(University of Windsor, 3)
Seconds into touchdown you can feel it. There’s something so unique about arriving into a new country. You’re the same person, just as you were at home, but everything around you has changed. Even the smallest, insignificant item becomes exciting because it is somehow being viewed in a new way. Just walking down the terminal of Incheon Airport to find check-in became an adventure, watching Korean signs and officials pass by; an entirely new world wholly used to its Korean identity and oblivious to my own complete displacement.
I’m sure all exchange students studying at Ewha, and all of those who have ever lived or studied abroad would have experienced this uneasy yet inexplicably exciting feeling of being an outsider. It creates an interesting environment to interact with: you don’t know what you’re doing, and evidently other people don’t expect you to know.
I think this feeling of displacement is very beneficial, and most importantly, it seems to remind one of the naturalness of culture. What can seem so foreign and insignificant halfway across the world becomes natural reality as soon as you experience it first-hand. I believe it’s necessary to be reminded that your own culture is natural to no one other than you, which is easy to forget while being immersed at home.
When in an entirely new place, suddenly nothing is obvious. This so strongly brings about a kind of hyper-consciousness, where everyone and everything around us must be newly perceived and understood outside of the familiarity of our own cultures.
Speaking personally as a Canadian, I have never felt a strong presence of “Canadian culture” at home. Canada mostly exists as a multi-cultural pool of diversity, welcoming all types of people and culture without forcing a Canadian mindset. And as much as this is a positive and inclusive trend, I worried that it would lead to a complete dissolution of whatever present Canadian culture might be defined as.
However, coming to Korea, being so accidently separated from what I came to understand as a Canadian way of life, led me to see Canada with a new perspective. When travelling, if you don’t immediately reach a higher level of cultural appreciation, you will at least see the individuality of your own culture. Sometimes, something that is not always easy to see can be found when it is put in direct contrast with another.
Becoming an outsider is a uniquely beautiful, if at times strongly disorienting, experience in which you quickly learn the validity and depth of another culture. It’s easy to disregard seemingly strange or unlikely cultural behavior until it becomes a social norm and experience every day. After experiencing it first-hand, no longer is it strange. You might even forget why you once thought so, which I think is the most interesting aspect of cultural immersion.
So far, over the past two months, what I have experienced in Korea has been distinctly unique and excitingly beautiful. I have come to very much enjoy the respect-defined language and interaction structure as much as my new favorite foods. And all of this so far has confirmed for me that attitude is everything. If you can find a comfortable mental place to be, your physical environment will highly likely to become more friendly.
Personally speaking, actively recognizing myself as a foreigner became an important step to adjustment – it is difficult to fully appreciate your experiences if you forget that you are seeing things differently from natives. Being foreign is not a flaw, but rather an opportunity. And of course, when breaking from what you know, you must be prepared to be surprised. Working towards a mindset of expectancy rather than apprehensiveness provided me with a beneficial foundation for new experience. Nerves are impossible to avoid, but remembering how others see you as a foreigner as well allows you to more readily explore what the culture has to offer. And believe me, if you let it, it will offer you plenty.
I myself have never been a foreigner before. I have always culturally been the majority. I’ve never felt wholly out of place, like so many foreigners around me in Canada have. Finally, this exchange has given me an opportunity I didn’t before realize was very much necessary. Culture has now become an interactive experience for me; a reality that I can actively view and participate in everyday. I am so grateful for the awareness this exchange has granted me, and cannot wait to continue to learn and become more a part of the rich and distinctive culture of South Korea.