‘I am a sum-total of my ancestors. I carry their DNA. We are representatives of a long line of people, and we cart them around everywhere. This long line of people that go back to the beginning of time, and when we meet, they meet other lines of people and we say: bring together the lines of many.’-One Giant Leap.
I believe in people, mostly.
For me, the last six months have been illuminating in every possible way. Mostly though, I feel I have learned to be my own person a lot more.
Now, before you go back to doing whatever you were doing, please remember that I hate self-indulgent rubbish in blogs as much as you do. I’ll try to explain without making anyone zonk off to sleep and maybe you’ll have a better idea about my attitudes and beliefs without wanting to make an effigy of me and cover it in guano.
Same language, different cultures: in my immediate groups of friends there are Americans, Canadians, South Africans and New Zealanders. I’ll give a little example of what seems to happen, from my perspective when we get together in a large group.
Americans: Upon telling a good friend of mine from the states that I wasn’t really that blown away by Costco (giant department store, for the guys in Blighty) I was looked at like I had at least two heads and a small musketeer dancing on my nose. It was almost a look that suggested that I might possibly have a small, but terminal, tumour: how could I have not liked Costco? It was just unfathomable. A giant warehouse of every kind of food, games-console, drinks, furniture in the States just didn’t whet my appetite one bit. So, my lack of Costco-philia was mainly due to the fact that for me it held almost zero relevance as I don’t know half the American brands that exist, which is in itself a talking-point:
“So you’re telling me that you DON’T have Twinkies in England?”
(Cue a look of severe pity: “poor guy, I’ll bet he has a tiny dick as well”)
But this is what I signed up for: cultural growth.
Now, before the mob arrive with pitchforks, let me also add that I’m not dissing any other country here. I just think sometimes it’s good to hold up a mirror to how mutually weird all of our cultures are.
A great example was when, at a table of Americans, I mentioned the Queen’s Speech. Blank faces. After elaborating that on the 25th December every year the Queen addresses the U.K and the Commonwealth, I was met with almost hysterical laughter that carried on for a good ten minutes.
It IS ridiculous that a person who is not even technically in charge of the country can make such a speech every year, but for me and no doubt plenty of others from the U.K it is part of Christmas tradition and to have people laughing at it like a giant joke is sometimes what you need to realise how totally bizarre it all is. The Korean culture is hard enough to adapt to even with your countrymen as points of reference, but I’m one of only a few Brits and we rarely hang around that much together. I’d be lying if I said that being a Brit in Korea isn’t a little like being a Venusian in the company of Martians whislt working on the planet Mercury. Which brings me to my next point:
Take the Brits and put them together and mostly they’ll make small talk and go off somewhere else by themselves or with other people. Why? No idea. I think we’re all more comfortable not being reminded of home as much as other countries, just the way it appears to be. General reserve and an Island-Mentality are mostly at hand, that and we only last ten minutes before talking about the weather. I think that possibly we have a little more cynicism about how much we’ll all get along and as a result are sometimes less than gregarious with new people. Does location really mean you’ll like someone better? If I bumped into someone from my hometown I’d be less happy to shoot the breeze because our differences would be less than charming and possibly uncomfortable:
“Oh yeah, I went to this school.”
“Really? I went to this school. It was much higher in teenage pregnancy rates than yours”
“I heard your school had a sex scandal involving a well-known Tory-spokesperson, and your mum.”
The South Africans on the other hand, get on with their fellow country-people like a cat-on-fire. I assumed a lot of them had applied together until I realised that they’re just extremely sociable with their fellow Saffers, regardless of if they had known each other beforehand or not. This is interesting for me because I find their energy and enthusiasm for stuff is what makes for a good time. Instant party: just add Saffers.
A strange moment though was at orientation where I was sat in between two Saffer guys who were conversing to each other with an accent so thick I really struggled to hear the words. Then I realised that they weren’t actually speaking in English but in Afrikaans, which made my jet-lagged head spin a little.
Patriotism is largely at the heart of all this. Say whatever you like but Americans and South Africans are much more outwardly patriotic (not always in a delusional way, but just much more open about their pride for their nationality.)
All of this pales in comparison to the encounters I’ve had with Koreans, a journey that gets more convoluted the longer I stay here. The initial language barrier aside, Koreans can come across as a little earnest. Once the language barrier dissolves a little (usually after a few jars) the vast majority of Koreans can be an absolute riot.
In the same token; the morning after is never a talking-point. We all used to hold court after a heavy nights drinking at University. Always pointing fingers about who said what and who shagged who and who was pestering the kebab man with his willy out (our friend, not Mr. Hasheed.) It just isn’t a fun experience for Koreans as they have a very strong hold on the idea that losing face is a very bad thing.
This isn’t always linked to drinking and socialising though, sometimes it can enter the workplace. Thankfully I teach freestyle English lessons and therefore don’t have to follow the textbook. In my first month, however, I was expected to do so whenever there was a dialogue written in the book. The good thing was that I hardly had to prepare, the bad thing was the fact that my co-teacher (who, without being too unkind, has all the candour of a small, alkaline battery) wouldn’t read the corresponding dialogue with me in front of the class.
Now, her English is actually very good. When I suggested that I take the man’s part and she take the woman’s part in said dialogue, she looked at me as if I’d just suggested some form of weird sexual act involving mashed swede. She just would not talk in English in front of the students, an English teacher. It was all to do with not looking stupid; her English has a Korean accent, mine doesn’t.
Instead, she points at the CD. So, in the time it takes me to load up the computer (which I like to refer to as “Old Blue”) and configure the speakers we’ve wasted nearly five minutes of time. The waiting around was even more irritating because the section of dialogue was all about British English, and I was there in the classroom, living and breathing and able to do a rendition of “Consider Yourself” at the drop of a hat.
The CD plays, and a man with a Texan drawl proclaims over the speakers:
“This iys the liyft, woold yew care for a cup o tea?”
The above incident certainly left me shaking my head, but my most recent exchange with a Korean that sticks in my memory is somewhat more fulfilling.
After being burnt silly at the Mud-festival, I was sitting with Steve in a deserted park in Daejeon when a wheelchair-bound man approached us with a winning smile and asked us where we were from. He went on to tell us that he was a former Orange Courier for Sunkist back in the Sixties, and that he learned most of his English whilst working in America. His presence was particularly moving for me because it was obvious he was paralysed from the waist down and when he recounted (unprompted) that he’d had a car accident many years ago, I found myself feeling quite emotional. Here was someone’s success story of a time where globalisation was only just beginning. Though now he is largely ignored and marginalised by an unfortunate event, he was once a young man working in a foreign country with a spring in his step and the world at his feet. What with my Grandad being paralysed for most of my life, seeing this man with a smile on his face and approaching his twilight years with an optimistic charm really opened me up inside and made me realise that his pride and his zest for life made me feel very humble indeed. I think it really bought home for me how much I wish I could have heard Grandad talk to me; that whilst he wasn’t able to tell me his life story in words as this man was doing, it reminded me that those words were always there in his heart and if he’d been able to, he’d have regaled me in much the same manner. The man left us so he could tend to his flowers, I felt like someone had just sobered me up quite massively, Steve had another sip of his beer and said “Oranges? Cool stuff!”
Learning from these kinds of encounters are what keeps me in a safe place, it reminds me of the inherent sturdiness of the human spirit, and long may I keep seeing confirmation of it, whichever brand of culture it emanates from, I only hope that seeing my family in little over twenty-four hours’ time will give me a boost of a much needed sense of belonging.