“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.