The Art of Uncomfort-Ability: Manouvering the Stages of Living Abroad


SwansThere was an incident one morning: in the middle of filming a small commercial for our global center, an elderly man began screaming what sounded like profanities in Korean (I can’t be too sure). He shook his fist in the air, expanding the curve of his back to appear larger and, presumably, more féroce. We were blocking his path.

Regardless of the dozens of feet of extra space around us, he wanted, nay, needed us to move. Move right now.

I stared, in awe, as my Korean co-workers nodded and thanked him, nodded and thanked him, and then nodded and thanked him. Our only male Korean teacher stayed in his place, never batting an eye regardless of the fact that that the old man looked like he was going to punch one of the female Korean teachers straight in the face.

This made me uncomfortable.

About three weeks after arriving in Korea, I decided to take myself on a little shopping spree, because shopping in Korea is magical! I walked around a couple of stores before I spotted a garment I knew I wanted. I attempted to enter one of the three open dressing rooms and was quickly shooed off by the store clerk.

I decided I’d hold the shirt up to myself, just to be sure, until I heard screaming from behind me. “A-ne-yo! A-ne-yo!” She screamed.

All I could think was, “What did I DO!?”

She came at me, flailing arms and all. I ran out of the store feeling as though I was being attacked by a flock of crows like Tippi Hedren in the The Birds. That was the last time I attempted to try anything on in Korea.

This made me uncomfortable.

On my first night after arriving in Daegu, I sat up in my empty apartment, contemplating the feeling of loneliness. Besides Lauren, who lived in unknown territory, I had no one to call. My stomach started rumbling, and I knew I’d have to venture out into the streets alone. Feeling illiterate and nervous, I clumsily stumbled out of my apartment and found my way to, what I know now as, the worst possible street to look for food.

I finally found one restaurant that looked slightly less intimidating than the rest, and made my way in.

It wasn’t long before the owner of the restaurant realized I didn’t speak a lick of Korean, so she handed me a sample of cold chicken.

I tried to explain that I wanted something…. hot. I pointed to the fridge, and made an X with my hands. I pointed to the stove and made a big O (meaning yes!). After about 10 minutes of back and forth, she nodded and motioned for me to hold on. She came back with a bowl of a foreign substance, and I happily took it home to fill my belly, not having a clue what it was.

This made me uncomfortable.

One day I woke up and made my way to the subway station. It was early morning, the middle of rush hour, and I was headed into the center of town, as I do every morning.

I was elbowed three times, nudged as an overgrown group of people tried to enter the train, and nearly run over as a middle-schooler rushed to catch the next bus.

I realized, as I watched all the people hustle and bustle around me… I was feeling a new feeling, but what was it? A sense of belonging? Certainly not that. A sense of understanding? Maybe. A sense of ease? Perhaps, but not quite. It took me nearly 3 months, but I finally felt a sense of familiarity as I maneuvered my way around my new life. Was I acclimating?

I developed, what I like to call, uncomfort-ability; something I think all expats go through. Wherever I go, I will always be a Hispanic-American woman. I will never completely understand the foreign customs I encounter, and I cannot erase the feeling of unease I feel when I am put into uncertain situations. In my time abroad, I’m learning that uncomfortable is neither a sin nor a curse. Feeling uncomfortable, and persevering, is an art.

Do you have any stories of uncomfort-ability in your time abroad?

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18 Comments

  1. Jade
    December 10, 2014
    Reply

    Once when I was having dinner at my neighbours in Korea, a ‘coffee girl’ turned up in a skimpy (for Korea) outfit and made us coffee. She sat by the men and barely talked, but all she did was make us all coffee and bat her eyelids a lot… that was all but it was so uncomfortable and strange to me. I still don’t understand it to this day!
    Other than that I was definitely in a nice state of uncomfort-ability for the rest of my time there!

    • January 5, 2015
      Reply

      Jade, this made me laugh so hard. WHAT THE HECK!? hahahaha What a weird thing to happen, and for someone to not feel the need to explain to you? So, so strange.

  2. December 11, 2014
    Reply

    I like “uncomfort-ability” maybe that can be a new dictionary word for 2014!!!

  3. December 11, 2014
    Reply

    Loving the semantics, just throwing that out there. I also happen to completely agree with your use of this word. I remember wanting to die of laughter as a high school student on the bus, almost rubbed his arm raw after we accidentally bumped arms. I don’t know what disease he thought he would get from grazing my elbow, but he was freaked out. It was funny at the time, but also highly uncomfortable.

    I love the food experiences here. I accidentally ordered pig feet not once, but twice!

    • January 5, 2015
      Reply

      TWICE!? omg haha I would have a mini heart attack, but I bet it was pretty delicious :).

  4. December 11, 2014
    Reply

    Oh yeah, it definitely takes some time to get used to these sorts of things. I remember my first night in the country I had met up with someone who had also just arrived for the same ESL training as me. We went to a chicken restaurant so it was easy enough to order. Also, our server spoke a little bit of English. However, when we finished he put the bill on our table. Not even thinking that things could be different, we left the cash on the table with the bill. We walked out and 10 seconds later the guy came running up to us and shouting, “Money! money!”. Immediately feeling embarrassed, we communicated to him that we left it on the table. Oops. Just the first of many such awkward/uncomfortable situations!

  5. December 11, 2014
    Reply

    Hilariously true. Nice to have a name for this strange feeling – thanks for that. I feel like I’ve lost count of the amount of times I feel this way. The first week I was in Korea by boyfriend and I went to this restaurant and tried to order food, but they just couldn’t understand ANYTHING we were saying – we were trying to speak Korean, but we knew very little and our pronunciation was obviously terrible. It was SUPER uncomfortable. I just wanted to curl up and die.

    • January 5, 2015
      Reply

      Laura, I tried to order take out last night and failed miserably! The guy hung up on me :(. It’s definitely hard living in a foreign country with a different language.

  6. December 12, 2014
    Reply

    I chuckled a few times reading this, good stuff! One recurring thing that took me a while to get used to was the limp, lingering handshakes I would get from older men. I kept thinking I was going to get dinner out of the deal. When no food seemed to be forthcoming, I would have to awkwardly extricate myself.

    • January 5, 2015
      Reply

      bahaha that’s definitely a weird one… they were random?

  7. December 12, 2014
    Reply

    I wonder if you can add into your ‘uncomfort-ability’ list the experience inside jjimjilbang. I had a friend who was an ESL teacher; she recounted to me her experience inside a jjimjilbang. It was hilarious!

    • January 5, 2015
      Reply

      I’m sure that I definitely could, but I actually have yet to go to a jimjibang! It’s on my to do list ;).

  8. December 14, 2014
    Reply

    OMG this is hilarious, especially the part about being shooed away from the fitting room. It really presses my buttons when Korean women do that. They think we will stretch the clothing because we are too fat for it, even if we can clearly see that it fits. I know know which stores to go to to try on clothing 😉 Cue Mixxo, H&M, Wonderplace (lol).

    I guess you are right about acclimatizing or adjusting to feeling uncomfortable. Two years later and I still find myself feeling uncomfortable.

  9. December 15, 2014
    Reply

    Very interesting read. I would have to add some situations I’ve had in the countryside here. Nothing strange ever really happens when I’m in the big city. There was an occasion or two in Gwangju when I happened upon an anti-government protest or two, with some geared at my own country (the U.S.)

    I’d love to see how far you can go with this and if there are more uncomfortability posts in the future:)

    • January 5, 2015
      Reply

      Carl, I can’t even IMAGINE what it would be like to be in the countryside. There must be some crazy stories to tell.

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