The most shocking part of being in Korea hasn’t been the food, the language, the cultural subtleties, or getting used to being a lone foreigner in a sea of Koreans. By now I’ve gotten over my foreigner self-consciousness, figured out a routine, and developed culturally acceptable habits in Korean etiquette. No, the hardest part of living in Korea hasn’t been Korea at all; it’s been the transition into the real world after a lifetime of being in school.
After seventeen years of the same routine, I find myself homework-less, stress free, generally rested, and totally lost. You would think that being free of deadlines, stress, and sleep deprivation would be a relief, but the transition requires a different gauge of fulfillment and success, grasp on time and energy, and perspective on productivity. It has totally thrown me for a loop. School is what I do, it’s what I’m good at, and it’s always been a big part of my identity. The switch from all-nighters, frequent twenty page papers, and daily discussions centering around the world’s most daunting questions to Disney sing-alongs, hours of cutting out construction paper, and discussing Halloween ghouls has been startling to say the least.
Not only am I adjusting to having a schedule that isn’t crammed with homework and studying (yes, it is an adjustment, believe it or not…what do I do with all this free time?!), I’m also getting used to post-grad loneliness. Our entire lives we are surrounded by companions (wanted or not), from our families to our classmates and teammates, and later, roommates. People who we know and share activities, experiences, and interests with have always been nearby. After graduation, especially after moving to a new place, this is no longer the case. Now, friends are spread across the city, working at different places, and doing different things (not to mention the friends who are elsewhere in the country or the world). Unlike my dorm-days when friends were almost too easily accessible, it can now take hours on public transport to meet someone, it takes some getting used to.
Of course, this transition is not specific to my living in Seoul, I’m sure I’d feel the same discomfort were I in any other city: Chicago, D.C., London, you name it. It may not be culture shock, but it’s been a shock to my system nevertheless.