At the age of 27, I condensed my entire life into two large suitcases and moved across the world to South Korea. My goal was to learn about a foreign culture.
What happened over the next two years was completely unexpected: I learned more about my own American culture than I ever had in my life.
When I first arrived at the Korean elementary school in the Seoul suburb of Songpa, where I would teach English for two years, my Korean head teacher asked me to incorporate American culture into all of our lessons. My initial thought was U.S. holidays, so I began to write those on our classroom calendar.
My second thought was probably, “Wait, what exactly is Labor Day?” At one point shortly thereafter, I even Googled “American culture” before quickly shutting down the computer, realizing I was Googling a culture in which I was supposed to be the expert.
I had to learn first what culture was. The easiest culture to see is one which is far removed from your own. One of the first bits of Korean culture I noticed were simple greetings. “How are you?” is not a phrase spoken between strangers in Korea. I soon learned that just the Korean word for hello, “anyeong-ha-sayo'” was often met with confused stares, uncomfortable giggles and sometimes even screams of terror followed by running in the opposite direction (yes, really).
It had never occurred to me that a small nod to the person passing you on the sidewalk, or asking the cashier how their day was going, or saying hello to the bus driver were all parts of American culture. Up until then, it had just been “normal” to me.
Wasn't that how every human anywhere acted on the street? It didn't take long in South Korea for me to learn that the answer to that question was a resounding “of course not!”
The piece of Korean culture that stood out to me the most was the country's homogeneous society. Almost everyone had dark hair, fair skin, similar facial features and modest clothing. The modern music I heard was fun pop tunes by boy bands and girl groups. Tattoos and piercings were rarely seen. Clothing stores and boutiques were usually filled with one-size-fits-all, solid colors, and the same pair of boots was available at every pop-up you passed. Much of the food is cooked with spicy red pepper paste, and white rice accompanies every meal.
I saw South Korea embracing a culture of sameness, with cultural elements of their style and cuisine sources of pride.
For several months, standing out as a foreigner in Korea was an interesting, usually fun, experience. Many of us “waygooks” (non-Koreans) described it as the Hollywood complex. Walking down the street brought on people pointing, excited whispers, the bravest approaching with a few words of English or asking for photos, special treatment in the form of extra blankets at the hotel or bountiful gifts from students. On the other hand, it sometimes came with people moving seats away from me on the subway, being followed around in stores or refused entry to restaurants.
Before long, I craved the diversity and uniqueness that are large parts of American culture, where one can fit in by standing out. The people of our country come in all shapes, sizes, colors and backgrounds, have various tastes in music and food, opposing fashion styles, exposed tattoos, different religions and other languages. Being different and your own version of yourself is often celebrated and revered. Many of us are striving to be unlike anyone else.
With two years in Korea and 12 additional countries under my belt, exploring foreign lands has become necessary for me to thrive and grow. Each time I learn something new about another culture but, most importantly, I come back with unexpected lessons and invaluable insight into myself and my proverbial people. As G.K. Chesterton proposes in one of my favorite quotes about travel: “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land.”
Alexandra Sauer recently planted roots in Fort Wayne after 14 years away, but continues to travel and explore, with Costa Rica next on her itinerary.