Which is more difficult, life in Asia or Europe?

Comparing the experience of adjusting to different cultures for an American living abroad

I have a pretty cool job.

Well, I suppose the job itself isn’t all that interesting or special, but the opportunities it affords me are pretty cool, at least.

You see, I work for an organization with offices all over the world and what I do is in demand at basically every location; so, I have had the chance to move around and experience living in a few different places around the world. I spent a couple of years living in Seoul, Korea, a couple of years living near Tokyo, Japan, and I moved to Stuttgart, Germany with my family in the early autumn of 2013.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when we moved to Germany from Japan.  It’s difficult to articulate. On one hand, because my native U.S. culture has so much more in common historically with European culture than it does with Asian culture, I expected that adjusting to Germany would be much easier than adjusting to Northeast Asia. On the other hand, having experienced fairly significant culture shock in both Korea and Japan almost immediately after arrival, I was expecting at least some level of culture shock when I arrived in Germany.

Since it is difficult to describe the difference in magnitude of culture shock experienced by an American in Asia vs. Europe, here is an attempt to provide a visual example:

Japanese sign: imagine you're a native English-speaker, you don't know Japanese, you just moved to Japan and you have to accurately relay to someone the exact meaning of this sign. You might get in the ballpark, but the specific details would be lost on you, right?  Even after studying written Japanese for two years, I can only read parts of this sign.  It says, "Please don't throw trash, dirt or sediment here. Kanazawa Prefecture, Sagamihara City civil engineering office."
Japanese sign: imagine you’re a native English-speaker, you don’t know Japanese, you just moved to Japan and you have to accurately relay to someone the exact meaning of this sign. You might get in the ballpark, but the specific details would be lost on you, right? Even after studying written Japanese for years, I can only read parts of this sign. It says something like, “Please don’t throw trash, dirt or sediment here. Kanagawa Prefecture, Sagamihara City civil engineering office.”
German sign: imagine you're a native English-speaker, you don't know German, you just moved to Germany and you have to relay the exact meaning of this sign to someone.  You'd probably be able to get the main objective of this sign, even if you didn't get the entire meaning.  This sign says "Playground for children under 12 years-old.  Use only with the approval of the legal guardian and at your own risk. The Mayor."
German sign: imagine you’re a native English-speaker, you don’t know German, you just moved to Germany and you have to relay the exact meaning of this sign to someone. You’d probably be able to get the main objective of this sign, even if you didn’t get the entire meaning. This sign says “Playground for children under 12 years-old. Use only with the approval of the legal guardian and at your own risk. The Mayor.”

See what I mean?
When you get off of the plane in Asia as a native English-speaker (assuming you haven’t first learned to read and write the local language), you are immediately smacked in the face with the reality that you are essentially illiterate.  You can’t read anything unless there is a translation made available to you.  You can take a guess at what something means if you’ve got some sort of visual aid, but forget about even trying to read the text without years of study.

In continental western Europe everything is written using Roman characters and there are usually some word similarities (e.g., für/for, unter/under, und/and, etc.), which makes getting around a little bit easier, even when you’ve just arrived in the country and can’t really read or speak the language.

The difference in difficulty decoding the meaning of the signs above is a good analogy for the difference in difficulty adjusting to the overall cultural differences.  European culture is much closer to American culture than is Japanese or Korean culture, but each present significant challenges for someone with little study or background.

The ways that Northeast Asia differs from the United States are numerous and obvious, but in some ways I found life in Japan and Korea to be much more like America than Europe. For example, in Korea and Japan many businesses are open 7 days per week and many businesses (e.g., convenience stores and restaurants) operate 24 hours per day. The pace of life is generally fast and access to goods and services is fairly consistent.

This photo was taken on a Sunday afternoon in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
This photo was taken on a Sunday afternoon in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan

In continental western Europe almost nothing ever really stays open late and pretty much everything is closed on Sundays (except some bars and restaurants). You can pretty much forget about easily finding late night munchies anywhere in Germany and you can forget about doing pretty much anything even remotely consumer-oriented on Sundays.

Oh, by the way, I would not recommend sharing that observation with your European acquaintances, unless you enjoy experiencing the condescension of others. Many Europeans are very proud that everything is closed on Sundays.  They will often quite happily (and smugly) let you know that Europeans have life all figured out and anyone wanting to do anything consumer-oriented on Sundays, or late at night, is pitiful and misled. In my experience, most Europeans believe that Sundays should be exclusively reserved for enjoying nature, dining alfresco, drinking to excess and/or chatting endlessly about how culturally deficient those poor, ignorant Americans can be.

Love of Nature
Don’t get me wrong, in my experience both Japanese and Korean people love nature and do a pretty good job preserving nice green spaces, but I’m not sure anybody protects green spaces to the same extent as they do in Germany.

In Asia housing density is high and private land spaces are small out of necessity.  There is limited space for housing because of the population density per square meter, so sprawl is kept to a minimum.  In Germany, housing density is also high and private land spaces are also small, but not for the same reasons.  Population density is not nearly as high as in Asia, but Germans love their public green spaces and go to great lengths to protect them.

This green space is a few minutes walk from my fairly densely populated residential neighborhood.
This green space is a few minutes walk from my fairly densely populated residential neighborhood.

I could prattle on for many hundred more words on this subject, but I’ll save more for another post. It is probably obvious, but I have found that living for a year or two in a place with a different language and different customs than your native culture can be wonderful at times and terrible at others. Adjusting to a new culture can be challenging, but it is also rewarding.

So, which is more difficult (for a dumb American), adjusting to life in Asia or Europe?  In my opinion, they’re about equal.  For me, adjusting to life in Asia was difficult because it is was so different from my native culture, but adjusting to life in Europe has also been difficult because the similarities have  had a way of masking the differences right up until I do something really dumb and embarrassing.



Driving in Japan

On the road to Mount Fuji in the Japanese countryside
On the road to Mount Fuji in the Japanese countryside

I lived in Japan for a total of four years; twice for two years each (2006-2008 and 2011-2013). I have said this before, and I’m sure in this blog I’ll say it many more times, living in a place really gives you the opportunity to see the little differences and come to appreciate them in a way that visiting a place doesn’t (warning: the “little differences” link does not go to G-rated content).

Foreign visitors to Japan don’t often get the opportunity to drive because the public transportation system is so good and urban areas are so dense that it is usually unnecessary to drive. Many Japanese citizens living in urban areas don’t even drive, but I think driving in Japan provides a perfect opportunity for foreign residents to see the little differences that abound there.

Driving in Japan can be pretty expensive when you consider gas, insurance, road taxes, maintenance, parking fees and other seemingly endless expenses. However, when you live in Japan with a family, driving is often the best way to see the countryside and experience a true slice of daily Japanese life. In my experience, driving a family of 5 isn’t much more expensive than regular public transportation fees for the whole family to go to the same places.

In this post I’ll just share a gallery of candid photos snapped when something interesting or unique to Japan presented itself.  Click the photos to read the full captions:

Dongdaemun Pet Market in Seoul

One of the interesting things about Seoul is that there are many areas of town where vendors who sell similar types of items gather in close proximity. As an American, the idea of setting up shop right next door to fifty competitors seems counterintuitive, but it seems to work well for vendors here in Seoul. There is a large pet market in Seoul near the site of the city’s old east gate, Dongdaemun, where many different types of vendors set up shop. One of the most colorful and interesting to me is the Dongdaemun pet market area. In the space of about one city block there are 20 or more vendors selling pets of all kinds. They have many of the same kinds of fish, birds, dogs, cats and other small animals that you would find in any U.S. pet store. They also have pets that I haven’t often seen in the U.S. This weekend I saw chickens, roosters, pea fowl (peacocks and pea hens), hedgehogs, snapping turtles and the most rare and exotic pet of them all… chipmunks.

The best Japanese-style ramen I’ve found in Seoul

A few weeks ago our family tried a fairly new “Chinese” restaurant near where we live in the Ichon-dong neighborhood of Seoul. They have the best Japanese-style ramen I have found in Seoul so far.

Most American’s think of ramen as those freeze-dried instant noodles, but in Japan ramen is actually a great meal that is often made with freshly made noodles and a complex variety of different broths and other fresh ingredients. Ramen is a noodle soup that was supposedly originally imported to Japan from China, but I see it as very uniquely Japanese cuisine. Ramen is a very common meal all over Japan with an immense number of regional variations. Sapporo in Hokkaido, Japan is known for its tasty ramen. There is also a Ramen Museum in Yokohama.

Anyway, as I was saying; the restaurant, called Ruo China Dining, has the best Japanese style ramen I’ve found outside of Japan so far. They also have great Japanese-style gyoza (gyoza are little meat-and-vegetable-filled potsticker dumplings that are often also served with ramen at ramen shops in Japan). They even have amazing deep fried harumaki ( which literally translates to “spring roll” in Japanese). I’ve managed to get the family to this place at least once each week since we found it. It really reminds me of Japan.

Instant Coffee – Korea Style

I just wanted to share something I’ve learned to really like in Korea: 1/2 Calorie Maxim Instant Coffee. Basically, it is a little packet of instant coffee with creamer and sweetener with 25 calories per cup. It tastes pretty good. Coffee purists will hate this, but it works for me and it replaces my morning Chai Tea Latte from Starbucks, which was something like 300 calories.

Korenglish, Part 1

I figured this would be a good place to post some interesting korenglish (korean+english) items that I have seen in Korea. This isn’t the best one I have ever seen, I just happened to snap a (bad quality) photo of it with my mobile phone while riding (not driving, riding) down the street recently.

The on-car advertisement reads, “ALL COMPUTER COME ON”. I wonder what that means? Is it a computer-based dating service for pushy people? Maybe it is a command for a voice activated system.


Scissors are an eating utensil in Korea

Case in point, I went to a place that serves a traditional Korean steamed/boiled chicken dish. The bowl is for the bones. The metal Korean chopsticks and long Korean spoon and scissors are the utensils.


The food was actually pretty good. It had a sauce that tasted like it had soy sauce and something sweet. The vegetables were potato, cucumber, carrot and onions. The only thing I didn’t like were the spicy red peppers that were cut up and mixed in. However, this is Korean food so those spicy red peppers are in pretty much everything.


Eating out in Seoul can be an adventure

Eating out in a foreign country when you don’t have good (or any) native language skills can be an adventure.  In Seoul, Korea dining out as a foreigner is almost always an adventure and learning experience.


Outside of the really tourist-friendly areas of the city, it can be hard to pick a place to eat out in Seoul — and even harder to read the menu when you can’t really read Korean. Restaurants sometimes have pictures of each item, so you can point and smile. Many larger restaurants have English menus or their Korean menus have good English descriptions of the items. Some places have no pictures and no English, so we generally ask to see a menu before we go in. We briefly checked the menu of the place we ate last night in Yongsan-gu near the Seoul Electronics Market. Their menu looked like it had good English translations, so we went in.

This is the adventure part: we quickly realized that the English translations were a little bit off. Just enough to make it impossible to figure out what we would get (don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect people in Korea to speak English and I don’t expect them to cater to English speakers who won’t take the time to learn their language. I’m just explaining the difficulties of being an ignorant outsider). We ordered a few things. One was called “scorched rice with seafood.” I’ve eaten at many places in Seoul with very good chinese-style seafood fried rice. I took a leap and figured they picked a bad translation for the word “fried” and we would get seafood fried rice … nope. What came out was a strange soup with whole baby octopi, cut up cuttle fish, mussels, clams, whole shrimp (head and all) and strange, square, pressed rice patties at the bottom. I have come to really enjoy squid, octopus and cuttle fish after living in Japan and Korea for years, so the seafood options didn’t bother me, but I was simply amazed at how badly I misunderstood the menu.

We also ordered a “cheese egg roll” as an appetizer. I was assuming it would be something like string cheese wrapped in egg roll wrappers and deep fried. Kind of an asian-themed fried cheese. Boy was I wrong. What came out was a huge vegetable filled omelet with cheese inside, smothered in ketchup and mayonnaise. It actually didn’t taste too bad.

We also ordered smoked chicken. This was what we expected it to be. However, in Asia, they don’t generally cut poultry the way we do in the west. There aren’t really wings, thighs, legs and breasts. There are 10-12 small sections, bones and all, that result from forcibly hacking the bird apart with a cleaver. Unless you get the wing or leg, It is fairly difficult to guess exactly which part you are eating until you dig in. Everything tasted really good and it was totally worth the challenges of deciphering the menu.

I know, I’ll reenact a key Korea versus Japan naval battle!

2009 Great Battle of Myeongryang Festival

Okay, I’m not actually going to be doing the reenacting but the subject of this post seemed boring otherwise. It’s gotcha journalism. Don’t hate the player.

Anyway, there is a big festival down in the southwestern part of the Republic of Korea called the 2009 Great Battle of Myeongryang Festival. Part of the festival includes a giant naval reenactment, a parade and more. It sounds like it might be fun.

2009 Great Battle of Myeongryang Festival

Here’s what the promotional material says:

“Co-hosted by the province of Jeollanam-do and the counties of Haenam-
gun and Jindo-gun, the 2009 Great Battle of Myeongryang Festival (Oct 9-11) celebrates the miraculous triumph at the Battle of Myeongryang, when war hero Admiral Yi Sun-sin led 13 Korean ships to victory over an enemy Japanese fleet of 333 ships. The four-day festival, to be held from Oct. 8 to 11 in the area around the Myeongryang Strait (also known as the Uldol Strait), is highlighted by a spectacular recreation of the battle — the massive reenactment features about 100 boats owned by local fishermen, with a total crew of 3,000 men. While you’re in town, you can take in the wonders of the so-called Namdo region, which encompasses the far southwestern corner of the Korean Peninsula. Sites include the beautiful Buddhist temples of Daeheung-sa and Mihwang-sa and the scenic island of Jindo. Throw into the mix some of the finest food in Korea, and you’re set for an outstanding weekend. More Information: (061) 286-5251 or http://www.mrdc.kr. Getting There: Most of the festival activities take place along the Myeongryang Strait, near the Jindo Bridge. To get there from Seoul, take the KTX from Seoul’s Yongsan Station to Mokpo (travel time: 3hr 30min). There are shuttle buses to the venue from Mokpo Station.”

2009 Great Battle of Myeongryang Festival