We all live in bubbles. One way or another, the people in our day-to-day lives, even if they aren’t similar to us, shape what we come to view as normal. Try as we might, it is difficult for any of us to see the world clearly beyond our bubble. Sure, we might know that only 33 percent of people in the US graduate from college, but chances are, depending on whether you graduated or not, your friends will disproportionately be made up of the category you, yourself, fall into. And this is just one of the many ways our distorted view of reality- our bubble – takes shape.
Well, now that I find myself coming to the end of an extended period of time living overseas, mostly in the expat community of Seoul, South Korea, and as my thoughts turn towards my eventual arrival back in America, I keep wondering just how warped my perception of normal has actually become. What things have I gotten used to, or come to view as being normal and ordinary that are not, relative to “normal life” back home? Here’s what I’ve come up with:
All Westerns living in Asia have to deal with extra and often times unwanted attention while being here. For myself, as a big black guy, I get my fair share of people staring at me on buses and subways and even random people asking to take photos with me while I’m just walking down the street. In fact, I had so many people ask to take pictures with me one night when I wore a football jersey out (I guess they thought I was an actual player) that I never wore it out again. I wonder how I’ll react when no one pays me any attention at all as I go about my day. Will I feel like a washed-up child actor, or will I appreciate the anonymity? As much as the attention can be annoying, something tells me I’ll come to miss having at least one Korean man a week tell me I’m handsome.
Casually Talking About Travel
Excessive international travel is not anywhere close to the norm around the world. While I still view travel as about the best and most exciting thing a person can do with their life, it is also so commonplace in an expat community that I wouldn’t think twice of someone saying, “Sure the pad Thai in Bangkok is good, but if you really want good street food, you should head to this village just outside of Mu Nah in Vietnam.” This isn’t someone bragging in my bubble. This is someone offering travel advice that someone else is likely to follow. In America, talking about travel excessively or even too casually is about the quickest way to become labeled a pretentious prick. Learning to heavily regulate my travel talk is something I know I’ll have to do and a lesson I learned the last time I lived abroad and returned home.
Along these same lines, living abroad, by definition, means daily cultural interactions which I think help me grow and learn a lot. While living here, I’ve come to consider hanging out and talking to people from five to six different countries any given night (depending on how you want to count the UK) as standard. Because these interactions are so frequent, they’re easily taken for granted. I already know that I’ll come to look back on my frequent complaining about the lack of foreigners from non-English speaking countries here as being that of a spoiled child. And actually, the number of foreigners from such countries has gone up noticeably while I’ve been here.
The lack of materialism in the overall expat community is noteworthy. Don’t get me wrong, materialism has implanted itself as deeply in Korean culture as it has in American culture. However, while most of us expats here are more financially secure than we were at any time in our lives, a lot of that security comes from not feeling the same pressure to consume that we do back home. We are not expected to own a car, let alone one we can’t actually afford, and no one is judging us on whether or not we’re wearing designer clothes or going to the hottest night spots where our money wouldn’t go far. It’s easy to not be wrapped up in all these societal pressures in the expat bubble because it’s not our society and perhaps because we’re not being advertised to.
Something that goes hand-in-hand with not feeling the pressures of materialism and consumerism is not being in the know with pop culture. This one is both good and bad. I have spent a lot of time here not knowing what’s going on in the entertainment world. Don’t get me wrong, the internet and Facebook keep me far from oblivious, but I’m also not swamped with it. I often don’t know what the latest movies are, or what the new, hot reality show to watch is, and that can sometimes be frustrating, but overall it’s kind of relaxing, and I find the things I do end up hearing about tend to be better quality entertainment since it makes its way to me by word of mouth verses huge ad buys.
Something I have gotten used to while living here is not having access to America’s 24-hour, ‘buy whatever you want whenever you want’ convenience. Before coming to Korea, the words “in season” had no real meaning to me. Strawberries in December? Yes, please. But here, a lot of food in the stores comes and goes with the seasons and even staple foods regularly run out in the small grocery stores that service my neighborhood. I’ll enjoy getting back into the bubble where I don’t have to guess what foods might be available and reclaim my place at the top of the world’s food chain.
However, there is something Bill Bryson, one of my favorite travel writers, called “the euphoria of going without.” While I’ve never enjoyed “going without” here when it comes to things I need to cook dinner—when I want spinach, I want spinach—I can’t say there isn’t something great about stopping in a random store and seeing some food item I love but haven’t seen in months. (I was here for 9 months before I found my first can of Dr. Pepper.) When you always have everything, you couldn’t care less about these things. Always having access to everything means never having your day made by a friend giving you a candy bar they found in some out-of-the-way store because they remembered you saying you liked it at your most recent session of “You know what I miss?” at the bar.
Fear of Old Women
Like I said earlier, I’m a pretty big guy, but since living in Korea, I’ve developed a real fear of little old ladies. This is not a phobia because a phobia is an irrational fear; my fear is completely justified. Ask anyone who has visited Korea and ridden the excellent public transportation system during rush hour. They’ll tell they were unapologetically pushed, bumped and run into by many people while walking around. While most Koreans here seem to do this, no one does it like the old women, and the smaller the woman the more forceful the shoving and, sometimes, hitting you’ll encounter. Culturally, doing this isn’t rude and isn’t meant to be offensive, but it can be traumatizing all the same, and I advise anyone visiting Korea to never stand between an old woman and an open seat on the subway. She will go through you like a linebacker trying to get to a quarterback. I am not exaggerating when I say I jump out of the way when I see an old woman heading towards me.
Someone once told me that Seoul is the party capital of Asia. After traveling a lot around Asia over the past few years, I can confirm the validity of this statement. With the sole exception of the once a lunar month Full-moon party in Thailand, no regularly held party in Asia comes close to the average weekend in Seoul. Koreans drink a lot. Soju, Korea’s unofficial national drink, is the most consumed liquor in the world and pretty much only Koreans drink it. When you put a drinking culture like this together with a bunch of foreigners who like to party like they’re on vacation every weekend, you get a good time that effortlessly goes till sunrise. The times I’ve visited home, I haven’t come close to readjusting to America’s puritanical restrictions on my partying and its expensive drinks and even more expensive cab rides.
Sidebar: Luckily, I don’t have to deal with exiting this bubble for a good while yet. I don’t leave Korea until February. Even then, I’ll be heading into the significantly more distorted backpacker’s bubble for a few months before heading home. More details on all this to follow in coming articles.