Culture Shock 101

Today’s guest blogger is Jaclyn Nelson.

As we entered a little hipster restaurant in Colorado Springs, I had a sick feeling in my stomach. Something was wrong. Heather was not her usual self.

“I’m so excited about this trip!” I word-vomited as soon as we sat down. Her eyes darted past mine. She made a passing comment, one that was clearly avoiding my comment. We made small talk for a bit before she finally got down to business.

“What if I told you we might not be going to Seattle?” she asked. My heart sank. I knew it. I knew it was too good to be true. Friends traveling together rarely works out.

“I have another idea. Would you…”

The suspense was building. My head was flooded, still adjusting, preparing for disappointment. Her voice was serious. In the dimly lit café, it felt like a proposal of sorts.

“…Go to Vietnam with me?”

“Vietnam? Like…Viet-freaking-nam?” My heart was racing. I had so many questions.

“Why Vietnam?’
“Is it safe?”
“Is it expensive?”
“How long will we be there for?”
“Do people go to Vietnam?”

Before I said any of those things, I immediately said, “Of course I will. Yes. Yes!

It was that easy. Heather and I had begun to save for traveling endeavors. We had talked about perhaps going to Seattle over the summer, when it had dawned on her that she liked to travel. And I liked to travel. She wanted to go out of the country and so did I. Why not go together?

How do you begin traveling with someone? You must ask someone. Make it happen. People always say they want to travel, but rarely do they make it a priority. You have to start somewhere.

She had done her research. Southeast Asia is one of the least expensive places to travel in and she stumbled upon it when she had Googled “Safest places for women to travel.”  Vietnam was safe, inexpensive, and beautiful. What could possibly go wrong?

Over the next few months, Heather and I would meet up to solidify our travels plans and it didn’t feel like it was actually happening. We’d research hostels and try to decide which ones were safe and how far in advance we should plan on reserving nights. Most websites recommended to just “go with the flow” and figure it out when you get there. That idea terrified me. What if we couldn’t find a place? We booked the first few nights just in case.

The day we bought the plane ticket, my heart was explosive. Still, somehow, I felt doubtful that this was actually going to happen. Something must go wrong. People do not just up and go to Vietnam without consequences—that’s absurd.

The week before the trip, we got an email from the airlines informing us that our two-hour layover in China suddenly turned into a two-day layover in China.

I knew this would happen. All of our plans moving from city to city would now be delayed. The hostel we had booked would no longer work. I knew this was a bad idea.

I said none of this. I went with the flow.

The flight was when it got really real. We were one of possibly four white people on the plane, and Air China was not kind to ignorant Americans who did not speak a lick of Chinese. I suppose it was our fault, but we hadn’t intended on leaving the airport in China until the week prior.

Side note: Air China was cheaper than most flights by a couple hundred dollars, but 100% not worth the hassle. They changed our flights last minute. The flight attendants were extremely rude. It was not worth it. It’s tolerable, but not worth the couple hundred dollars it saved us, even if that money could buy you weeks of travel in Vietnam.

We arrived in China very, very late. We were told the airline should cover our costs for the layover, considering they changed the flights last minute, but despite our pleading, they sent us out with nothing. Heather had booked a hostel in Beijing, just in case, but now the tricky part was trying to figure out how to get there.

We started asking questions about the cab fare. We quickly realized the expensive cabs were lined up first, and as you moved down the row of cabs, they got cheaper and cheaper. We had a round-about idea as to how much the cab should cost to our hostel and kept repeating it to the drivers. Eventually one of the drivers signaled over another driver and we got into the cab.

We showed the driver where we were heading. We had written the name of the place in English. That was our first mistake. The driver is Chinese—he doesn’t read English—he reads Mandarin.

Heather and I just looked at each other, trying to hide our panic. After spending a few minutes fretting, trying to figure out exactly what we were going to do, she remembered she had written down the telephone number of the hostel. She gave it to the driver. Looking back, it was very kind of him to call that hostel. That’s not in his job description—we didn’t know what else to do.

We began the drive in absolute silence. The nerves were settling in. We had researched areas in Vietnam, but we hadn’t China. Heather had booked a place that had high reviews on Lonely Planet, and we had just went with it.

Looking around us, I began to feel sicker and sicker. Graffiti everywhere. People walking in the streets late at night. The closer we got to the hostel, the more unsafe I felt. It didn’t help that the driver was going in circles around this square. Was he trying to rake up the miles and charge us or was he really that lost? I was unsure. All I knew is I could barely breathe and Heather wasn’t mumbling a word.

Finally, the driver motioned us to get out. He pointed down a dark alley. “Go,” he said, using whatever English he could muster. We refused. He drove around the block again, then motioned us down the same alley.  He pointed down the alley and to the left.

I don’t know how or when we mustered up the courage to trust him, against all instinct, but we began making our way down the alley. There were lots of people (what we would later find out to be primarily tourists) walking down this street. For now, we were just jet lagged, hungry, and desperate to find the hostel.

“There it is! There it is!” Heather exclaimed. I would never have seen it, cleverly hidden between other businesses.

We made our way inside, still barely speaking. We were starving, so we walked back outside to find food. Still uncomfortable, we decided to go back in almost immediately and travel by daylight. We ate granola and listened to the noises of our anxious stomachs.

I knew this would happen. I knew it.

The next day, we were still riddled with culture shock. The hostel was beautiful, covered with plants and flowers and connected to an adorable little restaurant. It was pricier than Vietnam would be, but at least there was food.

We spent the morning taking in deep breaths of relief—finally revealing how scared we both were the night before. We were not in a bad part of town at all; the “graffiti-covered walls” were the doors to stores, opening as a garage door would.  We were in a nice district, close to many tourist attractions, such as Tiananmen Square, a large city square in the center of Beijing. The people were incredibly kind.

The first night Heather and I were at the hostel, I sat at a community table and wrote in my journal. One girl from the hostel, Miko, asked if she could join me. I immediately confessed that I knew little to no Chinese and told her a little about the culture shock Heather and I experienced. She taught me a couple key Chinese phrases such as “Wo Chi Su” or “I eat vegetables,” the closest phrase to saying “I am a vegetarian” (this was of course after I accidently ordered an omelet with ham in it and had no way to explain that I didn’t want it).  

Miko was staying in the hostel in Beijing with her family as she waited to go to school to play the harp. Her mother showed me pictures of her playing a harp that was bigger than she! Though her mother spoke no English, we spent an evening connecting through smiles and hand gestures.

Soon others joined us. A traveler from Amsterdam saw us laughing and enjoying ourselves. He, too, began opening up and telling his stories of how far he’d traveled and how long he’d been away from home. At the time, I was amazed. Now, after meeting so many travelers, I cannot recall where he had been, only that he had dedicated years to self-discovery, something I desperately wanted to do.

And this is how I started. No, it wasn’t for months or years at a time, but everyone’s journey is different—and mine, for now, would take me to Vietnam.

Culture shock wouldn’t get me twice.

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Blood and Guns

DSCN2294I’ve been teaching for five weeks at the English Village, and I’m adapting to the differences between Korean protocol and American protocol. When I first started teaching here, there were a few things that caught me off guard: the absence of fear when it comes to blood and guns.

The very first class I taught at this school was the Orientation class, where the kids pick their English nicknames and we review classroom rules. These are all the same as classroom rules in the U.S. (be nice to each other, no eating food in class, no running in the classroom, etc.) As I was working one-on-one with a student to help her choose an English name, the kids started motioning to me, “Teacher! Teacher!”

I walked over to a small group of boys and they all pointed at the drops of blood on the ground. One of the boys was clutching his nose as it dripped down his fingers. If one of the kids needs medical attention, you can get a Village Guide for help, I remembered from the week of training before. So, I went outside my classroom and said to one of the college students who herds the kids from class to class, “Um, one of the kids in my class has a bloody nose. Could you take care of him, and is there, like, someone who can clean the blood off the floor?”

Partly this was me being dumb, but from the two years I worked at a daycare center in the U.S., I remembered that touching blood is a no-no. And the kids were currently attempting to mop up the blood themselves with tissues, each coming into contact with someone else’s bodily fluid. So I thought to myself, They need to wash their hands, and we need to get somebody with gloves and bleach STAT! AIDS and stuff! So as the village guide left to help take care of the problem, I returned to the classroom and sent the kid to the bathroom to clean himself up. The Village Guide then came into the classroom and wiped up the blood with her bare hands and a wad of paper towels. She probably thought, Wow, this new teacher thinks she’s too good to wipe up a little blood. What a diva. But, really, all I was thinking was 23-19! We have a 23-19! RED ALERT. RED ALERT. RED ALERT.

Dear Village Guide (whose name is forever lost to me. Sorry about that, too.), I’m so sorry that I inadvertently treated you like a peasant and had you wipe up blood when I had two perfectly functioning hands. 

So, yeah, blood is just not that big a deal in Korea, as additionally evidenced by the nurse who took our blood in the hospital with nary a glove.

But the difference that caught me off guard the most hit me as I entered one of the many classrooms (actually, just about all of the classrooms) that face the outside hallway with floor to ceiling glass. We sometimes joke about how it feels like we’re in a zoo enclosure, and the kids are all pounding on the glass, trying to get us to look at them while they wait to be let in at the start of class. Hello, teacher! Teacher, hello! Come out from under that desk, teacher! We’ll toss you cracker! Dance for us, monkey!

All joking aside, though, I stood in that classroom, writing on the board and preparing for the next group of students, and I thought Oh, man. Where are we supposed to hide the students if a shooter comes in the building? With the floor to ceiling glass, there would be no faking that the classroom was empty, that no scared kids are hiding against the wall, their knees pulled up to their chins, silent, the lights off.

I think all of us from the U.S. have experienced this tension, whether or not we were so unfortunate enough to actually have a shooting happen at our schools. We had drills in my middle school and high school. We’d get a call from the office or the speaker system would issue an alert, and the teacher would hustle to the door, lock it, tape black paper to the window, turn off the lights, shush us. Maybe for Americans there have been bigger scares, too, like when everyone in my high school had to sit in the gym because of a bomb threat, the administration thinking a big open space would somehow save us.

And then other times, like when I was in 3rd grade, we didn’t lock doors, but everything got very still when we heard the news about the twin towers. Students went home early with their parents. We watched the news broadcasts and prayed. We continued class despite the heavy tension that weighed us down so that we wondered, Does this even matter right now? Why are we learning about how to divide fractions when cities are splitting in two?

But vulnerable classrooms? Koreans just don’t seem to worry about it. Precautions aren’t taken because there aren’t guns to worry about. There’s violence in school, yes, but you can’t ban children’s fists and you can’t ban students from suicidal thoughts, though you can instill values in their minds so that they see each other’s lives as precious. And that’s something we’re still working on in every culture, in every country everywhere.

So I’m noticing these differences. It struck me that if I was going to worry about the glass rooms, the only concern I need to have is that tours of parents and potential investors are going to pass by and the Korean staff is going to frown at me for showing a YouTube video for five minutes instead of molding minds through active learning. And I view that as a privilege–one that I hope and pray every student and teacher will be able to experience.

On Being Called “Brave”

A co-worker called me “brave”
when I shimmied through a foot-and-a-half wide gap
between walls to get inside a room.
Locked doors in basements are made to be entered.
Darkness at the end, long-legged spiders,
no light except my phone.
This school building in Chilgok, big and silent.
Fear smaller than curiosity.
“Brave.”
I laugh because I am not this.
I laugh because I never have been brave
before.

“You’re so brave,” a girl at church, my age, told me.
She came to Korea for the first time, too.
Out of the country for the first time,
but she has her husband.
“Brave” because I came alone.
I laugh because I have never been brave.
Just curious.
I cried often before Korea.
Packing, praying, surprise parties, goodbyes,
and tears.
You can cry and still be brave, I guess.
Sometimes it’s brave to even cry.

When they called me brave,
I peeked my head out from under insecurity blankets.
Say what?
Maybe
it’s because my best friends
traveled alone to other countries
and shimmied through gaps between walls.
I have timidly followed them through
those gaps so many times
by now I can follow through on promises
I tell myself.
Sarah, you will travel.
Sarah, you can be alone.
Sarah, don’t sit on the sidelines and
watch life slip through the gaps
and leave you behind with no mystery
and still, sometimes, spiders.
Brave Sarah. Brave Sarah.
Like learning a new word from a new language.
Brave. “Yong-gamhan.”

I side-stepped through the gap in the walls,
wandered through dark rooms,
switched on lights.
I unlocked the door to let my friends inside.

Five Things That Scare Me

One of the questions we get asked when leaving for a big adventure is “Are you nervous?” or “Are you scared?” No matter how excited I am, my answer to this so far has been undoubtedly, “Yes.”

As one who tends to overthink things and get especially anxious about the unknown, I reflected on what exactly scares me about leaving the U.S. to live in Korea. Here are the top five things that scare me:

1. Being 6,249 miles away from my loved ones
I’m trying to entrust God with my family and friends while I’m gone. This is the ultimate letting-go for me. I keep reminding myself that it’s only a year. Only a year. But it’s especially hard, because I’ve never been away from them for so long. I’ve never been out of the country. Even when I moved out for my last year of college, I was still only a fifteen minute drive away from my parents’ house. So, I’m looking to God to allow peace and wellness over all my loved ones while I’m gone, and that if anything were to happen, he will hold everything together, as he always does.

But I also worry about what life will be like without them. I don’t know what it’s like to not have them near me for support and encouragement. As close as technology can bring us to each other these days, it won’t be the same as having my family and friends physically present in my life. I’m a little afraid that I’m going to get to Korea and think What have I done??? Who are all of these strangers?

2. My dog dying
My favorite animal in the world, Cody, is getting old. He’s about 11, and he’s in that stage where he has suspicious lumps on his body, he can barely get his Sheltie rump off the ground to stand up, and he mostly sleeps when he’s not eating. I’m gonna miss his presence as he lays by my bed, as he bites my pant legs because he thinks he’s supposed to herd me like a sheep. It’s going to be hard to pet his head in goodbye, because I know it might be the last time I do so.

I made my family promise that they wouldn’t just take tons of pictures of him as soon as I left (in case, he dies they said they would just send me a picture from their “archive” every once in awhile, making me think he’s still alive) or get him taxidermied (so they could just use him as a puppet when we Skype). My family is hilarious, as you can probably tell. But in all seriousness, I really would like to come back to my dog, alive and well, even if he’s a little more fragile.

3. Teaching Korean school children
On a lighter note, I’m afraid I’m going to struggle to communicate with the children I’ll be teaching. For the past three years, I’ve worked as a Writing Center consultant at my university, solely tutoring adults and sometimes high schoolers. You hardly ever see kids on a college campus, so when you do, it’s like, “Look! A tiny person! Is that a baby genius or are they with their parents because the babysitter is out sick?” Basically, I’ve got to get used to teaching an entirely different audience, with the addition of a language barrier.

And besides that, I’ve always been a tiny bit awkward with kids. I mean, I’m awkward with any person of any age, but I still have this weird fear of going for a Ms. Frizzle kind of coolness, and ending up more like Mr. Kimble from Kindergarten Cop. Both characters make inspirational teachers, but I don’t want to end up shouting “THERE EEZ NO BAWTHROOM!” to a bunch of children. We’ll see how it goes. I just bought a cardigan with pineapples all over it, so that should give me some confidence to start out with.

4. Losing important documents (like my passport)
The only stress dream I’ve had throughout this Korea-preparing process was one where I wandered through a dimly-lit airport checking and re-checking that I had everything with me. I just really, really, hope I don’t lose anything important, and that the trip there goes smoothly. Again, I’m going to have to trust my Father in heaven that I will be able to handle everything like the competent adult I pretend to be.

5. Liking Korea so much that I don’t want to come back
I don’t have a plan after year one of Korea. I’m not sure if I’ll return home, stay on for another year, go to grad school, do some more traveling, find a tech writing job, fly to the moon, join a circus. What if home is not Colorado Springs? Will my family be crushed if I don’t come back for longer than a year? Will I even be able to leave them for longer than that?

Giving my fears over to God is like peeling off a band-aid with an extra-strong adhesive, but I believe, one way or another, everything is going to be okay. (I think).