An Irishman’s Culture Shock

What’s culture shock? When people arrive in a new country, they’re said to go through an adjustment process which might be divided into stages: 1) curiosity and exploration, 2) culture shock, 3) some acceptance of the new culture, 4) rejection of previous ideas and/or their home culture, 5) acculturation and assimilation—fitting in. A person may pass through all five stages or may get stuck in one of the stages and never move beyond it. Here’s an example from a 1992 interview.

Martin was a frequent and favorite dinner partner, a good-looking young man with the Irish pale skin, dark hair and ocean-blue eyes. His eyes grew lively as he spoke in his lilting accent.

Martin’s Story

In 1987 I was teaching Latin in a secondary school in Galway. I was 23 and a bit restless, and the Irish Ministry for Trade and Industry was sending recent university graduates abroad for managerial experience. They told me about a company in Korea looking for somebody to proofread English documents. They got me this job and a round-trip air ticket, and that was it. There was no orientation or anything.

Since I had always wanted to write, I thought I would send back stories on Korea to newspapers and magazines. Ireland was still a very sheltered little island, especially in terms of international affairs. There was no real conception of what Korea was, although at the time Korea had begun to make a name for itself with the Olympics coming in 1988 and with the industrial takeoff.

To tell you something about myself, I come from a sheltered, middle-class, conservative Catholic background. In Ireland, they say, we grow up late. I’d never had a girlfriend. So my going off on this adventure was a big deal for everybody that knew me, especially my family. I came out here with as an “experience.” I thought of myself as educated, a bit on the conservative side, but liberal-minded, certainly without racial prejudice. Thinking back, I realize subconsciously I had expected Ireland, just a little bit dressed up with some foreign touches—that people didn’t wear their shoes in the house and that they bow to each other. That’s how naïve I was.

Here everything was so different. For the first six months it was a complete novelty, a sort of Disneyland. I knew people did things differently, but I’d no idea why, and I wasn’t particularly interested in finding out. That made it all the more a Disneyland. I couldn’t accept the fact that people did things other than the way “normal” people like myself did them back home. Following the strictly hierarchical system of the Confucian ethic, which infuses the whole order of Korean society, seemed to me to be a very regimented, unnatural way to live.

For example, I was working in the international affairs department of the company. There was one guy who had been in Europe and knew an awful lot about Germany. When our company received an economic mission from Germany, he was completely cut out, even though he could have been very helpful. He wasn’t working on the German desk at the time, and the guy on the German desk had to do it. You only work in your own place.

There’s also the hierarchical thing. Promotion goes by age rather than ability.  I accept that now, but back then I couldn’t see it at all. I wondered why bright guys had to sit at an assistant manager’s desk for three or four years when the manager knew nothing about what he was doing. There didn’t seem to be any reward for initiative. I had had all these very Western concepts of success drilled into me. To succeed you have to stand out, whereas in Korea it’s not about standing out, it’s about fitting in. It took me years to see that and to accept that. Also, knowing your place removes a lot of pressure. Somebody can be thirty-five years old and be a manager, a pretty lowly position in a company, and know his abilities are better, but he won’t be as frustrated as his Western counterpart might be. You have a certain degree of comfort from knowing your place. It makes life simpler.

I would describe my company as a pretty average Korean company. The organization is all top down. The chairman’s every whim is followed, virtually unquestioningly. That causes chaos in an office. The chairman explains some project, and members of the staff begin to execute it according to their view of what he wants. A couple of weeks later a managing director will happen to talk to the chairman and discover that he misunderstood the chairman’s idea, and the whole thing has to be completely redone.

A couple of years ago, this was a typical situation for me: the head of a European organization would be coming to Korea, and our organization would be hosting a luncheon for him, with the chairman giving a keynote address. The director would tell the manager a speech had to be written along certain lines. Then the manager would give it to an assistant manager, explaining basically what the director wanted, and then the assistant manager would explain it to me. Then the problems would start. None of these people knew what was wanted. The director would have a vague idea, but without specifics. I would write the speech, the assistant manager would take a look at it and say, “Now, Martin, what if we change this and put this idea in here, here and here.” I would do that, and then the assistant manager would have his own ideas. “No, I don’t think this is what the director wanted. I guess he might want a bit of this in it.” I would do that, and then the whole thing would go up to the chairman, who would say, “That’s not what I wanted at all.” That used to happen about twice a week. That’s why people who work in Korean offices have to stay at work until eight or nine o’clock. The amazing thing is that the job does get done eventually, but by God it takes a long time.

It would be unheard of for the chairman to work directly with me. The chairman is in a glass cage. I spent two years fighting this. When I stopped fighting it and started going along with it, then people began to accept the stuff I wrote without making a lot of changes. I got programmed with their style, and they didn’t distrust me as much. Things seemed to fall into place from there. Now I’ve made a niche for myself, I usually work one-to-one with the director, who was the manager above me before both of us were promoted. The stuff we did together was acceptable to the chairman. Now he says something like, “Martin, give us an update of last year’s speech on this.”

I lived with a Korean family for four years. There was an old couple and their youngest son, who was about eighteen years old. The son could accept the fact, though he mightn’t like it, that there was a possibility his parents would choose the woman he would marry. Korean children, even when they’re in their middle age and beyond, will defer to their parents’ authority and will want to please their parents. I found that unacceptable. Filial loyalty was an abstraction to me, and for a long time I couldn’t understand how people could live like that. It’s only recently that I have begun to learn something from concepts like that.

The old couple began to see me as their own son. That began to create certain problems. For example, when I was going out with a girl, they would give me advice, and they would want to meet her. I wasn’t mature enough to know how or when to say no without offending. I knew I was here on quite a long-term basis, and I really liked this family, and they lived a way of life I thought was good. I took their word for it, that I should do this and I should do that.

I began to get along in Korea and to accept things. In my second year, around the time I started to learn the language, I went through this people-pleasing phase. I didn’t want to have anything to do with foreigners or to speak English. I was embarrassed about speaking English, even though my Korean was precious little. I went through this whole Korean kick. Whatever they did in Korea, I thought was right.

I went so far as to accept the Korean view of what they call the “dirty” aspects of Western culture and the view that Western society is “egotistical,” a morally sloppy “me generation.” I know that the government controls what Koreans find out about the West. You don’t get a lot of images of Mother Theresa helping people, but you do get a lot of images of Hollywood stars on drugs. My work involved having to meet Irish businessmen who came out to Korea, briefing them a bit and helping them set up appointments with Korean companies. I found myself resenting their stupid questions, and I began to criticize them severely.

Anyway, I got on well in the office, and I got promoted. Actually, I became a total ass. Even to the lowliest people in the office, I was being deferential. I found out later that people were laughing behind my back.

Then after two years here I went home on vacation. My parents were quite open-minded, and they asked questions. I talked about Korea all the time I was there. It alienated people, although I wasn’t aware of it. When I was about to leave, my father gently reminded me, “You know, Martin, this is your home.”

Then in the middle of the next year I fell off that Korean high and went down in the other direction completely. I began to ask myself questions like, “What are you doing in Korea? What’s it doing for you?” I woke up to the fact that some Koreans had been trying to influence me, and I became angry with myself for falling for it.

Here’s a story that helped open my eyes. I was asked to teach English a couple of nights a week to the daughter of a friend of someone in the company. I was invited to dinner at the house of this very respectable Korean family to meet the parents and the daughter. I scrupulously followed every Korean custom. At the dinner table I sat next to the guy who introduced me and not too close to the daughter. Everyone but the daughter was senior to me, and as a “junior,” I was not supposed to initiate conversation. I just responded. In speaking, I threw in all the honorifics [syllables added to verbs to show respect]. In Korea you’re respected for knowing when not to talk, and I often feel more comfortable with just shutting up. But that evening I didn’t enjoy the meal at all.

While I was teaching her, the daughter was the epitome of a modest, shy Korean girl who struggled with English and did all the right things. She carried my bag, and she’d always call me “teacher.” “Oh, we’re going to eat now, Teacher.” I thought she saw me as this Western guy who’d been around a bit.

Then after about six months her parents sent her off to study in Australia, and she came back a different person. She was probably on the same kick I was on, high on Western culture, and she was speaking English like it was second nature. She began to ridicule me. She was much younger than I was—she was nineteen, and I was twenty-five. In Korea you don’t talk down to your “seniors.” She said, “God, Martin, you were so funny the first time you came to our house! You were just like a little Korean boy!”

That was one of the things that set me thinking about what I was doing. I am just coming out of the negative phase that followed. Now I’m trying to discern what’s good for me.

Korea is often called the “Ireland of the Orient.” It’s not a comparison I would carry too far, but certainly I do feel an affinity with Koreans. There are a number of things. One of the big concepts in the Korean way of thinking is han. It’s a feeling of bitterness and frustration at always having been downtrodden, always having been the loser. It’s a very close partner to an inferiority complex.

Both countries have spent time under foreign powers. Korea was liberated from the Japanese in 1945, so the feelings are still quite raw. It’s maybe a healthy suspicion of outsiders. There is this dislike of the British in Ireland, but on the other hand, especially among people from a middle-class Catholic background, there is a reverence as well. A lot of our educational system is British to this day, just as the Korean system is very Japanese. I’m certain that no Korean I know will confess to having any time at all for the Japanese, but quite a lot of people send their daughters and sons to Japan to further their education. A lot of kid’s fashions come from Japan. There is that sort of grudging respect. I’m amazed, even in my own office.

Our company has an employee exchange system with a Japanese company. Before someone goes to Japan for a year, everybody says, “Oh, it’s going to be terrible for you having to leave Korea for a year and live with the Japanese.”

And of course the man who’s going away plays the game and says, “Oh yeah, it’s rough, it’s rough.”

Then they come back. I was at the airport with the boss when one arrived. The boss’s first question to him, literally right after he got off the plane, was “Ilbon-nom ǒtteyo,” or “How are the Japanese bastards?”

The guy said it was all right, he didn’t like the food and the people were hard to get on with. But as it turned out, the trip was an eye-opener for him. He had become a closet Japanophile. To a less marked extent, I see that in virtually every guy in our office who comes back from Japan.

I can only speak for myself, but I think there is a certain Irish “openness.” Now “open” covers an awful lot of bullshit, but basically the hail-fellow-well-met type is someone a lot of Irish people have time for. I would say that, certainly compared to the Japanese, the Koreans are a great and open people. When they meet you, instead of small talk there will be quite personal questions: “what age are you, are you married, do you have a girlfriend?” Irish people don’t conduct themselves like that, but a lot of us have the same sort of curiosity. I don’t know whether that’s Irish or human nature.

Koreans also attach a lot of importance to values which are commonly regarded as being healthy, traditional conservative values. Maybe it’s the Catholic Irishman inside me which says those are pretty good at knitting a society together—like diligence, hard work, respect for other people, which were drilled into me when I was young. I rebelled, but now at the age of twenty-eight, I’m beginning to see that they do count for something.

There was a time when I had got very heavily into the Korean culture, my “going native” phase, and I lost touch with Ireland. I felt that I was throwing myself so deeply into Korea that people in Ireland wouldn’t accept me. I felt I had cut my ties and couldn’t go back. I felt I was trapped in Korea. It’s just been recently, over the past year or so, that I’ve come out of that, and I’m happier with myself. Now I know that I have the choice to live in happily in Ireland, living in Korea is a hell of a lot better. I do know now that I have a choice to live anywhere. That enables me to enjoy Korea more.