Yesterday I wrote that I was going to talk about the culture shock I’ve had upon coming back to Canada. Some refer to it as “Reverse Culture Shock”. I suppose that makes sense: I am stepping back into a culture that I was once a part of. But whatever anyone wants to call it, it’s hard.
I’ll give you a quick example of something that happened last week. I was in a grocery store, walking down one of the aisles, when I saw two people standing in the middle of it. They were talking. Completely unaware of anyone who might want to get by them.
So, what did I do? Ask them to move? Excuse myself? Make a subtle sound so that they would have seen me there?
Short answer: no. I didn’t do any of those things. What I did do was barge past them, pushing them out of the way with my shopping basket. Seriously.
It was only when they turned to me and apologized that I realized what I had done. I apologized as well, then moved on quickly, trying not to dwell on it.
The truth is that in Asia (Korea and China, anyway), people would have done exactly what I did. There wouldn’t have been any formalities or what we in the West consider politeness. If someone was standing in the way and there was no way to get around them, the choice would be to go through them. Actually, even when there was space to get around, I’ve been pushed out of the way.
But that’s not the way it works in Canada.
We open doors for people and thank them. We stop our cars when someone is crossing the road. We hold the elevator doors open until everyone has gotten on. We stand at the side of those same elevator doors to let the people inside get off first. And the list goes on.
But before it does, I need you to understand that I’m not criticizing the way things are done in either the East or West. I’m simply pointing out that they’re different. And it’s that difference that is hard to adjust to.
There are other things (maybe a little more subtle) that have proven difficult as well.
In Asia, I don’t understand much (or really any) of what is being said around me. So in a Starbucks with a hundred people, their voices blend into nothing more than background noise – a soft hum.
In a Starbucks in Canada with considerably less people in it, I understand pretty much everything (assuming English is being spoken) that’s being said. Two women talk about a friend of theirs that is writing a movie. A couple talk about how they are going to be able to save up enough money to go on vacation. Parents discipline their children. People order drinks.
I can’t tune any of it out.
Worse still, since I’ve been gone such a long time, those conversations might actually be amplified. Honestly, I can’t even read in an empty Starbucks if the music being quietly played in the background has English lyrics.
And speaking of reading…
In Asia, aside from a few advertisements where it’s become somewhat of a trend to use English, most of the writing I see makes no sense to me. And I mean no sense. It isn’t like reading Spanish where I don’t know what’s being said but I can sound out the words because I can read the letters. They use writing that doesn’t resemble anything of my own. So when I look at a sign I see lines and curves and circles. That’s all.
In Canada, I can see the signs over restaurants, menu items, ingredients. The grocery stores are filled with boxes of cereal, bags of chips, candies, bread, rice – of which I can read all of the names and unique features (like made with 100% real fruit juice and no preservatives). There are newspapers lying around. Billboards. Writing on people’s shirts (which admittedly is the same in Asia, though the writing there is usually gibberish or hilarious to read).
In the end, it’s A LOT.
Argh. Writing all of this is starting to frustrate me. I thought it might be somewhat therapeutic to get it all out there. But I’m finding that it’s more of a reminder of what I need to go through than anything else.
Don’t get me wrong, I know I’ll get through it. The thing is, until I do, it’s going to be rough. It’s going to take a lot of time and patience.
Luckily I have a good set of headphones that I can pop into my ears on those days when things get too much. And I can always close my eyes.