Just some fish drying opposite the department store.
When I had only travelled in Europe, North Africa, Turkey and Japan, I used to say that I don't do „culture shock“. And 3 years and 30 more countries later, in a way, that is still true. I am not afraid of radically different cultures, food, religious or most social customs and can adapt very quickly.

That is, there is one thing I just can't do.



My first trip outside these countries lead me to South Korea, a country that these days is mostly known for its pretty boy bands, girls with plastic surgery and the fastest internet in the world (bus stop in the middle of the country side have free wifi hotspots!). However, it's also the country in the world that adheres most closely to traditional Confucian values. After 10 days, the way I was treated freaked me out so much I spent 3 entire days in my room in Seoul. Just like the Japanese tourists who dream of visiting Paris all their lives and then are utterly shocked that Paris is actually a shithole (I said it. I like Paris, but it still is a dank, smelly unsafe place).

Hang on. Rewind. So what exactly happened?

Confucius, the really smart old Chinese dude? Yeah, that's kind of his image in the West. Confucius revolutionize Chinese society (and with it, strengthen the emperor's and noble's role) by setting up an intricate social system. Depending on your age, gender, your job, your parent's job, your great-great-great-grandfathers job, your exact role in society was determined.

And in spite of about 50% of all the things (maybe 80% of everything in Seoul) in Korea is hyper modern, social dynamics still aren't. I've seen little boys in Busan's subway shout at a heavily pregnant women because she was “blocking” their seats – yes, even a little “man” seemed to be of more importance than a woman bringing new life into the world.

the friendly locals of South Korea
Wherever I stayed, the owners or staff, people just a few years older then me (or younger, but male) tried to tell me what to do at every moment of the waking hour. And the sleeping hours, too. What was good to wear, what I should eat. Who I should go out with. What I should say and how loudly I should say it. Even at the super alternative hostels aimed at foreigners, being there as a single woman was seen as a curiosity. I was asked where I was going or had come from even if I just went to the toilet. Controversially, much older people treated me like shit – obviously gossiped about me or mocked me and other travellers speaking English in public, kicked me out of souvenir shops (!) and restaurants (no solo dining in most traditional Korean restaurants).

I have a couple of Korean friends in Japan and London, and when I told them about my experience, they just smiled and said “I understand what you say, I have felt the same in other countries, but people just tried to take care of you”. Because I'm younger, because I'm a woman.

India did a similar thing to me, if maybe the other way around. Just because I was Western and rich by Indian standards, I encountered a submissiveness that was just ridiculous. But it didn't only apply to foreigners: rich Indians treated poor Indians like they were gods and the others vermin. Even though the caste system doesn't formally exist anymore, if you are born rich, it means that you had very good karma in your last life. The poor obviously did something deeply spiritually wrong.

I can't deal with people judging my by my supposed “background” and treating me according to my perceived “social status”. Being treated as a generic group instead of as a person.

I grew up in a culture that lacks any class system, at least officially. When I moved to the UK, I was shocked that people actually referred to themselves and others as “middle” or “working class”. Maybe because Germany has had such a stable welfare state (well, with a few decades of going backwards politically and economically) for the last 150 years, everybody knows they can make a decent living regardless of education, social status or the money/property they might inherit once.

I can use squat toilets and go to public baths with naked Japanese girls half or Arab ladies double my weight and not feel awkward. I'll say “I will be impolite” before entering a room in Japan, and “Excuse me, I was wondering if you maybe would have time to look into x” when asking for a service in England. I'm fine dressing conservatively in Muslim countries and even shutting up about the whole gay thing.

There isn't a custom that I can't adapt to. But bowing or commanding, or putting myself on a pedestal above others because some unwritten, ancient law says I'm superior or inferior?

Which cultural norms can't you adapt to?

(As much as I was interested in India, I now realised this ruined it for me. I will have another go with Korea in 2 months though!)


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