Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Money (Million Won Baby)


“Well, when I lived in Asia…” begin so many of my sentences these days. Moving away is hard, and as it turns out, so is moving back. Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock is a series devoted to these difficulties, and is also an outlet so that I don’t become That Guy Who Won’t Shut Up About Korea to all of his friends.

Only 100 yen!

100 Yen draft beer! (Not a super great deal, but I have no good pictures of prices in won)

The cab was making good time downtown to be fair, but I was just about having an anxiety attack in the back seat. I was with my cousins, it was Christmas day, we all had drunk about a half bottle of red wine a person, and were further inebriated by holiday spirit, tryptophan, and piles of gifts. We were off to see a movie together, I was with family, and I should have been relaxed and joyous. I should have been marveling at the soft, doughy comforts of home. Instead I was tense, angsty, and ready to leap from the moving vehicle at any time.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the taxi meter. Didn’t anyone else recognize how absurdly expensive everything was?

To say I was spoiled in Korea in terms of taxis is perhaps putting things lightly. I took taxis on a nearly daily basis, I would take them for obnoxiously short distances, or if there was even a hint of rain, or if I had a particularly awkward load to carry. I took cabs down the street, around corners, between mildly snowy patches of road. If the mood struck me, I would have taken a cab from my bed to the bathroom, that’s how cheap and convenient they were. I could go anywhere in my city, and anywhere in the cities nearby, and stay out as late or as far off as I wanted, as I knew there would be a fleet of grumpy old dudes waiting to fly me home at warp speeds for absolute pittances, and that they would never, ever think of needing a tip.

As I sat in this cab to downtown Toronto, I felt as though the cabbie, if not the entire city, were taking us for a ride. I’d been in fixed cabs before in different countries–surely this sinister fellow must have fixed his meter so that it raised at abnormally high rates. Or perhaps he was simply confused, and had set the currency of his meter to something else – Hong Kong dollars, maybe, or a healthy Thai Baht. He could not be charging us this much, and surely it could not be climbing this fast. Did he take us for suckers? Did he think we could be so easily fleeced? There were five of us to one of him. We could take him down!

When we finally arrived at the movie theater, I was horrified once more. Not only were the tickets overpriced, but some snacks were the cost of a family meal in Korea. Manufactured butter substitute was the approximate price of crude oil in Asia, and a large pop would have been a solid downpayment on a house .When we later grabbed a drink, I naturally upgraded to a double, and felt waves of nausea when I was told the price.

I was dumbfounded. Had things in Canada always been this way? How was everyone in the country not broke? Why did anyone ever even leave the house? Surely the only way to live as a human being was to lock yourself into a cool, insulated shack, reclaim water via your own urine, and eat only what you could forage from the forest floor or scrounge from wildlife struck down by eighteen-wheelers. Who could possibly afford food, or entertainment, or even precious, precious beer?

My entire concept of value has completely shifted having lived in Asia for long enough. The cost of something is deeply ingrained my brain–the SHOULD value feels absolute and concrete, and to be so regularly confronted by evidence to the contrary is deeply upsetting. I would be the worst competitor The Price is Right has ever had.

For the people I hang out with, I am beginning to come off like a miserly cheapskate. I complain almost daily, I scoff, I react with horror, and they in turn just barely tolerate my snootiness as I readjust. I do not wish, of course, to act like a pompous penny-pincher, someone romanticizing the cheap prices (and thus also questionable wages and labour practices) in the places I have seen, but my entire knowledge of currency has shifted. I physically cannot imagine goods and services in dollars, and certainly not as many dollars as they seem to require here. I know things and fun to be in values of won and kuai and kip, of which I have enormous amounts. (I subjugate maybe the yen and the euro parts of my brain, and think that those do not count.)

Worst is when I go for specifically foreign foods, items I have only previous experienced inside of scuzzy market stalls, or off the backs of trucks. Now, looking down the barrel of a menu, I nearly have a heart attack. 10 dollars for some Thai Panang? 8 bucks for a barely Olympic-sized pho? Korean food is the worst, as I went into so many restaurants, in all ranges of prices and levels of disrepair, and am left wounded and bewildered at the cost locally.

One of my friends told me soju often goes for at least 10 dollars a bottle in Canada. When I regained consciousness, I vowed never to drink it again.

I should have, perhaps, prepared for this. I knew, moving to Asia, that some things would come a lot cheaper, and that unless I planned on making a long haul commitment to a cheaper country, that I would experience the whiplash when coming home. But that was all theory, and theory is dumb and boring when you can have all you can eat meat barbecue for 11 dollars and transit only costs 90 cents. I adjusted so quickly and happily that I simply never fathomed not getting used to it. I assumed I might grumble on the return, but come to terms easily, as I had understood dollars for the majority of my life.

As it turns out, not so much.

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18 thoughts on “Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Money (Million Won Baby)

  1. Want to make things seem even more expensive? Try not working for five months. Oh wait! You have tried that!

    I’m broke, man. I imagine you’re about the same. Whatever…we rock.

  2. I have “reverse culture shock” every time I go back. The size of the beverages get me every time! Prices will eventually normalize though, just breathe and be reasonable.

  3. I went back to Australia for 3 weeks and cannot imagine being able to live there with the outrageous cost of EVERYTHING…from food, to petrol to booze to…anything. Europe ain‘t as cheap as Asia but I sure as hell know where you‘re coming from…good luck readjusting!!

  4. Its taken me years of living in London to stop automatically converting things into rupees because I’d never leave the house.

    SO true about the taxi prices.

    I think the trick is get back into employment that pays in the correct currency and you’ll re-adjust quicker.

  5. Michael, once again you have taken me back some 43 years ago and my extended trip through Europe as a 19 year old out to conquer the world. While there I lived on $3 Candian a day and that included the price of the Youth Hostel, all my meals, mail home (there was no e-mail and blogs were probably backed up toilets), transit and two beers (they were $0.25 per pint in London). And taxi across town in Athens never amounted to more than $0.45 but that was a luxury. When I came back to Toronto just before Christmas (unbeknownst to the family) I walked home from the airport just because I could not justify the outrageous expense of $10-12 in those days. Well I started to walk home but was actually picked up by Ted Rogers who gave me a ride to Kiping and Belfield (a story I will share with you some time). Anyway, I was over the top with my experiences but had no outlet for my thoughts and musings as you do and found I had trouble relating to friends as none had the experiences I had had; over time that changed and I did adjust to life at home except that the wonderlust has never left which explains why we travel so much. So the end result is that you are a traveler for life………..welcome to the club!

  6. Oh man. I remember this! I lived in a rather poor area in China, and then came home a few days before Christmas. I think I experienced more Culture Shock coming home then I ever did in China. I expected to have to readjust in a foreign country, but I didn’t not expect to have to do the same in my own country. The money thing was the worst though! I could not convince myself to buy anything without complaint for the longest time. Also I totally became that girl who wouldn’t shut up about China. I still fall into it sometimes even now. Good luck re-adjusting!

  7. I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to see you blogging again! Which feels kinda creepy since I don’t know you in real life 🙂 But I hope your travels were wonderful. I moved back to the US from Europe a year ago (after 5 years there), and unfortunately, the feeling of being a stupid ugly foreigner doesn’t really go away when you get home. There is lots to enjoy though, and plenty of weirdness to rediscover. The journey goes on!

    Can’t wait to hear more of your experiences. All the best.

    • No worries. I’m also glad to see people are filtering back! I was pretty worried I had sort of lost the crowd I had built, which I would have understood, what with up and disappearing for a while.

      I’m coming to terms with the idea that I’m just going to be feeling pretty foreign for a long portion of my life!

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