazingly cheap here and things are pretty spread out, so I feel that I have become quite accustomed to the Korean cab experience. The biggest obstacle you must tackle when getting in a Korean cab is gaining a calm understanding that your driver will not stop for red lights. They are just against it. Though it makes for a much quicker form of transportation than the cabs I was used to in Boston, I still find myself gasping and grabbing at the door handle in almost every cab ride I take. The drivers don't seem to notice, as every cab I have been in comes with a personal television in just to the right of the steering wheel that they seem to watch more intently than they do the road. It isn't uncommon that a driver will just refuse to take you because they aren't in the mood to go where you request or because you are a foreigner. They will sometimes decide mid ride that they don't want to finish taking you where you are going, at which point they will simply pull over and ask you to get out. Another thing to keep in mind when visiting Korea is that you should never take a cab that is black. This ride will be nearly twice as expensive, and the only difference is that the driver is wearing a suit.