“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.
This is not a yearning for the weather in Korea. The weather in Korea sucks, essentially. There is one nice season, and it is fall, where the leaves change and everyone wears stylish sweaters and you don’t need a heater or an air conditioner, and people spend time outside and look at the trees and it all looks like an arty film that takes place in upstate New York. The leaves change and leave mountains as seas of red and gold, there are festivals and holidays, and the countryside reflects the people in calm, beautiful harmony.
Winter, though, is desolate and cold, and the buildings are poorly insulated. There is only a little snow, but when it falls, no one has any idea what to do with it, and the rules of society are abandoned, and people kill and eat one another in the streets. Summer is the temperature and humidity of Satan’s butthole, and also there are cicadas everywhere, so you are in a buzzing, sweaty vortex, and then a monsoon hits for a full month. Spring has some cherry blossoms, but they are often coated in yellow dust blowing in from the East with a side-dish of heavy metals from China’s industrial zone.
No, this is not about the weather in Korea.
When I left Korea to travel Asia, we had just enjoyed the brief period of Korean summer when all the cicadas were dead and the rains had finally stopped. It was hot, but it was a calm hot, a hot we had grown to understand. It was a lazy afternoon hot, shorts at midnight hot, wake up sweating hot. It was a hot that was in our blood, and if it didn’t come with 100% humidity and maybe water stains, we were capable of comprehending it, and even enjoying it.
The weather was just starting to change the Friday that we left. We waited outside of a subway station in Seoul, and the people around us pulled cardigans and windbreakers around themselves, adjusted their sunglasses in a breeze. Fall was coming, a forecast, a prediction for the future. But we would never see it.
Our plane touched down in Kuala Lumpur, and we were back in the throes of summer. The sun never seemed to set, rather we were in the tropical circle (my metaphor here is the 24 hours of sun thing that sometimes happens in the arctic circle, but with the word “tropical” in place of “arctic” to imply the differentiation in climate and temperature, I’m sure you understand). The heat was constant, a furnace of a sky. We slept hot, we woke hot, we showered hot. There was never a time where you weren’t sweating, when you didn’t reach back into the refrigerators for the cold beverages, when you didn’t stand before the exit doors of an air-conditioned room and try to suck up all the peaceful cold you could.
Though I am a sweaty hog of a man at heart, I began to grow accustomed to this biome. We walked through temperate jungles, underneath the cool waters of waterfalls, all through humid open-air markets. Windows were never shut and pants were never longer than our shinbones. We showered twice a day, wore loose-fitting clothing, never removed our sunglasses. We ate spicy food and carried hand towels to sop up our rugged foreheads.
We walked under the brutal sun of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam. On sand and asphalt and rock. We’d be in the sun for hours each day, with regular and intensely laborious re-applications of sunscreen. Sweat would slink down our skin and we’d roll cool bottles, condensation-slick, back and forth across the napes of our necks, press them tight against our wrists. No one wanted to stand or move during the evening haze, the post-dinner afterglow, when the light would fade but the night’s heat would still be upon us. Paper lanterns would glow overhead, and we’d order another beer or two, and look out at the warm, dark landscape before us. This was summer, and we saw no end.
Months passed. We explored the depths of southeast Asia, and then hit nearly all corners of India. Mumbai, too, was awash in warmth, a colour palette of only reds and oranges, the black pavement scorching below our feet. Our flight was late in the night, and even at midnight the air was thick and hot, a chewable-tablet version of atmosphere. We would connect through Germany, and then be home.
We had, of course, mostly packed for warmth. Each of us had one sweater buried in the depths of our backpacks, musty and unloved, crinkled and forgotten. Sweaters were for another time, another place. We withdrew these items for our backs at the airport and stared at them with confusion, as though they were some alien tools, some incomprehensible sign from above. Unearthed relics from strange half-monkey people that could teach us the path of human evolution. Were they for eating? Making fire? Could they teach us the strange mysteries of literacy?
It is winter in Frankfurt, and stewardesses wish us a Merry Christmas at 6 a.m. We are cold, a sensation we do not recognize, a deep-sea creature sort of feeling, as though it is something experienced only by cephalopods. We do not like it, and the holiday wishes upset us, confuse us: we have terror flashbacks of white and red and green, of some horrible substance fluttering down from the sky in a storm of hate. What is waiting for us?
I arrive in Toronto in thin cotton pants, a t-shirt, and a cardigan. My running shoes have multiple holes in them, but I figure they provide just barely more coverage than my well-worn and wretched flip-flops. My feet are more tanned than they have ever been, and it feels wrong to submit them to this. The airport seems closed in, a contained environment, a biosphere habitat under glass: something strange lurks without.
I stand outside, my backpack straps slicing into the meat of my shoulders, and I tremble, I shake. No. I shiver.
There is snow on the ground, and I think I say the word aloud, form the phonemes on my tongue, let them slip past my teeth and lips. I am uttering some lost incantation, a fragment from a forgotten language I no longer understand. Summer is gone.