Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Language (How Do I Even Talk Now?)

Oh, hi there.

Still my go-to stock photo for language.

“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 was on the subway, deep below the earth, talking freely to a friend. My tongue sluiced freely around my mouth. My teeth chattered, unbound. Phonemes flew unabashedly off of my stupid lips. Maybe I was talking about bowel movements, or my visceral hatred for a certain coworker, or fairly deep spoilers to books three, four, and five of A Song of Ice and Fire. Maybe I was expressing untoward personal opinions on Margaret Thatcher, or my thoughts in unicorns in North Korea. Perhaps, at different times, all of these subjects of discussion. In polite company I would usually try to refrain from blabbing on about touchy subjects, about the crude or the vulgar or the spoilerific.

And while I was still largely in polite company, I was in polite company that was speaking in Korean and had no interest in my dumb English conversation. Under the sea of a completely different language, my own sentences were slipping completely under the radar, too fast and too idiosyncratic and too boring for anyone to bother listening in. I had diplomatic immunity of the mouth, and I could say whatever I wanted, almost whenever I wanted.

I had grown used to this luxury. It seemed, for a time, that I was walking around in a glorious English bubble, a great movable sphere of incomprehensibility. No one around would understand me, and unless I tried with particular effort, I couldn’t understand anyone else. It was a gentleman’s agreement on eavesdropping, and the difficulty of translation meant that nobody would bother trying too hard to overhear my tedious communiqués. Every conversation was intimate and private, even if we were sardined into a bus with hundreds of strangers at rush hour, or swarmed by waiters and other diners at a restaurant. No one was going to bother trying to understand me, and thus my words were all free.

But since moving home, this luxury is gone. Suddenly that protective cocoon is shattered, suddenly my words are loud and brash and easily comprehensible. No one wants to listen to me, certainly, but they can, and I am cowed by this unfathomable skill. I now rarely answer my phone in public, I shield my text messages from seat neighbours on the bus. When I talk with friends at a restaurant or a bar, I am constantly looking over my shoulder, as though the entire assembled crowd must be collecting every word I say, storing them for future use, preparing the cases against me for the courts of law I will surely one day be dragged into. I feel like I’m speaking with earphones in, louder than I expect, and that everyone is cringing and shying away, like checkout jerkweed over there with all the English language, huh?

Further, in Korea my ears became bloodhound-sensitive to the sound of English: I could detect and orient towards a glorious home-bred morpheme at 50 paces. If someone was speaking English nearby, I would hear it, hone in on it, let its glorious structure and syntax thrash about in my cochlea and shimmy down my nerves, bypass my Wernicke’s area, and divert directly into the pleasure centres of my brain.

This English radar had an evolutionary function, of course, because an English speaker in close proximity meant a number of things. Perhaps it meant that they had recently managed to acquire sustenance or goods at a nearby establishment without major error or horror. Perhaps they could be interrogated as to their presence in the country, to what they did, to how they survived, to how they made money and gathered food. Sometimes I just needed to hear some English, for someone to speak to me in my home language.

Once I was sitting in front of a coffee shop reading a book, and a man crossed the enormous 4-lane road before Lotte Department Store to talk to me. “Do you speak English?” he asked, a quaver of hope breaking through his voice. “I just moved here. I don’t know anyone.” I put down my English-language novel, gestured to the seat across from me, and let loose a torrent of Anglophonic sounds to soothe his weary heart.

This sensitivity to English, though, has also become a problem. Where I used to be able to tune out the nonsense going on around me, I no longer have the ability. In Korea, understanding the ambient language around me involved a turning on: I had to actively listen, to carefully tease apart grammar and structure and colloquial speech. Those few times I did, I realized that Korean people were just as boring as everyone back in Canada, and that expending the effort to constantly eavesdrop on the conversation around me was not worth it.

But trying not to listen to a language I don’t have to think about has always been a turning off. Not overhearing other people speaking in English was always a matter of blocking it out, of opening up the Task Manager in my brain and switching off a dozen background processes.

But now it’s not just turning these processes off, it’s stopping myself from perking when I hear English at all – my brain got used to wanting to listen in. This doesn’t work out so well here, because English is everywhere. People are talking. Radios are blaring. Televisions and newspapers and advertisements and license plates and t-shirts and menus. I can’t tune it out, I can’t turn it off, and the effect is a constant wave, not even a blur, but a tide of stimuli I can’t help but comprehend washing over me all at once. English in Korea was a fox hunt, a game of skill and wiliness. English in Canada is a game where you walk through a giant minefield of overstimulation while people everywhere are shooting at you with machine guns while talking about their parents or their stupid boyfriends, and also you are on fire.

21 thoughts on “Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Language (How Do I Even Talk Now?)

  1. I’m still at a level of fluency where Turkish is more or less a wall of sound- especially in public situation where it’s rapid-fired colloquial Turkish. There’ve been a whole ton more tourists/ex-pats moving into my area recently and I find myself constantly annoyed on buses and in cafes, because I can ignore Turkish, but when someone’s speaking English I HAVE TO LISTEN. My yabanci bubble is gone, in those situations, and I find myself having irrational reactions where, on a crowded bus, I want to go up to one couple, the couple five seats up that happens to be speaking English, and tell them to shut up because I’m trying to read. I haven’t been home yet, but I shrink from it because I imagine I’ll suffer from auditory stimulation overload and be trying to listen to fifteen conversations at once.

    • Hah. Just sitting around, all peaceful, and suddenly get drive-by English. It’s amazing how quickly you become capable of honing in on it, and at the same time how impossible it is to tune it out.

  2. Hahaha! This post reminded of one you once made about a trip to Viet Nam, where you actually became attuned to KOREAN speech and subconsciously sought it out whenever it glanced off your ears.

    Also, I actually had the opposite experience – I got used to being able to talk about people in Japanese right in front of them, and when I came back I had to remind myself that everyone around me can understand when I do that.

    • Heh. I am also a bit of a bloodhound for it now, and can detect Korean off at a pretty big distance. I guess it’s whatever language I’m moderately versed in that’s rare in the environment.

      The whole secret language aspect is pretty nice. I have a few friends back home with whom I can chat in Korean, and it feels like spy vs. spy out in public.

  3. I so get you on this. I lived in Japan once for 7 months and when I came home it was a shock to my system. Once I spent 10 minutes on the sidewalk outside a drug store talking to myself about how I was going to explain that I had a headache and needed aspirin. I took me that long to realize that I could just ask or read the label on the bottles.

  4. I kinda gave up halfway through the blog, your English is so.. pretty, fluent.. and way too difficult to follow for me!
    … I like your blog though.

          • Thank you!, do you know any other languages than korean? I’ve been learning english since I was 10 or so, being bilingual is really common in The Netherlands. So you could compare my third language, Japanese to your Korean(which is probably better than my Japanese).

            • Oh I studied French and german in school, (also latin for a year, but nevermind that) I have the same problem, when I came back to highschool for a while(I was forced by law to go to school untill I turned 18) I had forgotten most of it!
              Language is really something you have to practice every now and then, or else you could start from the bottom again!

            • Yep, absolutely. I think if I spent some time somewhere French speaking I’d pick it back up, but without that pressure, I’ve got nothing.

              Why are you learning Japanese? Do you live there/plan to live there? Or just for fun?

            • It started out for fun, but I really like Japan, I really want to go there someday to see what it’s like… And if it is nice, yes, I’d like to live there!

  5. Dude. I got back from Taiwan less than a week ago, and this same thing has been happening to me in precisely the ways you express. My friend keeps having to tell me to shut up about people around me since they speak English too. Whoops. Easy to forget. That bubble you describe is exactly right.

    Now I’m getting all hermity and crab-like, being overrun with words I can understand, signs, commercials, and general blather that is too much for my over-sensitive brain to manage at the mo. I think all returning expats need a mandatory fortnight period of recovery whilst we sort our mental brain-paths and get them used to running in Western civ again.

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