Breaking into a new culture in the workplace is not an easy task. Every job, and office, and company, or any group for that matter always operates under different social expectations even in our home countries. If I started a new teaching job in America it would be much of the same, but easier of course because I could actually talk to people.
But starting a new job in a new culture is something else entirely. Not only do you have to navigate feeling out the workplace culture, but you’re simultaneously trying to fit that into what you’re learning about the rest of the country that you interact with every day.
And a lot of that boils down to the language and cultural differences.
It’s a very weird thing, not being able to communicate with your co-workers. I suppose there may be some benefits, for example; I’ll never know the moment by moment drama that goes on between the desks in the teacher’s office. And I’ll never have a bad impression of a student or other teacher based on what people in the office are saying. Everything I experience at school will be new and without preconceived notions.
But that’s about as far as I can see any benefits. It’s hard that I can’t make small talk with them while we pour our coffee in the morning, and it’s hard that I can’t be involved in the conversation at lunch time. And with my co-teachers who do speak English, it’s hard because I just wish I could communicate with them in their own language.
I do what I can to bond, instead, over little things. A long, properly timed, sigh can say more than a lot of words can. Knowing how to say “I’m tired” in Korean has proven to be very useful. I use my very broken Korean to initiate small talk and then can’t understand anything they respond with.
It’s weird. But I’m happy. I’m happy that they try to connect with me. I’m happy that they don’t avoid me at lunch or in the office, because I have head of that happening to native speaker teachers. More so than most big groups of people I’ve encountered, they are kind. And they are happy that I am there. They go out of their way to accommodate me only when I can’t possibly do something, or know something, on my own. Otherwise, they treat me like they treat each other.
And that is something that I have really loved being a part of. American culture is all about the individual. I’m glad to have come from a culture that validates me as an individual with my own personal hopes and dreams. But after having been in a workplace environment in a collectivist culture now for a little while (a whole 2 weeks and here I am talking like I actually know anything. I don’t for the record.), I am starting to see the beauty in that as well.
The culture is like circle and the moment you break into it, you are expected to act a certain way, and you will be reacted to in a certain way. If you have the ability to act the way you should then you will be treated the way you should. The thing about being a foreigner though, is that you are allowed to slip in and out of that circle.
Sometimes I can participate correctly. I can greet my superiors respectfully and they will respond to me in the same way they respond to the Korean teachers. But if I don’t know something, and I act outside that circle of social norms, then I am just the foreigner. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because everyone else is trapped inside that circle whether they want to be or not.
Let me give you an example.
When people leave work at the end of the day they are expected to say something to the rest of the office which translates into English like, “stay well” and they will respond with “go well.” So when I leave and I say, “안녕히 계세요” they say, “안녕히 가세요.” And just like that I am in the circle.
Similarly when you walk into a store someone will say, “Come in” or “welcome” always with the same tone, and the customer (me) always responds with “yes” in the same tone.
Maybe the novelty of it will wear off, but as of now, it makes me feel happy every time. Like I am a part of something.
And already that is something I didn’t expect to learn. I’ve known this about Korean culture for a long time, but never felt any particular draw to that aspect of it. I always was proud of what my individualist culture has shaped me into. But now, participating in it, I am starting to understand it. And starting to see why so many civilizations for centuries have operated like this.
Now I can understand, just a little bit, how isolating it might feel to be thrust into American or any other individualist culture. It’s weird because, although Americans are arguably much friendlier to strangers (we hold the door for people, we say bless you to strangers, and talk about the weather with random people at the bus stop) we don’t have these “mutual acknowledgement” interactions engrained into our culture.
And of course neither is better or worse; I’m just starting to grasp the tip of the iceberg of this thing that is “Korean culture.”
I’m definitely still watching from the outside, so to speak, but I’m getting there. And I’m loving every second of it.