The Every-Asia and the Ghost of the 7-11

The path

Good old Anywhere, Asia. Right?

My street was lined everywhere in convenience stores. Two were physically inside of my apartment building, I could see another three from my window, and the luxury convenience store with the wide picnic tables and the jovial, buoyant staff was at the corner. They were all gleaming, well-groomed affairs: shiny shelves; shiny floors; shiny, moderately-enthused smiles. Triangles of kimbap arrayed neatly, unceasing displays of drinks in various sizes, and snacks in such plentifulness and variety that the bounty of man should surely have offended the gods.

Most of Korea reminded me of my neighbourhood, my tiny shimmering neon hamlet. Family Marts and love motels, coffee shops and karaoke rooms, the constant and effervescent hiss of fluorescent lights, wafts of dumplings and sausage and bubbling vats of oil. The truck that barrelled down my street every morning at 6 a.m., caterwauling about the quality of his oranges, seemed to be a predetermined and omnipresent facet of the Korean universe. This orange truck was the same truck that surely trawled every street in Korea, much as Santa Claus must blast across whole continents and reach every house at staggering velocity.

Wherever I went in Korea, I saw visions of my wedge of the country. Cell phone stores and cafes reconfigured in placement and number, barbecue restaurants occasionally were replaced with stew restaurants. A dumpling cart would be selling fried chicken would be selling rice cakes in piquant red tar. Family Mart would disappear and a 7-11 would take its place. Puzzle pieces were moved, shuffled around, reassembled to slip comfortably into local cartography. And underneath the same heart beat, the same comprehensible rhythm.

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The Singular Joy of Being Invisible

Inwangsan Route

On strange streets, far far away, no one can see you at all.

My university campus was crawling with causes and vigorous young people supporting or decrying them, as most university campuses are. It was impossible to walk anywhere between St. George and Bay without being accosted by earnestness, without being molested by ideology. Everywhere there were plights to be consternated over, things to be enraged at, passions to fill your heart and empty your wallet.

Have you heard about the oil sands, and what various parties want to do to them? Did you know that a politician once said a thing? How about those abortions, and the current number of them, which was not very satisfying? I couldn’t emerge from a subway station without leaflets appearing in my hand as though through sorcery—eager, deeply-feeling youths who didn’t shave would somehow slip their pamphlets and brochures into my unwilling grasp at a rate that astounded my senses and resistance.  Periodically they would invade classes, make heart-felt announcements to lecture halls full of people, their voices quavering with yearning, with emotion, with fire. Cartoon hearts pumped ludicrously in their chests, bounded out through their rib cages and their fashionable cardigans, exploded outward for everyone to see.

As a commuter the number of things I gave a shit about was perilously low. Rush-hour buses and subways drained absolutely all ability I had to care about much of anything, and being 18 siphoned off any remaining ardour. I had assignments and readings and plans to succeed, and combined with two hours of daily rides through busy underground public transit, I simply didn’t have it in me to care. My apathy was deep and oceanic and incomprehensible to the impassioned philanthropists, to the fledgling Marxists and the proto-demagogues and the neophyte neocons. There was a black hole where my fervour organ should have been, and to them I seemed like an abomination from a far-off dimension, betentacled and terrifying and outside of the realm of understanding. They looked upon me and despaired, as I did to them.

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Chronicles of Culture Shock: The Internet and the Tortoise of Freedom

Sometimes in life, you move to Asia. Sometimes in life, you move to Asia twice. Chronicles of Culture Shock continues the series detailing my adjustment to life in Canada by looking at my adjustment to life in China.

The tortoise drum

Scoot forth! Into the great beyond!

Brigitte needed a copy of PowerPoint. Apparently it was all the rage in Korean pedagogy, and people at the orientation were already preparing introductory slideshows about themselves, their nations, their interests and hobbies and families. Everywhere around us people were on the Office crackpipe, mainlining delirious helpings of star wipes and flashy, 1980s music-video dissolves. We all sat in a mind-bendingly tedious presentation, so she took to the hotel wifi and purchased a copy of Office, and began the download, thinking she might be able to begin the install some time around lunch.

Something strange was happening on her computer. A thin strip of grey was gradually filling up with blue progress, ticking along with an alarming speed. People began to gather around, marvelling all the while.

“That whole program downloaded in under a minute,” we cooed. “This is the greatest country in the world.”

What was this devilry, this witchcraft? What had this country sacrificed to the gods of the internet to allow for such unholy download speeds, for unlimited bandwidth, for constant, omnipresent wireless connection with five gleaming bars of full signal? What gods from the depths were summoned, what demons from beyond were called upon for such unfathomable agility and electronic prowess? I imagined a Korean Andromeda, chained to the rocks, the personified anima of the internet devouring her alive, cackling as he slithers back into the ocean, the boon of high-quality broadband and and impressive wireless routers left in his bloody, rupturous wake.

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Existential Conundrums in a Chinese Supermarket

Trinket town

This is the Buddha head selection station. The Buddha head buying station is around the block.

I clutch the most boyish thermos I could find amongst the sea of shiny pink and purple aluminum. A Chinese mall thrums around me on all sides, and this one particular sector is dedicated only to mugs and coffee containers. A young saleswoman hovers around a laptop, scowling every time I turn her way, knowing our interaction will involve a lot of pantomime, frustration, and tedium. She awaits my dull, Mandarin-less grunts with dutiful stoicism.

When I move towards her and indicate that I have found my desired item, she asks me a few questions, to which I answer yes, as it is one of the few words I have learned thus far. She taps away at the laptop and then begins scribing an enormous, hand-written scroll of instructions and numbers and arcane glyphs, which I assume I will need as incantations to summon Pazuzu. She hands me the slip of paper, clutches my thermos loosely and waves me away with my desired possessions gripped possessively in her talons.

I stare around my surroundings, pondering my next step. Everywhere there are desks, laptops, angry and tired-looking staff waiting at the ready, taking things away from shoppers. I am more than a little dazed. I wonder if I need to go on some sort of scavenger hunt, if I am being summoned into a hero’s quest and will need to bring this woman back the Golden Fleece. Perhaps I will need to answer a troll’s riddle? Or slay a dragon. Or maybe this is an Ikea situation, and my theoretical thermos was only a floor model, and my little slip of paper was actually a map, a guide, a thorough set of instructions on how to spelunk the depths of the storehouse below us to find the shrink-wrapped and ready version of my cup.

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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.

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Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Restaurants (My Kingdom for a Bing-Bong)

Bask

Time for Korean food by the bucket.

“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.

A Korean restaurant in Korea is a beautiful, efficient kind of place. You enter, sit at your table, and order essentially within the first moments. The menus are not terribly voluminous, and the assumption is that if you entered this restaurant in the first place, you knew what you were coming for. (Many restaurants specialize in exactly one kind of dish, so you say how many of the foods you want and in what, if any, variations.) The waiters disappear, and rush back with your steaming bowl or your rack of raw ingredients and leave you to it. They will not check on you, they will not make small talk, they will not feign interest, and they will not interact with you unless they you summon them by the convenient doorbell on your table (bing-bong!). They give you food and then leave you alone, and at the end of the meal you take the bill, which was already at your table, and pay elsewhere and never ever think of leaving them a tip. The people operating the restaurant are unobtrusive, practically invisible, more spectral visions of humans, ghosts carrying trays that exist only in your peripheral vision.

Which is to say that a Korean restaurant in Korea is my idea of paradise.

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What if Leaving is a Loving Thing?

The cherry rain

Say goodbye to the blossoms and the spring.

The going away party was a hit–everyone was smiling and happy, and it felt, in so many ways, like a coming together and not a splitting apart. The music was loud, and people were overly generous in sloughing free drinks down our gullets. We wrote dozens of post-its and stuck them on people, first messages of friendship and connection, and then later insults and invective once we’d had enough drink. The night was hitchless, but for a surprise dance-off that included the Spice Girls, which just so happened to be Faith’s Trigger, and thus turned the dance-floor into an anger pit. It was the exact kind of mess we secretly had wanted.

It was perfect. All of my friends and loved ones in Korea gathered in one place to send me off – laughing and singing and being fools, the wonderful lot of them. I loved them. So why was I then leaving?

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