Even as an avid traveler, I’ve experienced many moments of culture shock, when I feel thrown off by unfamiliar customs, habits and cultural values of the places I’m visiting. No matter how much I’ve traveled, how many different places I’ve been to, or how broad-minded I consider myself to be, from time to time, I still feel like a fish out of water.
Most traveler I’ve spoken to while traveling or back at home have expressed the same, as taking on the world’s customs can jumble a traveler’s brain even more than crisscrossing the international date line. Realization of stark contrast in culture as well as blunders are inevitable, even for the well-meaning.
However, when you’re visiting a foreign country or living in one, it’s normal and natural to experience things that you don’t understand … or that is difficult for you to comprehend, but in overcoming these experiences, I’ve learned that what’s important is not that I’ve experienced culture shock, but that these experiences have allowed me gain a better understanding of the culture and its people.
So, without further ado, here are 10 most notable experiences I’ve had and valuable life lessons I’ve learned.
1. speak up and be your own advocate in the US
Being raised in a traditional Korean family, I was discouraged from any type of self-promotion or any act that would draw attention to myself. Especially as a child, you are encouraged by your parents to listen and not be heard. So, imagine my surprise when I walked into my first classroom in the US and saw children asking questions, and the teachers encouraging students to express their thoughts and opinions.
Expressing ourselves, our thoughts, opinions and especially, our accomplishments are what people are encouraged to do in the US from early on in life. Children are taught to present themselves with confidence, and those who are (or become) successful at accomplishing what they desire in school as well as in the workplace are not necessarily the students with the best grades but those who can best present themselves.
This concept of self-promotion is difficult to understand for most foreigners and immigrants in the US. My mother would say, “self-boast is ungodly,” and talking about yourself and your achievements is déclassé. However, what my mother failed to understand was that presenting yourself in a positive light is the norm in the US, and talking about one’s accomplishments is not necessarily boasting. In order to get into the schools you want or obtain and advance in jobs that you desire, you must speak up and be your own advocate.
2. a smile not just a smile in France
Travelers who have been to France often say that the French are impolite and rude, but I disagree. Being one of the most popular places on Earth, Paris is often the only place that most tourists get to see and experience in France; hence, Parisians the only impression that people have of the French. However, in order to experience true French hospitality, you must venture outside the “City of Light”.
Over the years I’ve traveled to many places in France, and I must admit, I’ve rarely experienced the kind of brusque and rudeness that I have experienced in Paris. However, with the exception of few unpleasant incidences, notably, a receptionist at a hotel who kept my husband and I waiting for an hour while he looked up our “supposedly lost” reservation when we arrived at midnight after a 5 hour drive from Germany, I wouldn’t say that the lack of hospitality in Paris is no worse than what I’ve experienced in other parts of Europe.
However, on the contrast to Paris and perhaps a few popular tourist destinations in France like the Loire Valley and Provence in the month of August, I have experienced nothing but kindness, generosity and graciousness from the French people, and even if your ability to speak French is limited to “bonjour”, most often, just the mere smile on your face will bring about the most heartwarming reception from the locals.
Almost everywhere I’ve traveled to in France, I’ve encountered wonderful hospitality, so much so that I don’t even bother to look up restaurants in guidebooks or ask for recommendations anymore. As years of experience has taught me, even without a reservation, you can expect extraordinary food as well as hospitality no matter where you end up.
The only thing to be cautious about is that sometimes a smile can be misconstrued. Especially when you’re trying to resolve a serious matter like a disputing a bill at hotels and restaurants, trying to find lost items (a purse or a wallet), or trying to resolve an issue at an airport or at a post office, whether out of frustration or embarrassment, a smile can be interpreted as lack of seriousness on your part to resolve the matter or worse that you’re being dishonest about what you’re saying. In most cases, a smile will get you a lot further than tipping, but remember to stay stern when resolving a problem.
3. enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of beer for hours in Germany
While living in Europe, I’ve often heard that Germany is the “black hole of service” meaning service and hospitality is completely absent there. However, unlike the rudeness and the odious attitude that Parisians are associated with, the lack of service and hospitality in Germany is due to the fact that the concept of “serving” a customer does not exist in German culture.
Once wait staff bring you your food in Germany, you will not see them again, unless you call them specifically. They will not come by the table to refill your drinks unless called upon to do so, and the check will not arrive at your table unless you ask for it.
It’s the cultural norm that in most restaurants, the server and the wait staff will take your order, bring you your food, and you will not see them again until the end of meal when you’re ready to pay. Then, once your bill arrives, they will simply ask, “How did it taste?” However, this is merely a rhetorical question, as they have no interest in your opinion of the food you just ate or have any intention of resolving the matter if there was anything wrong with it. It’s an equivalent of Americans greeting each other with “How are you?” You are simply expected to say, “fine, thank you.” and be on your way.
I must admit, while living in Germany, the lack of service not only at restaurants but overall in the so-called service industry (shops, hotels, travel, etc.) really bothered me. It was difficult getting used to having to track down a wait staff every time I needed something or wanted to order additional items on the menu. Especially after growing up in America where I was told and made to feel that “The customer is king.”, I had a hard time getting used to being treated like a second class citizen while paying for it.
However, somewhere along my stay, I realized that there’s an upside to being completely neglected by the wait staff. As a patron, you are left to enjoy your meal, and to sit as long as you like. There’s no pressure sale, obligation to finish your meal quickly so that they could turn the table, or even to tip (hence, the reversal culture shock of having to fork up additional 15-20% of the bill for Germans who visit the US).
You can sit for hours engrossed in conversations with a cup of coffee or a glass of beer, and no one will bother you or make you feel unwelcome. The locals refer to this as, “German Gemütlichkeit”, and the best part of is that whether you’ve just eaten a meal fit for a king or milked a cup of latte for 3 hours, the wait staff will come to the table with the same banal look on their face and ask, “Hat es Ihnen gut geschmeckt?” to which I always reply, “gut, danke.”
4. go from 0 to 140mph in 10 seconds in Germany
There something that every driver in Germany intrinsically knows but will never admit to, the hierarchy of the road. From bottom up: VW, BMW, Mercedes, and the ultimate king of the German road, Porsche.
The traffic rules and laws in Germany are as strict as they come; so much so that in order to obtain a driver’s license, you must complete a course that resembles PhD studies and pay around $1,500, which is more than the tuition at some German universities, at an authorized school even before attempting the written and practical test. There are about gazillion signs you have to memorize, and some that makes no sense at all (to most foreigners that is).
So, it’s no wonder that once they get behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, most Germans will drive like a bat out of hell, and driving on German Autobahn … or just being a passenger for that matter requires nerves of steel. Only until I started to drive in Germany, I realized the necessity of being able to go from 0 to 100mph in 10 seconds. Most Autobahn (highways) in Germany are comprised of only 2-3 lanes, and the entrance to the highway is much shorter (about 1/3 to be exact) than in the US. So, in order to have any chance of getting into the highway, you must literally go from 50km/h (about 30mph) city limit to 240km/h (about 150mph) in 10 seconds.
However, I must admit, once I got used to it … or shall I say, once I got over the petrified feeling of being run over by cars going 150mph, I begin to enjoy the drive, the exhilaration of being able to drive without speed limit, and as Germans would say, “Fahrvergnügen”. So much so that when I returned to the States, moving at 55mph seemed so blasé.
5. enjoy the silence during meals in Germany
I remember my first meal with my German colleagues in Frankfurt. It was a week after my company had transferred me to Germany, and I was invited by coworkers for lunch.
Mind you, having lunch with coworkers who were either visiting or transferred was a normal protocol at the company I was working for at the time, but I was nervous about meeting my new colleagues, as knowing so little about the German culture, I had no idea what to expect. Luckily, most of the people I’d met were friendly and nice, and as everyone was introducing themselves, I became excited about the prospect of working with my new coworkers.
However, once the food arrived, deafening and uncomfortable (at least for me that is) hush fell over the entire table. No one spoke or said a word, so much so that I could actually hear the cooks preparing the meal in the kitchen. All I heard was the sound of utensils hitting (ever so gently) the dishes as the food was being cut for consumption.
I was absolutely confused, as I could not understand how my coworkers who were engaging in witty repartee only few minutes before had all turned into Marcel Marceau.
Little did I know, not talking during a meal is quite the norm in Germany. Even among friends and family, most Germans won’t engage in a conversation until they’re done eating or until the after dinner drinks arrive, usually wine or Schnaps. So, when you’re invited by your German colleagues or friends for a meal, and conversation seizes when the food arrives, don’t be alarmed. Use the time to think of witty things to say once the conversation starts up, and just enjoy the meal.
6. honesty is NOT always the best policy in Germany
“The problem with you girls is that you get pregnant.”, declared my boss, as we were sitting in a staff meeting strategizing a better process of career planning and development for the employees in Germany (and overall in Europe). It was shortly after I’d given a presentation on introducing a software that would enable the employees to self–determine and manage their career paths. The software as well as the new program would allow employees to take more initiative in the process, and for the HR department to better plan for replacements and manage succession planning before the position becomes vacant.
Then, out of the blue, my boss expressed his frustration of losing valuable employees due to maternity leave, and further expressed his opinion that no matter how well we plan or invest our resources on developing an efficient career planning process, we would always loose employees due to unforeseeable events. Of course, he was referring mainly to women, and I understood what he was trying to say; however, nothing prepared me or my American colleagues, for the bluntness of the words that came out of his mouth.
Little did I know at the time, Germans are notorious for their directness, expressing themselves exactly as they see it, even proudly calling it “Ehrlichkeit” (honesty), and although I was warned by my coworkers, nothing prepared me for the bluntness I’d encountered in Germany.
While living in the US, I’ve never been a big proponent of political correctness, and I believed that actions not based on genuine intentions or understanding can do more damage than good. However, after living in Germany, I begin to understand and appreciate even the smallest efforts and gestures that are made and must be made in the name of being politically correct, as I now believe that people should be mindful what they’re saying.
Perhaps my boss (my former boss, as I no longer work for the same company) was expressing a sentiment that is shared by many male as well as female executives in Germany or Europe for that matter. However, it was a reflection of the deep-rooted problem in German society that continues to marginalize women in the workplace. Therefore, although the sentiment he’d express may have been a popular one at the time (or even now), it didn’t make it right to voice and perpetuate such prejudice.
Taking care in using language is a way of taking care of the world, and being politically correct has less to do with censoring individual’s actions or words but more to do with protecting those who suffer its consequences. And sometimes, honesty is not always the best policy.
7. WEALTH is a four letter word in Europe
Sitting in German class with students from all over the world, I was always fascinated by the different perspectives that I was exposed to, but more importantly, I was enlightened by their view of America(ns).
Living in Germany during one of the most horrific international relations debacle in US history, Americans were associated with George W. Bush’s administration’s bullish unilateral decisions and global ambitions rather than our humanitarian efforts and technological innovations. By the end of his first term, I’d become accustom to hearing disparaging remarks about the US and its leader. However, what surprised me was how wealth was perceived in Germany … of course, Americans being associated with wealth or being wealthy.
First of all, I was shock to discover that almost everyone I met, whether from Pakistan or Spain wanted to know, “Why Americans were so rich when there was so much poverty in the world?”
Obvious, this is a gross misconception concocted by media, as a few minute drive into or outside of most American cities will remind you that indeed not all Americans live the life of rich and famous.
However, with the misconception of all Americans being wealthy aside, I was surprised to learn how (Western) Europeans felt about wealth and how they view the wealthy. The whole conversation came about as we were reading an article that contained the word Yuppie, which stands for “young urban professional”.
When there was question what the word meant, our German teacher explained that a yuppie was someone who was not only wealthy but was selfish and greedy in obtaining that wealth. Furthermore, what shocked me was not only the false description of the word but the disdain in his voice with which he spoke at the mere mention of it.
I found this quite the contrast from what I’d experienced while living in NYC, where being a yuppie was an accomplishment, a status symbol to be proud of. However, in Germany or in Western Europe for that matter, I’ve learned that most people do not trust the wealthy nor consider it to be an accomplishment of any sort (as most wealth in Europe are acquired through inheritance and not self-generated), and most Europeans would agree that it is better to be among Mitt Romney’s 47% rather than to be Mitt Romney.
This is because in most Western European countries, especially Germany and France, wealth is seen as something to be shared by everyone not a privilege horded by few (whether by 1 or 10 percent). “Equality before public burdens.” as French president François Hollande gallantly declared before proposing the 75% income tax hike on France’s wealthiest, and unlike in the US, he has staunching support of his party as well as the majority of French people.
It’s not as bad as being sent to the guillotine, but for France’s and ultimately, Europe’s wealthiest, the message is clear … share your wealth or else!
8. let go your personal space and enjoy strangers’ company and generosity in South Korea
One thing that most Americans have difficulties getting used while traveling abroad is the loss of personal space. With world’s population at over 7 billion and growing, I’m surprised we’re able to maintain any personal space at all. Nevertheless, growing up in (North) America, I’ve learned to value my, as well as others’ personal space, and when someone, especially a stranger, gets too close in a crowded subway I get really uncomfortable.
However, in Asia and in many other parts of the world, personal space is foreign concept. The main reason is because in (North) America, we tend to emphasize and focus on the needs and rights of an individual. On the contrary, in Asia, people tend to care more about the collective needs and rights, and there’s a lot more communal and often family approach to doing things.
People in many of these countries and cultures see themselves as an intertwine component of society, and space something that’s meant to be shared by all. Even in rapidly developing and developed nations, generations of families still live together, occupy and share the same home. Therefore, most people in Asia are not accustomed to having personal space and do not share the same priority that (North) Americans place on having one.
Nevertheless, with all the cultural understanding aside, I must admit, not having my personal space was one of the most difficult aspect of living in South Korea, especially in subways and buses where I was constantly being pushed and shoved without any acknowledgement or an apology.
However, one day, I got on the bus in Daejeon with heavy bags of grocery. As it was during commuting hours, I had no choice but to nudge my way in, barely finding a place to stand while balancing a grocery bag on my shoulder and holding on to another with my pinky. Then, out of the blue, an elderly women who was sitting in front of me reached over and took the bags from my hand, and when my immediate reaction was to jerk my hand away, she merely looked at me with a kind smile and said, “Rest your bags on my lap.”
Still stunned by her generosity, I gently placed my heavy grocery bags on her lap, and even though I’d felt uncomfortable about doing so, I did not want to refuse or insult her. It was one of the kindest act of humanity I’d experienced in my life, and once I’d learned to let go of my personal space, I began to enjoy strangers’ company and generosity.
9. have faith in humanity not in traffic lights in Vietnam
There should be a section in guidebooks for Vietnam on how to cross the road: “Relax and be self-confident, look straight ahead, don’t make eye contact with the drivers, walk slowly with purpose, and never NEVER step back.
It may sound weird to think that you need instructions to cross the street; however, once you set foot in Vietnam, especially in cities like Hanoi or Ho chi Minh City, you will understand why. The traffic in major cities in Vietnam is INTENSE and crossing the street can be absolutely daunting! The traffic (especially to foreign visitors) seems absolutely chaotic, and it extremely rare to find a working cross-walk. Therefore, most people cross the street wherever and whenever they can, and with thousands (which seems like millions at times) of motorbikes and cars zipping down the road, getting to the other side of the street can seem like an Amazing Race challenge.
Surprisingly, the locals have told me, and from what I’ve witnessed personally during my stay in Vietnam, accidents are rare, and astoundingly, my husband and I were able to cross the street every time without any problem … although, our blood pressure went up by million once we got to the other side.
Everyone has their own theory on how to get through the traffic, everything from getting yourself into a Zen-like state to saying a little prayer beforehand. However, for me, I choose to have faith in humanity and in the cyclists and drivers who seem to know what they’re doing. And of course, NEVER ever step back.
10. bargaining is as important as tipping in China
Traveling in China, I felt as if I’d hit the mother lode of treasures. From inexpensive memorabilia at outdoor markets to high end luxury items at Shanghai Tang, whatever your heart desires, China truly is shopper’s paradise.
Also, shopping in China can be great fun as the majority of shops and markets engage in bargaining. Without a word, a calculator is exchanged between buyers and sellers, each party fervently typing in the price they’re willing to sell or pay for the goods. With the exception of department stores, most street vendors and outdoor markets expect you to bargain and thus set prices 50 to 100% higher. Therefore, you should never pay the initial asking price from any street vendor or small, privately-owned business, as bargaining is a cultural norm in China.
Bargaining is expected as tipping is in North America, and you should not feel that if you’re being cheated or feel reluctant to do so.
I remember when my husband and I’d visited the Hutongs in Shanghai and came across a market where an array of beautifully crafted traditional items were being sold. We’d found a set of pillow cases made out of silk and asked the shop keeper for its price, and she told us they were equivalent of 10 US dollars. It didn’t even cross our minds to start bargaining as my husband and I knew that in order to buy the same pillow cases in the US, you would have to pay more than five times the price.
However when we handed the shopper the money, she smiled uncomfortably and said, “I’ll give it to you for $5.” and gave back half of the bills. It was clear to see that our decision not to engage in bargaining had made her feel uncomfortable; however, she was gracious and kind enough not to take an advantage of our ignorance.
Reverse Culture Shock
Traveling the world for almost two decades has made me realized that there is so much of the world that I do not know and want to know, and even though I have experienced many cultural gaffes and shocks, I still enjoy seeing new places, experiencing different cultures, and meeting people who have different perspectives and lives.
Ironically, being back in the US, I find myself experiencing “reverse culture shock” or “re-entry shock”, as I’m seeing my own culture in a whole different light.
I am shocked by the continuing and ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor in this country. Although I certainly do not think that the richest top 10 percent of our nation is responsible for all the greed and evil that exist in the world or is obligated to share their wealth as in Europe, I certainly believe that as a modern developed nation, we must do a better job in creating and maintaining a social infrastructure that takes care of those in need, the elderly, the children and the poor who can’t help themselves.
When my husband and I’d moved to San Francisco, one of the most shocking thing was to see the great number of homeless people on the street. As I drove each day to downtown and saw the endless line of people looped around a homeless shelter, I couldn’t fathom how this great nation of mine could allow such human tragedy to occur and continue. Oh, how shocked the students in my German class would be to know that not all Americans were living it up like Donald Trump.
Also, what has been even more shocking is all the violence I have seen and have read about in the US. Every single day, when I turn on the news, there are reports of murder or gun related deaths, and in the past year, there has been a mass shooting somewhere in this country almost every month. My political views aside, as a person who has lived abroad in places where gun ownership is better controlled and monitored, I must admit, the ownership of guns in the US has become out of control and incomprehensible. So much so that I actually felt safer in the jungles of Cambodia where there are still warning signs for landmines than in the US.
I’m certain that most people living outside of North America have difficulties understanding our need to preserve and protect gun ownership, and I must admit, I too am having a hard time grasping it.