Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Politeness (A Return to Finishing School)


The sea

Bowin’ time.

“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.

I still bow a lot.

It’s not over the top: I’m not grovelling or stooping from the waist. I don’t throw myself to the floor and press my forehead deep into the ground to show my deference. But when I meet someone, when someone I know walks into a room, in occasions where I am expected to show respect, I naturally incline. My head dips. I close my eyes obsequiously, I smile, and I bow, because how else are you supposed to greet people? It’s unconscious—my body simply produces the reflex towards a certain stimulus, a flower orienting towards sunlight, a base-level amoebic response generated by hundreds and thousand of previous interactions.

Oh, I also hand money and objects to others using both hands, or sometimes while holding my elbow. I try not to make too much eye contact with others. I shake another’s hand with both of mine. I try not to start eating until the eldest person around has begun, and then I try to pace myself carefully. I act like someone who just got back from Korea and really liked the whole place a little too much.

A big part of moving abroad is learning the new culture, particularly the niceties. It is weird at first, explicitly absorbing the steps that children know by heart, the social patterns and complexities of interpersonal rituals that regulate simple, every-day interactions. You have to learn the basics from the ground up, you have to study rather than just absorb. Culture becomes something you choose to do, rather than what you naturally engage in.

I had gotten ready before I moved to Korea. I studied language and culture and art, I memorized all the motions for apologies and public interactions. I spent months thinking and planning and reading. In place of a working human heart I have an expensive patent-leather day-planner, and I was viciously and efficiently ready for any and all nuances of tradition I was likely to encounter. I had metal chopsticks up my sleeve. I had a makgeolli serving bowl stashed under my shirt. In place of a parachute, I had an emergency hanbok stowed always on my person, in case any traditional Korean weddings broke out all of a sudden.

But actually engaging with a culture that is not your own, even in tiny ways, can feel put-on. There is never a time I have been more self-conscious and doubtful as a person than as a cracker openly trying to imitate an Asian language and culture. I would bow and write in hangul and eat with chopsticks and carefully manage social expectations and look to my elders at work, just like I should be doing, but my head pounded. Was I being a pretentious smarm-monster? Was this all a form of cultural appropriation, or cultural appreciation? Was it more polite of me to try my best to imitate the local culture, no matter how imperfectly, or to skate around it lest I completely botch everything?

This emerged for the most part out of the explicitness, out of how carefully and consciously I had to put on the effort of engaging with and practising Korean mores and norms. At staff dinners I would prepare a list in my mind generated by books on Korean culture and long lists culled from internet blogs: sit like this, talk like this, eat like this. Only discuss these topics, only eat when this has happened, only prepare to leave when this has happened. The CultureBot 8000 was prepared, even if sometimes the mainframe was overloaded and ran hot.

Somewhere along the line, though, things grew easier. As the language came more naturally with study, as I got used to the flow and patterns of social interactions, the effort faded. I knew how to (or how not to) wait for subways. I knew how to order in restaurants. I knew how to address other people. And I didn’t have to think about it.

And in time, others took notice. My Korean friends would stop commenting on whether I was doing something particularly Koreanly, because it was just assumed that that’s what I’d do. If I poured them a drink with both hands, if I spoke in my still idiosyncratic Korean, if I introduced myself properly, the applause was just absent. It wasn’t impressive, because of course I knew what I was doing.

Once a year at school there would be major staff turnover, and a new flock of teachers would arrive at the school. The first few lunches would always be a pain: dozens of new adults craning around at the teacher’s table, peering intently at my big dumb white face, checking to see what I ate, how I behaved, and how efficiently I transported it to my mouth with metal chopsticks. If I made eye contact or said hello they would turn away sheepishly, as though caught looking at a car-wreck.

“This is kimchi. Do you know kimchi?” one brave soul will ask. “You eat Korean food very well.” You should use a spoon like this. You should talk to the principal like this. Do you know Korean language?

I developed a thick skin to these comments, while my closer coworkers would cringe with embarrassment. Of course he knows, you boob. They would apologize and prostrate themselves on behalf of their people afterwards, because how dumb could these people be to think I didn’t know all of the things?

But I didn’t always. I learned it. I learned it well, certainly, and it eventually become a sort of second nature, but it wasn’t always there in my brain.

So when I returned to Canada, I thought the always there culture would be a breeze. I would walk off the plane, turn off my Asian Culture Processors and slip back into the warm bath of North American norms, which I knew as well as my own hands, as well as my own face. Canada, surely, held no surprises for me.

And yet, it felt like an entirely different landscape. It was familiar, it had the same people, but it felt like everything was just slightly askew. Like I was in the amber universe, or like Bender had gotten a gold finish instead of chrome. The axons of my neural network would spark, I would feel the flicker of familiarity, but I had to turn things on, switch by switch, to get back to normal.

Shaking hands: firm, but not so firm that you crush the other person’s hand and look like an over-aggressive tool. Make lots of pleasant eye contact in conversation, and use lots of nice smalltalk. Don’t comment too much on another person’s looks, and certainly don’t begin describing their facial features. Leave a tip. Wait in line, and don’t stand too close. Say thank you, almost constantly. Say sorry, almost constantly.

Hadn’t I grown up with this? Why was it so difficult? And why, when confronted with something tricky or when I was too tired to think, was I defaulting to Korean behaviours?

It’s weird, then, to realize that the culture you are raised with, the culture you come to know just as The Way Things Are, is just as learned as all of the other ones. Before you leave, “culture” is a thing that foreign places possess: home just does things the way things are done. Sure, theoretically you understand that the homeland may be just as particular and weird about how they do life, but without the actual, sustained evidence, it can be easy to forget. Only when you need to go somewhere new, only when you need to bow for a few years, do you realize that the bowing is just as natural and unnatural as the handshakes, as the eye contact, as the many sorrys of home.

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35 thoughts on “Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Politeness (A Return to Finishing School)

    • I also miss my Korea posts.

      If everything goes according to plan, I will have a whole new country (and more teaching) to write about come August.

      For now, everyone still gets to read about my damn vacation.

  1. Wow, I like this post. I can relate… Well, not to the whole Korean thing, but you know what I mean. It’s hard, you move to a different country, you have to learn their rules, then you move back and the rules of the second country are still with you. I moved to England when I was twelve, lived there a year and a half, came back- I’m now in university, and I STILL want to stand up whenever a teacher enters the room and say good morning/afternoon and I’m shocked when everybody just continues to do what they’re doing… It’s hard to “learn” the things of the first move, but then to “relearn” what you had to forget, it’s difficult.

    • I think part of it is because when you learn something so explicitly, it stays in your mind a little more solidly. You expended so much effort in getting all of those aspects of culture right that they linger in your mind for ages even when they aren’t needed for your current location.

  2. i know what you mean about the bowing. except its a little different for me. in khmer culture, the young have to bow to the elders first (with palms facing each other and head lowered), and i almost always do this first, respectfully. but when I’m at work (i work in a clinic in the US) I rarely bow to my patients.

    On the contrary, the elderly patients, will often bow to me first, out of respect because i’m their healthcare provider. When they do that, I am suddenly shocked, then ashamed that I didn’t bow first. and suddenly forget i am in america.

    i love how you describe this, how their culture almost intrinsically becomes your culture. and how you have to reverse it when you go home. well written as always!

  3. you are such a great writer! I lived in Sweden as an exchange student for a year and when I went back, I felt so lost. I certainly don’t think my reverse culture shock is as strong as yours, but it definitely made me feel isolated, alone, and angry. Luckily, I now live in Sweden and have been here since 2010. I think just because we are born somewhere, doesn’t make it home, you know the old saying ‘home is where the heart is’. Sometimes our hearts are somewhere else, and we don’t realize it until we experience it, and thankfully we did or our lives would be this boring mono-culture and we would never know where we truly belonged and where we truly felt at peace. I don’t think a person should ever feel ashamed about talking about a place they once lived: it’s apart of our lives and apart of us and helped shape who we are. People who get annoyed with hearing about our adventures are simply jealous: bc if they had done it themselves, they would understand, but they haven’t and are angry for not having done so.
    Do what makes you happy and forget what everyone else thinks! That is true peace and happiness.

    • Some friends that I travelled with talked about this with me a lot too, as we had all found a degree of reluctance in the homeland to hear about our time abroad too much. The people we liked the most tended to be willing to listen, but we decided the ones who didn’t want to listen weren’t jealous, exactly… but that it’s so out of their wheelhouse of experience that it’s weird for them to talk about. All of the stuff in this post I probably wouldn’t get unless I had been abroad myself, and I think that’s what makes other people not want to talk about it. It’s a wealth of experience they don’t have, and don’t have much to talk about, so they prefer not to.

  4. Well said, as always! I can totally relate to this. After three years in Poland, i moved back to the US last fall and started college. I was a total wreck socially for a couple of months!

      • let’s see–nobody in the US shakes hands or uses formal language in speaking to strangers (Sir, Ma’am). I like some of the differences of course; for instance, Americans are much friendlier than Poles, at least on the surface. I also miss speaking Polish; after struggling through learning a language, it’s hard to give up cold turkey.

  5. Haha I totally experienced the same thing when I moved home from India after a work project. I was really terrified to be in cars, as people here drive WAY too fast and don’t honk or flash their lights to let someone know they are passing! The availability of multicultural food options blew my mind – you mean there are more options than just curry?

  6. What a great post 🙂 I can definitely relate, having moved back and forth to Europe. It’s weird when it gets to that point where the once-foreign world becomes home, and yet the people there still expect you to be clueless. Proving yourself gets tiring, and it’s even weirder when you feel like you have to do it in your own culture.
    Thanks for sharing this!

    • Yeah, the proving can get a little tiresome. But now that I’m back, I keep waiting for applause every time I manage the simple stuff of Canadian culture. “Don’t you guys understand that it’s amazing that I remember how to do this?!”

  7. Hey Mikey, just wanted to say sorry if I have been thanking you too much. Also just wanted to say sorry in case I haven’t been thanking you enough. Anyways, thanks again! Sorry.

  8. You really have become that much more “Asian” in behaviour?
    Learning 1-2 additional gestures of courtesy is nice and if it’s an international gesture without offense, it’s just convenient to use it/do it more gracefully.

    By the way, I’m too Canadian: I didn’t learn how to hand things over with 2 hands to friends and family. But yes, I know and have done the multiple rejections to a gift…which is supposed to mean the opposite: “I’m grateful you are giving something to me..”. 🙂

    • At first it was definitely a deliberate effort on my part to get more “Asian” in my behaviour, especially because I was in a school setting as the only foreigner. With time there were certain things I pulled my foreigner card on to parachute away from cultural stuff I couldn’t handle, but I never really guessed how much of my behaviours had become Koreanish until I got back and discovered I didn’t need them anymore.

      I love the multiple gift rejections gig. It doesn’t happen much in Korean culture, though. In one of the textbooks we had, there was even a “Culture Corner” thing to teach the kids how people in the west receive gifts is different from how Koreans typically receive gifts (it exaggerated, but: westerners open it right then and there and go buckwild thanking you, while Koreans sheepishly accept a gift and hide it for opening later).

  9. Some how I missed this post (think I was in Calgary on business) but nevertheless enjoyed it very much and the comments that followed. As you well know, it is one thing to immerse yourself into a country and its culture for an extended period of time an another to be travelling through several countries, each with their own language and culture and try to soak up all that you can.

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