In fact, the only time I've ever experienced something akin to "culture shock" was just these past few days. I will grant that I've never been to the West Coast before, so it's hard to tell if it's culture shock coming from the East Coast or coming from the Far East. In either case, the contrast between how strangers treated me in San Francisco and how they treat me in Korea was marked. Koreans are supposed to have a reputation for being rude (I guess); I've never really felt that way at all. It's that they're simply more reserved. The same goes for Sweden. I guess the reigning mode of thought is, "if people want you to get involved, they'll let you know." Which maybe goes more to show the difference between what I consider rude and what most Americans/Westerners consider rude.
Being able to understand the conversations around me, for the most part, was also pretty weird. I find it much easier to function in situations like grocery shopping or traveling on the subway when I don't understand what people around me are saying, mostly because it's that much easier to tune out and live in my head. Otherwise I find myself trying to eavesdrop, whether I want to or not. It's not a rude thing (or well, I guess it is) but more that if I hear words I have this compulsion about being able to understand them.
Those are minor things, though. What struck me the most about my all-too-brief return to the states was holy shit, diversity. I always thought that was a sort of meaningless concept among many on the liberal arts buzzword bingo board, but now I get it.
Imagine growing up in an entire country where everyone looks, more or less, the same. The "all you Koreans look the same to me" implication here isn't what I mean; I have over sixty students and I remember all of their names and can pick them out in a lineup. I mean they're all from the same racial background. (One of my friends here in the ROK, Nick, was talking to a Korean as part of his pre-Korea orientation and the topic got to ethnicity and ancestry. He gave the usual American hodge-podge litany. His Korean conversation partner replied, "My fifty-seventh grandfather was Korean." I feel like that illustrates the concept quite well.)
So in an environment like that, how can you possibly expect anyone to form any kind of positive/realistic impression of any other culture? Korean charities love Kenya, for example—but in the same breath, taxi drivers will say they don't pick up black people because "they're all criminals and they never pay their fare, everyone knows that." Even the very word "foreigner" (weigukin) has very specific connotations: a white English-speaker. When you get towards the heart of Seoul, especially in places like Itaewon, you do branch out into other ethnic/national/cultural groups (I've seen Germans, Nigerians, and women in headscarves there, for example) but it's still overwhelmingly North American and Korean. I mean, I will grant that I grew up in Whitebread Cracker Country, USA, but I still saw more ethnic diversity than I do out here in Minlak-dong.
Compare that to San Francisco. In the course of four days, I encountered no fewer than seven different languages (English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Russian, French, and Hindi were only the ones I was able to place, either by knowledge or by context). I saw, in a relatively even distribution, people of every kind of ethnic background, skin tones from deep browns to pale whites. And I thought, Holy crap, this is awesome! It took me four months to hear a language besides English or Korean (ran into some Germans in Itaewon) out here. Even now the count stands at four: Korean, English, German, and Russian—the last I've heard exclusively at the Uzbekistani restaurant I like to go to in Anam.
Among other things, I like to read pop science books in my spare time, especially about psychology and biology. One of the things I've picked up from that (and from what I remember from high school biology) is that diversity is key to a successful gene pool. The more varied the genes are, the easier it is for a group of organisms to survive and thrive—think about all the medical and mental problems the royal families of Europe suffered by marrying and breeding with each other. The Amish are seeing a resurgence of genetic diseases for the same reason.
I know that, arguably, making the leap from evolutionary biology to sociology isn't technically kosher, but nonetheless I think it's a fitting metaphor.
Malcolm Gladwell's Blink is a really provocative read on the subject of snap judgments and how we make them. (Gut Feelings, by Gerd Gigenrenzer, also takes on more of the science behind them. Interesting stuff.) A goodly portion of Blink dealt with racism and sexism, for obvious reasons. Gladwell cites a number of experiments of fascinating studies, the IAT being the most relevant:
Over the past few years, a number of psychologists have begun to look more closely at the role [unconscious associations] play in our beliefs and behavior, and much of their work has focused on a very fascinating tool called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT was devised by Anthony G. Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji, and Brian Nosek, and it is based on a seemingly obvious—but nonetheless quite profound—observation. We make connections much more quickly between pairs of ideas that are already related in our minds than we do between pairs of ideas that are unfamiliar to us. What does that mean? Let me give you an example...*
When pyschologists administer the IAT...most of the time they do it on a computer. The words are flashed on the screen one at a time, and if a given word belongs to the left-hand column, you hit the letter e, and if the word belongs in the right-hand column, you hit the letter i. The advantage of doing the IAT on a computer is that the responses are measurable down to the milisecond, and those measurements are used in assigning the test taker's score...
One of the reasons that the IAT has become so popular in recent years as a research tool is that the effects it is measuring are not subtle...the IAt is the kind of tool that hits you over the head with its conclusions. "When there's a strong prior association, people answer in four hundred and six hundred milliseconds," says Greenwald. "When there isn't, they might take two hundred to three hundred milliseconds onger than that—which in the realm of these kinds of effects is huge. One of my cognitive psychologist colleagues described this as an effect you can measure with a sundial."
...It turns out that more than 80 percent of all those those who have ever taken the test end up having pro-white associations, meaning that it takes them measurably longer to complete answers when they are required to put good words into the "Black" category than when they are required to bad things with black people...
The idea is that, since we're constantly inundated with stories and stereotypes of blacks being criminals (and, conversely, whites being good), we begin to associate the two unconsciously. Scores on the IAT start to go down, interestingly enough, after people have exposure to positive examples of blacks—after reading about Colin Powell or MLK or (in one case) watching the Olympics—lots of black athletes performing there, given the international scale of the games. Living and working alongside blacks (and, to apply the IAT findings to more than one ethnicity, Mexicans, Pakistanis, Iranians, Indians, and so on) is certainly a good way to gain positive exposure.
But what do you do in Korea when you don't have that kind of diversity readily available? You have to work a lot harder to combat any (unintended or not) implicit associations, assuming you're even aware that you're making them—which you're probably not. Hence the advantages of diversity. We've got a lot of media baggage to unlearn, on top of thousands of years of our groupthink tendencies that see other "tribes" as hostile threats and not potential friends and allies.
But beyond that, it was just refreshing on a personal level to see a whole variety of faces besides Koreans. In an ironic-like-Alanis-Morisette twist to things, the clerks at most of the convenience stores I went to were Korean, so I could use my Korean alien card as ID since they could actually read it. That seemed to make their day.
*Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink. New York: Back Bay Books, 2005. pp 77-81.