“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road.
After my contract in Korea ended, I went on vacation to China and Sweden for almost three weeks. It was a fairly busy vacation and it involved me lugging all my belongings around in two beat-up suitcases that repeatedly went over the limit for the flights I was taking. By the time I got to Spain, I was extremely sleep deprived, confused, and not ready to take on a new life. Two years in Korea is a long time and the culture there had become my normality. I didn’t realize how much so until I got to Spain. Nothing made sense to me. I told a friend I felt like a Korean in Spain. I hadn’t given myself anytime to re-evaluate my life after Korea and now I was experiencing culture shock (from being in a new country) AND reverse culture shock (from returning to a Western culture) simultaneously. I’ve never gotten severe culture shock before, but I had experienced horrible reverse culture shock when I returned to America from my year abroad in Sweden. It’s a horrible feeling and it tainted my first few weeks in Spain, but I am happy to say that I am now assimilated into the Spanish lifestyle and unbelievably happy to be here. I’m even considering a second year, which was never my plan when I first applied.
A symptom of my reverse culture shock was to constantly compare my new life with the old one. I was never wanting for comparisons, as Korea and Spain seemed to have very little in common. I thought I would write out the differences between my life in Korea and my life in Spain, as a way to put the final nail in the coffin on any vestiges of culture shock.
I spent my first week in Spain quite hungry and jacked up on caffeine. I knew of the siesta and that Spaniards ate late in the evenings, but I didn’t realize that from the hours of noon to six, one is hard pressed to find a meal. You may get some bread and ham, or tapas, with your coffee or beer, but unless the bar is a touristy joint, it’s not going to be serving massive plates of food until dinner. It seemed to me in those early days, that Spaniards only consumed coffee and cigarettes. In Korea, food abounded at all hours of the day. I could eat food as I walked along and no one would judge me, but Spaniards take pleasure in eating and eating well. They do not rush and eating on the go would be an abomination.
I also really missed vegetables. When I go out for tapas, it’s mostly fried things, bread, meat, and cheese. Where was my Korean veggie soups?! Now, I take salads to school, as a way to get my greens in and I’ve been able to find a tapas bar that actually has salads. I’ve come to embrace that, while Spanish cuisine may lack the amount of fruits and vegetables I am used to, this country has really fresh and local food and it’s possible that I am eating fresher than I ever did in Korea. I would kill for some kimchi though…it was kicked into my brain that some kimchi a day keeps the doctor away…but it comes down to this. In Spain, I eat for pleasure and in Korea I ate for survival and nutrition.
The School System
Unlike Korea, I wasn’t instantly given a co-teacher to attend to my every need as soon as I stepped off the plane in Spain. I found an apartment, got a phone, and applied for my NIE card on my own. Funny enough, my school here is also out in a tiny town, just like it was in Korea. Originally, when I found this out, I gave a wail of “NOOOOOOOOOO.” I loved Geumsan, but I didn’t want to be living in a Spanish pueblo. Luckily, I can live in Santiago de Compostela and commute to school (takes about 30 min) with the other teachers. I teach 4 year olds to 11 year olds alongside a co-teacher. I plan my own lessons like in Korea, but I am not the queen of my own classroom like I was there. I’ve not once taught alone and I usually share the class with Carla, my co-teacher. The exception is when I teach with Ramon, who leads the classes with the 4 and 5 year olds and lets me do whatever I want in regards to teaching the 6th graders. I only teach 12 hours in a four day work week, compared to 22 hours in a five day week in Korea. I teach less which is nice, but I also get paid far less. The staff at my school are all very friendly and are always in the staff room ripping pieces off our communal loaf of bread (which I just stare at thinking GERMS, GERMS, GERMS). Unlike Korea, teachers have their own classrooms, but they are hardly in them. They are usually out with the students or in the staff room drinking coffee. I thank my stars everyday that I no longer have to drink the abomination that is Maxim coffee.
I loved my Korean students so much that I was crying when I left on my last day. I still miss them very much. Obviously, two years with students and two months with students can’t be compared. I really enjoy my Spanish students though, ESPECIALLY the 4 and 5 year olds. They are so adorable it makes my ovaries want to explode. Precious sweet things who speak Gallego to me in such high pitched voices that half the time, I have no idea what they are saying. The English level is much lower here, but this could be because I am at an elementary school and in Korea I was at a middle school. But really, if the Koreans could work out the English alphabet, you would think my damn first graders could! Spanish students are less shy than Korean students and willing to make asses out of themselves in front of the class, sing songs, dance around, whatever. Yet, this energy leads them to be far more misbehaved. Constantly talking, interrupting me and their Spanish teachers, and running around the classroom. I think Korean students are just too worn out from their daily lives to be so crazy. Spanish students are also less enamored with me than my Korean students were. Gone are the days that I am constantly told how beautiful and well-dressed I am. My Spanish students do all yell my name when they see me at school, hug me far too much, and give me compliments once in awhile so I am surviving. Just barely. SOMEONE TELL ME THAT I AM A FASHIONISTA PLEASE.
In Korea, I was an obvious foreigner and so I was treated that way. In Spain, I barely stand out and I can live a day to day life without having to deal with talking about my hair color and America all the time. Korean and Spanish people are both salt of the earth in my opinion. I’m lucky to have met giving, kind, and fun people in both places. The Koreans I knew had much more pressures in life, or at least, put more pressure on themselves and the Spaniards live more carefree, although Spain being in a crisis has probably dampened this slightly. The difference of lifestyle is so opposite. Spaniards have their two hour siesta from work, in which they eat and nap, and then stay up at night eating tapas and drinking beers with their friends, while the Koreans slave away and then chug soju in an effort to escape from it all. Yet Korea’s economy is winning, while unemployment in Spain is at 25 percent. In my opinion, Koreans work too much and Spaniards too little. America has got it just right 😉
Korea was a bubble of few responsibilities and lots of money. We lived like university students suckling the teat of mom and dad. It was fun, don’t get me wrong, but I did grow weary of the foreigner bars where strangers sucked face, knowing they would never see each other again, and drank shitty and expensive booze. The foreigners were mostly from America, Canada, England, South Africa, Ireland, and there were some Aussies and Kiwis thrown in. Here in Spain, it’s mostly the English and Americans. There’s also far less of a foreigner community than there was in Korea. I don’t think foreigner bars exist here and we are much more integrated into Spanish society than foreigners are in Korea. Part of that could be the language barrier in Korea. Foreigners here live from euro to euro, always looking for the cheapest drink and food specials. At first, I was like fuck this poor thing. I’M FROM KOREA, BITCH. But then, I realized living like that in Spain would bleed my money in no time. So now I eat one euro bocadillos like everyone else. A big difference in the foreigner populations is that I’m in the older age bracket here. Lots of people from the UK are here for their degree so there is a fair amount of university students teaching and studying in my city. Also, unlike Korea, there is no way of knowing who is a foreigner and who is not. It’s actually quite nice to not have to say “Oh, there’s foreigners there. Follow them!” People party hard here of course, but the tapas culture and our lack of money leads to more pre-drinking at people’s houses and spending a long time in one bar eating tapas and drinking wine, as opposed to mixing drinks in front of a 7-11 and then stumbling into a club. I’m happy to say that foreigners in both places are adventurous people who are always up to travel or do something strange and no matter what, those are my kindred spirits.
The Scenery and Weather
I basically lived on a ginseng farm in Korea. It was beautiful in its own way, especially if one went into the mountains. The two weeks of spring and fall were gorgeous but then winter comes and ruins everything. There isn’t much I hate more than a Korean winter. I honestly think it put me into a slight depression each time I experienced it. Than summer came and the humidity almost drowned you. Spain or Galicia to be more exact doesn’t get snow, but it gets a hell of a lot of rain. I was sad to hear this before I came, but now that it’s December 1st and everything is green, the sun is out, and I still see flowers, I am so thankful for the rain. Serra de Outes, where my school is located, may be in the middle of nowhere, but my god it’s so lovely. I go on walks when I have my lunch, out along the river, the trees, flowers, and vine wrapped bridges. I saw a rainbow three days in a row!! It’s a charming town and I have to say, it has Geumsan beat. That being said, I am glad I don’t live in Serra de Outes because there really isn’t anything to do there. I ask teachers who live there what they did on the weekend and they reply, “Nada. Muy aburrido.” It’s as if I live in the Daejeon of Spain and I work in the Geumsan equivalent.
Well, I didn’t expect this to be so long, but that just goes to show that the differences between my past life and this life are extremely vast. I barely touched the surface of it all. Yet, that is what I came here for. Something new and challenging and that’s exactly what it has been. I end with another Kerouac quote because one can never quote him enough and his novel On the Road has a special place in my heart.
“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”