I’ve been back in Denmark for almost two weeks now, and I’m slowly, very slowly, starting to settle down here. While I’ve landed physically, I’m mentally still in Korea (who knows if that will ever change?), and I’ve been struggling more than expected in coping with returning to Denmark after two years in Korea.

My last few weeks in Korea were nothing short of wonderful and all my amazing friends over there gave me the best imaginable sendoff. The last days before my departure truly felt like a dream. I was done teaching for the summer, had plenty of time to just enjoy myself, even went on an impromptu trip to my beloved Busan, and otherwise spent my evenings gazing out on the Han River soaked in either beer, wine, or makgeolli and screaming K-pop tunes at a Korean noraebang (singing room). I realize this is obviously more vacation than everyday life in Seoul, but SHxx did I have fun!

Obviously, this made my repatriation a bit harder to swallow as I didn’t feel like going back at all. Ask my mom, who can testify to having had a bawling daughter on the phone 18 hours before departure. Me in tears on the phone: “I… *sob* don’t want to *sob*… leaveeeeee!”, to which my understanding mother smoothly replied: “You can always go back to Seoul, my dear. Just think to yourself that you’re going to Denmark on a long vacation”. That helped, and that’s what I am thinking now. I may be back in Denmark, but just for vacation. After all, I came here on a ticket that has a return flight to Seoul in December. If things go well, I’ll even go before. We’ll see what happens, more on that later. Trust me, I’m as curious as you guys to see what’s in store~

So seriously, how did I deal with moving back (note that I violently reject the term “moving home”) to Denmark? Worse than I’d care to admit. According to my patient husband, he was ready to send me back within a few hours of my arrival at our apartment. I was sleep-deprived, jet-lagged and frankly should not even have been allowed to interact with any human being in that state. I simply just couldn’t find any reason to be happy about being back at my old apartment. It felt oddly familiar and strange to me at the same time, and I was missing Seoul so much that it physically hurt. A good night’s sleep did lend some improvement to my misery, but it took me a full week to accept the new order of things.

I had read about reverse culture shock before coming back, but I didn’t expect to experience it this badly. There were so many Danish traits that I had simply just suppressed forgotten about that hit me like a hammer the first few days. A few examples for your entertainment: Many Danish men look like Vikings (*ugh*) with long and wild unkempt hair and beards. (Different indeed from this Korean man who once told me that he only used 5(!) different skin care products in his routine – after all, he was not a girl, right?!) Women are smoking in the streets, by every bus stop and right outside any store entrance, children are noisy as Fxxx, and don’t even get me started on the sound of my regional dialect in the local mall.

I obviously realize that this rant makes me sound like the most pretentious snob to ever walk the face of the earth but this is in no way my intent. I am merely trying to give you a glimpse into my mind the first week of being back in a country that used to be my home for more than 30 years. I’m not saying that any of this is the true picture of Denmark (well the men are hairy, which I do not fancy, and people do smoke) but I also acknowledge that this is their right in a free and democratic country. I think I had this strong reaction because I couldn’t identify with anything here anymore. Sure, Seoul gave me some bruises but each one gave me new insight and wisdom, and I felt like I’d finally learned how to play by the rules when it was time for me to leave. It felt like I didn’t know the Danish rules anymore, and I could no longer feel any sense of belonging. Having lived two years among Koreans and starting to feel a sense of belonging there made me doubt that I had ever truly felt like I belonged in Denmark. After all, short of my husband and my immediate family and few closest friends, I had missed nothing in Denmark for two years. Licorice, rye bread, canned mackerel? Nope! Not at all. In Korea, I had kimchi, green tea flavored chocolate, and onion bagels, and life was just fine.

My first visit to the local Danish grocery market will forever be labeled in my mental experience archive as “do not open”. I had a complete meltdown in front of my poor husband in aisle 7 because I couldn’t find anything on my shopping list, people were loud around me and ridiculous jingles kept playing around me. I started hyperventilating and had to put on loud music in my headphones and communicate with my husband in improvised sign language just to get through it. Safely barricaded in my apartment I swore that I would never enter the premises of that place again. A promise kept to this day one week later. Talk about adaptation problems, haha.

It’s still weird to me that people don’t bow or follow the strict Korean etiquette that I had become so accustomed to. I realize that the loyal reader of my blog will be able to find several blog posts where I thoroughly trash talk said etiquette, but at least in Korea people know what the rules are and the majority abides by them. Without these rules, I now feel like I lack some structure for social interactions that can make me feel a bit awkward.

I’m doing better and better each day, partly because I know that each day that passes brings me closer to my beloved Korea. I’ve spent a large part of each day immersed in either Korean books, Korean text messages, Korean music or Korean tv series. I’m almost finished watching the new TVN series “What’s wrong with secretary Kim”. It is hands down the best drama series I’ve watched in a long time. I absolutely love the storyline, the humor, the hilarious repartees between the actors and, well, the actors themselves. I always liked Park Min Young, who’s easily one of the prettiest actresses in Korea, but now I also have a newfound appreciation for Park Seo Joon. He plays this the rich and self-centered CEO to perfection! The show is streaming for free on Viki.com now. I highly recommend it! Here’s a trailer to get you hooked.

If you’re curious as to my current taste in Korean music, here’s Zion T and “Eat”. Yes, I did scream this one in a karaoke room a few weeks ago, and no, there are no video recordings of that (I hope!).

Did any of you ever experience reverse culture shock? If so I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Do share!

7 Comments »

  1. Hope it gets better for you soon 😉

    Funnily enough, I wasn’t a big fan of ‘Secretary Kim’. I started watching that and ‘Miss Hammurabi’ at the same time, and while ‘Secretary Kim’ had me hooked at the start, I found it went downhill badly with some really poor writing towards the end – it really went nowhere. By contrast, the slow start of ‘Miss Hammurabi’ actually paid off in the way all the minor characters and weekly trials came together in the last few episodes 🙂

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  2. I can understand from my heart what it feels by “reverse culture shock” — it exists even between countries that are culturally close. As a Korean, I have been to Japan for half an year, as an exchange student. On the day I came back to Korea, I felt somewhat “strange” to be here — even though it was my home country. There were no drinks that I have favored and loved in convenience stores. People and my friends used different words and abbreviations from what I have been used to (e.g. Starbucks is “Staba” in Japan, but “Subuck” in Korea. Subway is “Densha(전차, Jeoncha)” in Japan but “Jeoncheol” in Korea — many more!) The way of riding public transportations were so different (especially the bus — Koreans do not wait in line to ride the bus, you know). There were so many differences that I felt as if I was an “alien”. The funny thing is, when I left Japan I missed Korea so badly that I thought I wouldn’t go to Japan for at least a year, but now I miss Japan so much!

    But as the Korean saying “People are adaptive animals(사람은 적응의 동물이다)”, living in my home country for 6 months, I got used to living here again. Sometimes I miss and think of life abroad, but I physically could go there anytime, as a trip or something, right?!

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  3. I was only in Korea for six weeks, so I didn’t have the chance to become quite so engrained in the Korean lifestyle, but I still felt very strange when I first came back to the U.S. The whole ride home from the airport I just stared out the window, marveling at the lack of skyscrapers and at how much of the sky I could see. For several weeks, whenever I went out I would catch myself slightly bowing to people when I greeted them, and when I paid for stuff at my university’s convenience store I noticed myself supporting my hand with my elbow sometimes when I gave/received money. Crazy how some stuff turns into a habit, even after only a matter of weeks.

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  4. I’ve only been to Korea for one year and I don’t speak the language so I wasn’t as immersed as you were but I can strongly relate to what you’re saying in the post. It’s been one year and four months since I’ve left and it’s unlikely that I’d return there in foreseeable future but I still miss Seoul and my life there every day.

    I don’t recall much of a reverse cultural shock when I returned back to Ukraine which is maybe due to the fact that at the time I haven’t lived there continuously for almost 5 years (before going to Korea I lived in Denmark, actually, for ~3.5 years. You might be surprised how exciting it is to go back there now, even just for a few days ^^). But after two weeks home I’ve moved on, this time to Israel and that was the strongest cultural shock that I’ve ever experienced. Not only the country is vastly different but my mind and heart were still in Korea so I couldn’t find the strength and motivation to embrace the culture and learn how to live in it. I just wasn’t interested in it, only Korea was still on my mind.

    With time it got better to some degree but the original feeling didn’t fully go away. I hope you can find the things you’ve liked about Denmark once more and it shouldn’t be to hard because, and as an outsider I may be quite outspoken about it, Denmark is awesome. Held og lykke! 🙂

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  5. Sorry to hear you’re having a tough time. It will get easier, but I can’t promise anything about not missing Korea.

    I left Korea a few years ago now after teaching in Busan. I left after two years, though I was extremely reluctant and it was a difficult choice to make. I was getting very unwell and it was starting to look like a serious medical condition, though thankfully after further tests at home I found out that it was just some minor allergies causing all the havoc. Because I was so reluctant I had a really tough time adjusting – it took me a long time to stop crying and make it through immigration when the plane landed.

    I gradually re-adjusted to life in the UK; finding a job in particular gave me something to focus on and helped with the transition. It’s bizarre how some things which were ingrained in me from a young age suddenly became alien – I found it really strange to hear people say ‘sorry’ when they bumped in to me for example. After a few months, most of these British quirks returned.

    It’s been a few years and I am seriously considering going back now. I’m half-hesitant as I’ve recently started an okay job, but in the back of my mind I just can’t bring myself to settle here. At least not yet. Do you still have the opportunity to go back and teach next year?

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  6. Hi, Sofie. After only 10 days of visiting Korea, I was so sad that I had to leave, and know it doesn’t even compare to how difficult it would be to leave and adjust after living there for so long, establishing friendships, and becoming part of your community in Seoul and the country itself. Glad you’re on the mend! December is only weeks away! 힘!

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