Drinking the Kimchi Koolaid


Neon Sea: How did I live life without you? Guide me home.

There comes a time in living abroad when the things that are weird begin to stop being weird anymore. Cultural understanding, proper time for acceptance, and a unique blend of Stockholm Syndrome swirl together to suddenly make things that were once utterly bewildering, teeth-grinding annoyances become normal, every-day. Things I once found impossible to comprehend and soul-crushing to endure are now part of life, and their absence confuses and frightens me.

Leaving Korea on vacation, I expected to be happy to get away from the place for a while, and to a certain degree, I was. Suddenly kimchi was not required with every meal. Suddenly the beer selection was vast, and plentiful, and delicious. Land and air were spacious, and the night sky was an ocean of stars, unclouded by soot and pollution and dust. People all spoke my language, and quickly, and I could be heard and understood.

These things came to make me happy, at first. Why, that man apologized after slamming his shoulder into me accidentally! Why, I haven’t been stared at once since arrival for looking strikingly different than the locals (though I’ve certainly been approached to buy bootleg watches)! I was travelling again, and things were fresh, and new, and pleasantly different in the way that, ultimately, I’m only going to have to deal with it for a week, and thus nothing becomes consequential.

Where is the nearest location that I can purchase cotton candy off the back of a motorcycle?

But I started to notice something. In convenience stores, I was still handing over money with two hands or, often, with one hand underneath the other arm. When a bill was brought to my table in Thailand, I was left paralyzed, wondering where the register was for me to go and pay. If I hit the wrong button on an elevator, I would begin striking it repeatedly, with growing frustration and apelike confusion as to why I couldn’t cancel out my mistaken floor choice. Taking photos, we could shout, “Korean picture!” and all implicitly know the requirements: stoop a little, careen to one another, and make the victory sign with your fingers or find a way to make a heart with your hands.

In typical discussions of culture shock, the last stage is usually a mournful, Kubler-Rossian “acceptance” stage, where one comes to terms with how fucking weird things are in the other country. It usually comes off as long-suffering, as though you’ve come to recognize how bonkers things are, but you know you can’t do anything about it, so you just swallow it and take an extra glass of red with dinner to manage your sanity. Things are terrible and alienating, but you just grin and bear it, because plane tickets are expensive.

But living long enough in another culture seeps into your skull. You know what “normal” is: your homeland, wherever it is, was normal. That’s where people did things that made sense, like jaywalking and staring down oncoming drivers for daring to approach you, or that you coat the very earth in a giant sheen of salt come winter, or that you always say sorry, even if the other person slammed into you (Oh, Canada!). Coffee and donuts there are not a morning snack, but a human right required by all people for liberty and justice. The rules of everywhere else are weird and foreign and crazy by definition of not being the rules of home.

Canada: open road, donuts. The land of where things make sense.

Over time, the “normal” of Korea has begun to insinuate itself into my brain. It’s a sort of Normal 2, not the Way Things Are that my brain casually, blithely accepts in Canada, but one that it’s come to accept as still legitimate and not nearly as wacky upon my original arrival. There are some things I still cannot begin to fathom or tolerate (I cannot bring myself to not flush the used toilet paper, nor can I throw open the windows come winter time), but others my brain comes to accept as the way of the universe, and I feel the absence as jolting and bizarre when they’re not around.

In Thailand, my hands naturally caressed the tables in restaurants, seeking out the familiar doorbell to summon a waiter. Confronted with a lack, I had to stifle the impulse to shout for a waiter to get over and service me (여기요!, the words of my soul). When it was rainy, I yearned for Korean umbrella condoms to sheath my umbrella after use, and was bewildered as to how I was supposed to just allow it to drip on the floor about me like an animal (an animal with an umbrella of course). Did their movie theatres assign seats? Did their take-out come with no extra charge, and with a pick-up of dishes later in the day? How did people manage to live without these things?

Even the Korean language has become normal to me, a sort of pleasant, humming white noise, that tells me that I’m safe and where I’m supposed to be. English, now, causes me to react like a bloodhound, to seek out its source, and to interrogate its producer.

Is it possible to pose for a photo without the Victory sign?

Outside of Korea, the opposite occurs. Because the tourist areas were so filled with English-speakers, my brain became unable to process all the material. I had to acclimate once more to auditory white noise that I didn’t interpret as pleasant, meaningless gobbledygook, but words I could understand. I had to try to block it out, to force the words from my brain. Did I have to try this hard back in Canada?

People speaking Korean suddenly became a siren call. When people spoke Thai, it sounded like pleasant songbirds with peanutbutter lodged in their beaks; Cantonese like aggressive pianists tinkling away and occasionally punched in the throat by an unseen assailant. But all of it was strange, and guttural, and did people actually talk like this? Korean, to my brain, sounds like bewildering poetry spoken by someone who doesn’t want to open their mouth too wide, lest something they are stowing inside of it escape

Abroad, the sound of suspected Korean caused me to turn and seek the Korean speaking it. Were these my people? No. But they understood my plight. They called out to the waiters as well when they needed service, unsure if it was polite or not locally. They resisted the urge to sputter thank you in Korean at every opportunity. My Normal 2 was their Normal 1, and being away from it was just as jarring as being away from my Normal 1 was for me.

Accounts of culture shock also detail the reverse, where one returns to the homeland, and suddenly has to deal with things being different all over again. I scoffed when originally reading these theories: Normal 2 could never supercede Normal 1 in my brain! But then, my vacation came along, and I found myself struck by oddities of the other countries in comparison to the Normal 2, and I realized how quickly Korea has become a part of what my brain accepts as normal, lowercase or uppercase.

Hangul: is it scary that it's now comforting?

[Sidebar: when it was ambiguous whether other people were, in fact, Koreans, we devised a test. We would find something to argue about, and then settle the score with a loud, showy 가위 바위 보 (Korean Rock Paper Scissors), the Korean thing that transcends all else. If they were Korean, they would orient to the sound of this like flowers to sunlight, and we would have scientific confirmation.]

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20 thoughts on “Drinking the Kimchi Koolaid

  1. Michael, really enjoyed today’s Blog about what is normal or is that the new normal or normal 2! I can understand, albeit in a different context, as I have enjoyed the pleasure of not working now for more than two years and being at home every day after the normal 12-16 hour work days has been great. Now however, I am about to return to the “normal” world of work and while I am excited my new normal or normal 2 has been wonderful. I may find myself running back to normal 2 very quickly; we shall see.

    Cheers

  2. Hi Michael, Just wanted to write to tell you that I loved this post. I do very little reading but always enjoy reading your blogs. Take care.

  3. I love that you used a picture from our road trip… It made me go back and read all the posts about it! When you get back we’ll have to plan another one, reaching out east this time. It doesn’t have to go back to normal when you return… why not start normal 3?

  4. Hahaha! It’s true! You get used to the language and not understanding it. The other night Erin and I went to the western run restaurant that was filled with westerners. We were all of the sudden surrounded by English and I absolutely could not control my eavesdropping (and then staring). No matter how hard I was trying to pay attention to my own conversation, I kept being drawn back out by English. It felt like a spiral into a horror movie where a sound (and in this case language comprehension) becomes so unbearable I would eventually start clawing at my ears and collapse to the floor, writhing in pain and horror.

    • It’s all psychological. Back home, I was so used to people yammering, even in words that I know, that my brain knew how to block it out. Now it doesn’t know what to do with itself. And so, I do as you do, fleeing when I can, and otherwise acting like I am experiencing the last fourth of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

  5. I read this post twice because it’s so incredibly accurate, especially when I hear spoken English. I feel like an overexcited puppy whenever I see another Waygook in my neck of the woods – ‘hellomynameisannailiveheredoyou?doyouwannabemyfriendpleasepleaseplease?’ Itaewon makes me go into a sensory overload, and I have to sit down and eat a burger to calm myself.

    • Recently, a new foreigner moved into my building. I was the first English-speaker he had seen in days, and he could barely contain himself. It was a total switch from the usual aloofness of whiteys in my neighbourhood, but I remembered how excited I could get when I heard English.

      • I LOVE that. Before I came here, a friend told me about when he was in Korea teaching in a similarly small town. While visiting Seoul he spotted a person wearing a New Zealand t-shirt and ended up sprinting through traffic across a 4-lane road to say hi. The man in the shirt was French and a tourist and just baffled by the whole experience, but my friend was gagging for familiarity. I was convinced I’d never become him in that situation, but it’s come close.

  6. I have recently become addicted to those plastic-wrapped cheese sausage things that don’t even need to be refrigerated…I have officially been in Korea too long.

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