Cultural Differences and Respect in Korea

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It was just my second week of working in a hagwon when my headmaster said we needed to talk.

We moved into a small classroom, large Lego bricks scattered on the floor. The only place to sit was in tiny chairs for toddlers. Our knees were pressed up into our chests as we looked across at each other. I would have laughed if the headteacher didn’t look so serious. She stared at me intently, her lip quivering. She took a deep breath.

“I’ve actually been very upset with you this week. Very angry.” Immediately I was taken aback.  My mind raced, my stomach tightened. What had I done?

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Leaving Bangkok

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On its surface Bangkok is a city that is defined by its roads and food. In Bangkok it is either rush hour or rushier hour, either breakfast time, lunch time, dinner time or supper time.

Everywhere you go food exists, in restaurants, bars, malls. The city is paved with food stalls. Eating is so intertwined with life that it’s hard to tell when one meal ends and the next begins. Life is like one long feast to Thais, all they seem to do is smile and eat. Smile and eat. And take taxis.

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Santa Teacher

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Christmas was approaching. Excitement building. At first the children spoke in hushed whispers, but as the day came closer their voices grew louder. Eventually they were shouting in hysterics “Santa is coming! Santa is coming!”

I wrote about lying to children in my last post. Well the biggest lie of all is Santa. And as Christmas approached it was my biggest problem.

Pity. That’s what I feel for any white male who works in a Korean hagwon at Christmas. Why? Because there’s a very definite possibility that you will find yourself tasked with being Santa. In a school filled with Korean women, the white guy becomes Santa by default.

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Daniel Teacher’s House on the Moon

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The best thing about working with kids is that they’ll believe anything you say. To children, anybody over 5 years older than them is an adult. Somebody to be trusted. Somebody who tells no lies.

I love a good lie. Something I can really sink my teeth into. Literally. The first time I lied to the children, I said I’d eaten another child.

One student had left the school to go to America. I explained that he wasn’t in America, he was in my belly. I’d eaten him.

At this point in the lie, the reaction is different based on the child. Some automatically believe it to be true. Some want more details (“What part of him did you eat first?”) Some shout out loud that I’m a liar. Then they say that they’re going to call the police and I’m going to go to prison for lying. Everybody laughs aloud.

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Pooping in Korea

Until I started to work with kids, I never realised how seriously I could take pooping. Sure, I used to keep a mental list of all the cleanest public bathrooms in Newcastle, just incase the need arose. And of course, I always made sure to go to the bathroom before seeing a movie, even if I didn’t feel the need. But going to the toilet was never an obsession that would be on my mind all day, every day.

I’m positive I’m not the only person in the world that enjoys using the toilet. It’s the perfect escape. A place that’s always quiet, where you can sit back and relax with a good book. You can take your time, forget all of life’s problems and just bask in the moment. Sometimes you can literally feel a weight being lifted from you. Best of all, the bathroom is a private place, where nobody can disturb you, where you can be alone with your own thoughts and feelings.

Until you get a job in a kindergarten.

When I was first given the tour of my kindergarten, the one thing to immediately jump out at me was the bathroom. It’s a tiny box room, with two cubicles, two urinals and not much space between them. One cubicle is so small that even our 4 year olds can peep over the door and look into it. That’s no problem though, it’s for children. It’s not an issue to them because they’re not old enough to appreciate privacy.

The second cubicle is adult sized. Four solid wooden walls with no room to peek over or under. There’s a nice, high wooden door with a lock. That’s important. I always hate going to a person’s house and finding out their bathroom has no lock. How can anybody live like this? I always wonder. You’re living in fear! Any time you’re in the bathroom somebody could walk in at any moment. That’s hardly a relaxing notion.

Fortunately my kindergarten’s cubicle has a lock. Unfortunately the bathroom itself doesn’t have a door. Upon first seeing this my mind couldn’t comprehend it. WHAT THE HELL?! WHAT TYPE OF BATHROOM HAS NO DOOR! Sure, the cubicle has a door, but the bathroom itself?! Hell no. In some places this may not be a problem…but in a Korean kindergarten it’s the biggest problem in the world.

You see Korea is almost 90% covered in mountains, meaning space is at a premium. Buildings use up every inch they can and the result is that my school is composed of lots of little rooms all clustered closely together. The bathroom doorway sits directly opposite a classroom doorway. This leads to an obvious anxiety – when you’re in the bathroom you get the impression everybody in the school can hear you. Gone are the days where I could go to the bathroom and enjoy listening to every little toot and splot. Over many months I’ve tried to develop techniques for a silent poop to no avail. No matter what I try a ninja poop is impossible. Even getting to the poop stage is hard sometimes.

I’ve spent the last year in psychological warfare with my children. The battleground is the bathroom. I’ll wait for a quiet moment during the day when the children are in their classrooms (snack time, just after lunch when the children are playing – each quiet moment of the day is memorised in my mind) and it’s then that the game begins.

I cannot simply walk into the bathroom. First I have to do a stakeout, ensure no children are in there. I slide by the door (or the lack of door) and if the bathroom isn’t empty, I walk by, pretend to be going elsewhere. Most often, I’ll look in to see a child at the urinal who I’ll make awkward eye contact with. Often they’ll wave and call “HELLO, DANIEL TEACHER!” adding to the discomfort.

Since young children lack social boundaries they are masters at creating awkward situations. By the time they’re teenagers they’ll (hopefully) feel so uncomfortable in public bathrooms that they’ll purposefully use a urinal as far away as they can from another human being. When they’re kids though they seem to take an amazing amount of pleasure in public urinating. My brain can’t handle it and I just feel awkward. It doesn’t help that the technique Korean children use for peeing is so exhibitionist. They pull down their trousers and underwear around their ankles. Lift up their t-shirt to show their belly. (At this point they might as well be nude!) They then stand in front of the urinal, thrusting their penis in its general direction. No aiming is involved, they simply lean towards the urinal and hope for the best.

When I’m not confronted by that sight and the bathroom is empty, I glance around me. No child can see me enter the bathroom. If they do, I may as well give up then and there. If they know I’m going to the bathroom, they’ll follow me in due to either their curiosity (hehehe, the white foreign guy is using the bathroom, how strange) or their complete sociopathy (hehehe, the white foreign guy is using the bathroom, let’s fuck with him.)

Once I’ve sneaked into the bathroom. I must be as quick as possible. I pounce into the cubicle, close the door behind me with one hand while undoing my belt with the other. Time is of the essence. There is only a 30 second window. Spend any more time in there and some child will wander in. So quickly, I’ll sit. Squeeze hard.

Nothing comes at first. The moment of elation I feel by sneaking into the bathroom has made me so excited that my whole body has tensed up. I squeeze my eyes, think of calm, flowing images. (A waterfall is my go to image, something about all that rushing out seems to tell my body to do the same.) Soon, I feel myself easing up, feel something start to move. Then I hear a noise. Footsteps.

I hold my breath. Whoever it is…maybe they’ll just turn around and leave. Right? RIGHT?! But then there’s a knock on the door and a small childish Korean voice. I knock back to let them know somebody is there. “Whatever you do, don’t speak…they’ll know its you.”

But they find out it’s me anyway. They kneel down…look through the tiny crack beneath the door. They see my shoes. “IT’S DANIEL TEACHER!”
Immediately it starts.

They yank on the door violently, pulling it again and again. I stare at the latch which once looked so sturdy, but now looks so flimsy. It seems to groan with every pull on the door. “DANIEL TEACHER! DANIEL TEACHER!” A second child arrives and screams with glee “DANIEL TEACHER IS POOPING!” Soon three children are hammering on the door shouting my name.

The crowd gets larger and larger. “Go away…” I mumble over the door, without a hint of conviction. All I can think about is how if the door snapped open they’d see me sitting on the toilet, pants around my ankles, my hairy white legs like two albino giraffe necks. I would never survive the humiliation. The children would joke about it every day for years to come – even when I’m long gone and dead of embarrassment. “DANIEL TEACHER WAS POOPING AND HE HAD HAIR EVERYWHERE AND IT WAS SO FUNNY! RIGHT!? RIGHT!?”

By now, I know it’s no use. My butt cheeks have squeezed together so tightly that they could probably snap a piece of bamboo. Still – I reason – maybe all their noise will muffle the sound. So I try to relax. The children continue to yank on the door and with every pull I feel my sphincter tightening even more, becoming a black-hole, sucking up more and more of my butt cheeks.

Suddenly a new voice arrives. A Korean co-worker. She shouts at the kids to get out, but instead they just turn to her and shout “DANIEL TEACHER IS POOPING!” I groan. Daniel Teacher is most definitely not going to be pooping now.

I quickly pull up my pants. Flush. Open the door and push through the crowd of children. “DANIEL TEACHER! WERE YOU POOPING?!” Sheepishly I protest. “Er…no…” “DANIEL TEACHER! YOU WERE POOPING!” I’ve suddenly shrunk by a foot due to my butt sucking itself up in the absolute horror of the moment.

Washing my hands, I escape, but they follow me. Taunting me with their toilet talk. Eventually they get bored and disperse. I start to gain back my height. Relax a little. Anxiety seeps away. Soon it’s replaced with that feeling again. The feeling of needing to go. And that’s how I spend the rest of the day, in a state of psychological constipation. Always needing to go but never getting the opportunity due to the children. Those damn children!

From time to time, I manage to elude them, but even then the torture doesn’t end. After flushing away the spoils of war, I’ll wash my hands, whistling merrily to myself, whereupon a child will come running in. They’ll inspect the bathroom thoroughly and eventually catch a whiff. With all the energy they can muster they’ll run from the room screaming “DANIEL TEACHER WAS POOPING! DANIEL TEACHER WAS POOPING!” and I’ll attempt the task of denying it for the rest of the day to the children that just wont shut up about it. Me? Pooping? Pfff. No way. Whoever smelt it dealt it.  Who ever denied it supplied it.
But denial in the end is useless, because one thing I’ve learnt is that although children are good at smelling shit, they are even better at smelling bullshit.

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Photo by Michel Filion.

Walking Through Vancouver

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Join me as we go for a walk. The walk I take every morning from my house to work.

We start in Strathcona. Historically the first suburb of Vancouver. Colourful, century-old houses stand tall on every block. Each house uniquely painted. Some red, some green. Blue, yellow, purple. The streets are awash with colour, cherry blossom trees standing tall on each corner. They hang over the paths like pink clouds in the sky. The air smells fresh, the sound of children sliding along with the breeze. When the sun shines, it seems to shine a little brighter here.

Next Chinatown.

Old Chinese families open the shutters of their shops. Some placing red lanterns outside their doorways, some assembling tables covered with exotic delicacies looking strange and foreign. The smell of spices fills the air. My nose tingles with pleasure.

But soon, we find ourselves there. In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The change isn’t gradual – it’s sudden. One moment an old Chinese shopkeeper is smiling at us, welcoming us to her store. The next moment a dishevelled man with dirty clothes and long greasy hair whispers in our ear “Marijuana? Cocaine?”

As we plunge deeper, those cherry blossoms seem so far away. The sky grows darker, the streets dirtier. Barely a thing is living here. No trees. No plants. No people. These people aren’t living, they’re surviving, some barely existing. On a street corner a man stands twitching, possessions at his feet waiting to be sold – for food, somewhere to sleep, more often than not drugs.

Dozens of sweaty bodies push together to form a line, waiting for a small cup of soup and a stale bread roll. Just another day in the endless struggle. A routine so far from my own:

Wake up. Survive.

Passing by alleys, I see people huddled in doorways, some selling drugs, some buying. Some using. In one alley, a man lies on the floor, screaming wildly into the air, two police officers stand over him, trying to calm him down. He mumbles at them, incomprehensible. His face is an old weathered ball of flesh, distorted by a long grey beard.

In the alley mouth, a man with a torn sweater and spit running down his cheek shakes an empty cup. He speaks so low that he’s barely audible, his old voice worn and defeated. I don’t hear his words, but I don’t need to. I know what he wants. My reply is a shake of the head and an apology, by this point an automatic reflex, my answer to all of the pan-handlers. Shake and apologise. Shake and apologise. Like I’m sorry.

But I’m not sorry, not really.

As I walk away the man mutters under his breath “fucking asshole.” I walk a little faster.

When I reach the end of the street I turn back to glance at the man, only to find myself walking into another. He wears a business suit and talks into his iPhone. He glares at me, continuing his own walk, muttering those same words “fucking asshole.”

Just as suddenly as we found ourselves in the Downtown Eastside, we have escaped. Skyscrapers shoot upwards piercing the clouds. Men and women hurry along, talking into their phones, sipping their Starbucks coffees, eating their croissants. Everybody has a place to be, some cubicle, on some floor, in some building. They jump off their buses and trains, scurrying like ants towards their buildings. More routines. More lives. So different from those lives a few streets away.

Eventually I find myself in my own cubicle, on my own floor.  I wish I could say my journey ends there, but it doesn’t. I sit, staring out of my window at the street below where another man, almost dressed in rags, holds a cup. He waves it at the business people passing by. Some shake their heads. Most ignore him as though he’s invisible. Nobody gives him any money.

For ten minutes he waves his cup. With each passing minute the feeling in the pit of my stomach grows. The man gives up, leaves. But the feeling doesn’t leave with him. It continues to grow. It comes back stronger every time I walk to work.

Now this is a feeling so complex that I struggle to describe it. Some emotions are easy to explain, we can justify them with some real world evidence, or a little psychological analysis, but this emotion is so intricate that no matter how much I search myself for an answer to its riddles, I can never really conclude anything.

The feeling is a cocktail of guilt, anger, hopelessness, compassion, fear, pity, apathy, frustration and confusion. A mixture of emotions for the mixture of thoughts that pass through my head when I’m honest with myself. When I’m really being honest.

Let me start to be honest:

I’ve also started to ignore the homeless.

It’s all I can do to keep myself sane. I see people on the streets desperate for help and I turn the other way. I’ve seen teenage girls turning tricks and pretended they didn’t exist. I’ve seen half-starving men begging for help and I’ve not even sighed. Just walked on by. Shaking my head, apologising.

Yet, no. I’m not being honest. Not at all. Ignoring these people isn’t even the start of it. I’ve not only started to ignore the homeless but I’ve started to think of them as…well…not human.

The world of the homeless is so far from my own, that there’s no human connection for me to make. I can’t (or wont) empathise with the homeless at all. Not because I’m some massive sociopath, but simply because that’s the easiest way I’ve found of dealing with this strange situation which I can’t understand. I’ve fooled myself into thinking there is no connection between their world and mine. That we aren’t just different people, but a different species. I’m in denial. These people aren’t people, so why should it matter if they suffer to me?

One day as I was walking home, an old Japanese man tried to stop me, I just continued to walk, but he called “EXCUSE ME!” so loudly that I finally had to stop in my tracks. The old man looked up at me, and politely asked the way to the train station. Although the whole exchange only took a matter of seconds, it showed me how mistrustful I had become of people on the street. All people. I’ve become prejudice. Judging people not on who they actually are, but on how they look, or how they act.

Oh. I want to be honest. With myself and with you. I am not a perfect person, nobody is, but I’ve always felt that I was somehow good inside. I always thought that if I saw somebody collapse on the street that I would stop to help, but I’m starting to think that isn’t true. I’m instead starting to think I’m the type of person that would instead keep walking, pretending they saw nothing and fighting back the remorse with the words “somebody else will take care of it.”

Those words are the words that most people in Vancouver must use to sleep at night. “Somebody else will take care of it.” One person ignoring the homeless isn’t a problem, but the majority of the city ignoring it – hoping that something will magically sort it out? Pretending there is no problem. That’s a problem. It scares me shitless. Living in a society where everybody is completely in denial about what is around them.

Still. I try to be honest. Because I feel like honesty is the one thing that can save me. Admitting my faults is the first step towards slowly changing things for the better. Maybe all we need to do is change a little. But I feel that admitting I’m wrong is the smallest step, and every step afterwards is harder, and no matter how many steps I take it wont matter, because no matter how much I change, the world wont change with me.

There’s a hopelessness I feel, knowing I can do almost nothing about this situation. One less person ignoring the problem means nothing if everybody else in the world is pretending nothing is wrong.

People find it so hard to admit they’re wrong. Why can’t we all just say: Yeah, we’ve fucked up, there are people in our city, our community that need our help and we’re turning a blind eye and it’s time to change that.

Maybe it just takes too much courage, to stand up and admit to yourself that you’re not as good a person as you’d like to believe. Maybe it’s just too easy to live in denial, to stay at home in your nice warm house and think “yeah, I donated a little to charity this year, they’ll sort it out…I’m doing my bit.” But all the money in the world can’t solve a problem that’s being ignored.

My dad has a saying he always uses. When it’s especially cold outside he’ll shiver and say “I’d hate to be homeless tonight.” At no point in saying this does he actually consider the words. The implication –  that there’s another human being out there on the streets possibly freezing to death. Instead it’s just a thing he says, never really caring to ponder the full meaning. We all do it.

I feel like I might be coming off as high and mighty. But that’s not my motive. I don’t know what my motive is. When I write, and when I think, I try to come up with some reasonable conclusion. I try to find out why things are as they are. I try to understand.

This time though, I can never understand. No matter how much I search. Why we do what we do. Why we are what we are.

I used to think that the homeless just made a wrong decision at some point. That I could so easily have made the same decision, that I could have ended up in their shoes. I used to think that it was nobody’s fault, that some people just fall through the cracks and we can’t pull them back out again.

But that’s not it. Not it at all. I want to be honest. Those people fall, and they scream. They cry for help and we hear their calls. Yet we ignore them. And we wont pull them back out again.

No matter how loud they scream. We wont pull them back out again.

We just shake our heads and apologise.

____________________
Photo is Cherry Blossom by kiuko on Flickr.

Tasting Garlic Ice Cream


As soon as I heard that there was an ice cream parlour in Vancouver that sold garlic ice cream, I knew I had to go. I’m pretty adventurous in my tastes, and I love to try new crazy foods – even if they do sound disgusting – so off I hopped to La Casa Gelato with a spring in my step.

If Willy Wonka ever decided to expand his candy business to ice cream, he’d have a tough time competing with this place. Upon entering, I let out an immediate groan. There before me were an amazing 218 different flavours of ice cream, all lined up in a row. Some people might think this is a good thing, but personally I think so much choice is a bad thing. It means going through the horrible process of deciding what you want. Who the hell likes deciding stuff?

Often I’ll end up spending 20 minutes looking at a menu in a restaurant, staring at a number of choices, wishing I was a cow with multiple stomachs. “Should I have the steak…or the hamburger. Hmmm. I’ll have the hamburger. But…but…the steak looks sooo good. Ok, I’ll have the steak….but what if that hamburger is juicy and tasty? Ok. I’ll have the hamburger…” Usually, I can never actually decide and I instead have to flip a coin. This is never fool-proof though, and often I’ll still end up changing my mind again. And again. And again. As I said – who the hell likes deciding?

So there I am, trying to decide, strolling along the many flavours (and I mean strolled, 218 flavours in a line last for about half a mile!) noting down the most interesting varieties, trying to make my decision.

First there were the classics of the ice cream world, your Strawberries and Vanillas. Then there were the more modern flavours, your Rocky Roads and Cookie Doughs. After that there were what I’d like to refer to as the “awesome flavours”, the types that make you shout “OH MY GOD! YOU PUT NUTELLA INTO ICE CREAM! I LOVE YOU!” These would be your Nutellas (obviously) and, your Candy Canes.

Then there’s the disturbed ice creams. The types that were clearly thought up by some deranged psychopath, hell bent on making you vomit. The types of ice cream that could barely even be considered ice cream to a sane individual. I’m not lying to you when I say I saw the following flavours: Cheddar Cheese and Apple (really!), Pear and Gorgonzola (honest!), Jalapeno (no lying!), Bacon (seriously!), Dog Poo (ok, that’s a lie). Then, one of my personal favourites. Corn. Yup. Corn. Not Corn and Strawberry. Not Corn and Vanilla. Just Corn. Good old reliable Corn in ice cream… yum.

But let’s not forget the tastiest ice cream of all: Garlic.

With my heart set on the smelly stuff already, my decision was easy. But I also had to decide on a second flavour. Something that complemented Garlic. Hmmm. Strawberry and Garlic? Nope. Liquorice and Garlic? Bleurgh! Corn and Garlic?! Tempting…but…no thanks.

I ran along the flavours, trying desperately to find something to complement Garlic. Then I saw it. Right there in front of me, glistening in the sun. Pineapple. Good old reliable Pineapple. Pineapple goes with EVERYTHING. Pizzas, curries, desserts – pineapple is everywhere. I’d hit the jackpot here. The perfect flavour combination.

With a smile on my face I strutted over to the girl behind the counter. “I’ll have a scoop of Garlic and a scoop of Pineapple, please.” The girl gave me an evil smile. The type of grin that lets you know there’s a joke that you’re not in on. I should have known then that I was in trouble, but I’m never one to back down, so I paid up and she started to scoop my ice cream.

First she placed a scoop of Pineapple on the cone. Then she moved onto the Garlic. The tub was almost entirely full. “It’s probably so full because so many people buy it and you need to replace it all the time, because it’s delicious, right?” I exclaimed. The girl simply replied with her grin, before handing me the ice cream. “Enjoy” she said before cackling wildly into the air. I cowered from the shop, a little scared and as I left I’m pretty sure I saw her turn into a bat. (Which was weird, I thought, why would vampires be selling garlic ice cream?)

As I exited the shop, I realised the time to taste my glorious concoction was at hand. I brought my tongue up to the garlic ice cream, closing my eyes to increase my sense of taste. In slow motion, the creamy scoop touched my tongue and it was then, that I knew.

I had been duped

It tasted DISGUSTING. Imagine, if you will, that you are licking a giant wet garlic clove! Not the most tasty of things, I assure you. It tastes almost like a sweaty shoe (which funnily enough is the next flavour they’re going to make…)

Realisation quick set in, I was just another stupid tourist. Trying disgusting foods, just to say I’ve tried them! I felt pathetic. But that’s ok, I thought, the pineapple will still be enjoyable. But no, I’d been duped again! Now I knew, why the girl grinned so evilly. Now I knew the joke. To get to the pineapple, I had to make my way through the entire scoop of garlic. I cringed my way through it, belittling myself for being such a moron.

Thankfully the pineapple ice cream was almost good enough to make up for the punishment. But all day afterwards the smelly taste of garlic lingered in my mouth, reminding me that sometimes you shouldn’t do things for the sake of doing them. Especially if you know you wont like them. And especially if they take a whole packet of Tic Tacs to relieve.

Dealing With Culture Shock

Train arriving at Cairo's Sadat station

To visit a country is only to skim the surface.

You can never truly grasp a place in a few days. Sometimes understanding can take months, even years. When visiting a new country, the differences are something you appreciate, the differences are why you’re there, they’re part of the experience, you may even say they are the experience. Staring at the queer fruits and vegetables in a market you say, “Wow, we don’t get these back home!” It excites you. Everything excites you. The voices, the people, the food, the streets, the sky, the mountains. Everything.

Later, you leave, go back to the comfort of your own fruits and vegetables. Back to your own voices, your own people. Back home, to what you know and love. Back to comfort.

Culture shock happens when you try to change that home, even temporarily. When you try to make a transition between the new life you’ve started and the old life you’ve left behind. You can visit a country for a week and believe it’s the greatest place on earth. You can stay another week and the cracks might start to form. You can stay for a month and you’ll go crazy.

Those fruits and vegetables that were once so exciting fill you with resentment. Your mind struggles with the way things work in this new place. You don’t know the new systems. The magic has worn off. Nothing excites you. Everything around you is just a reminder of your old home, everything you are used to. You miss the way things were. You miss your familiar life. You miss your fruits and vegetables. You’re homesick.

In the past I worked with the notion that culture shock didn’t exist when going to a country much like your own. I’ve been to America a few times. People spoke the same language, ate the same vegetables and acted in much the same way. Their culture is the same, I thought. But, I was naive.

A culture is more than what’s on the surface, a culture runs deep. Even when the language is the same, the systems are different.

Chances are you’ve never noticed there are systems at all. Everything around you has always been there, you’ve lived in a place so long that you subconsciously know how things work. You instinctively know what to do in any situation. You understand your world.

Culture shock is understanding nothing. It’s being blind in a world where everybody around you can see. Life becomes a challenge. Riding the bus becomes a scary experience. How do you pay the driver? How do you queue? How do you get off the bus? How do you stop the bus (do you put your hand out, or does it just stop?) Everyday situations, in a new country, become obstacles, something you must overcome.

When you are faced with hundreds of new challenges each day, when buying a pint of milk becomes a task which you must consciously think about, that’s when you get frustrated, and culture shock sets in. But you can learn.

Here’s a skill you probably take for granted. If you have coins in your pocket, you can look at them in your hand and within a moment you will know roughly how much money you have. It’s something you’ve learnt at one point or another, but you never think about it. It’s almost always been there. But you must learn it again. You have to learn it all again.

The easiest way to get from A to B, where to go if you need toothpaste, who to ring if your car breaks down, what brand of tea is best to drink, where to go if you break your tooth, how to haggle at the local market.

Guides can tell you where to go, maps can show you how to get there. But there is no map to use for living. The smallest details are the most important and those are the details people never mention, because they never seem noticeable. But you will learn.

Some things come quickly – learning how to cross the street, mastering the bus, finding out how much those coins are worth. Other things come slowly – learning to talk like the locals, mastering your routine, finding out how to cook with those crazy fruits and vegetables.

Eventually though, there’s nothing more to learn. Life is no longer a challenge. Every little skill you’ve mastered is pushed back into your subconscious. You can look at the money in your hand and know what you have. You can feel comfortable knowing where you are.

Home.

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Photo is “Train arriving at Cairo’s Sadat station” by modenadude. Published under the Creative Commons license.

I Was A Superhero

For the past 6 months I have been leading a secret double life. I am a superhero.

I wake in the early hours of the morning, while the world sleeps, while evil stirs. I stand before my mirror, slip on my costume – a sleek fitted red shirt, blue tights, a cape. I stretch my muscles, ready to roam the streets.

My super-powers?

The power to make dogs go wild on sight. The power to make small children jump up and down with delight. The power to quietly sneak onto private property with stealth. The power of above average-health.

My friends know me as Daniel Baird. But when I suit up, when I put on that red shirt. When I don that cape. I am no longer Daniel Baird. I am no longer weak – I gain the strength of at least TWO 9 year old boys. I am no longer an idiot – I gain intelligence at least comparable to that of a dolphin. I become my alter-ego. I become…

Postman

Do you need a letter delivered apathetically by somebody that doesn’t give a damn? Postman is there!! Do you need a large package delivered sometime between 7am and 5pm, but probably at the exact moment you step into the shower? Postman is there!! Do you need somebody to wake you up at 8am on a Saturday morning because a packet wont fit through your letter box? Do you need junk mail? Shopping catalogues? Pizza menus? Do you need a torn birthday card? Postman is there!!

Whether rain, snow, heat or gale. Postman is there!!

Or rather. I would have been there, because eventually reality set in. I realised I wasn’t a superhero. I wasn’t Postman (upper-case “P”), I was a postman (lower-case “P”). I didn’t have any super powers. I didn’t have a costume. I had an uninspiring job delivering mail.

The word uninspiring is apt. Inspiration has to come from somewhere, and posting mail through doors for 4 hours each day isn’t that somwhere. Monotony destroys creativity. The more monotonous your life, the less your need to think. The less you think, the more challenging it becomes to do those things that require thinking. Thinking becomes tough.

From the moment I started the job I stopped thinking. My enthusiasm for pretty much everything started to wane. I was Lazyman. My superpower was laziness. I didn’t want to get out of bed, I didn’t want to go out with friends, I stopped doing all of the enjoyable things I liked to do. I didn’t read a book in months. My attention span was at an all time low. My energy was gone.

I only had enough energy for miniscule tasks, like posting mail. Anything else was too much, making a full meal was too much, I ate nothing but sandwiches for months. I didn’t think all day at work, so my mind wasn’t ready to think afterwards. Worst of all I stopped writing – you possibly noticed – because writing was too taxing, too much work. I became a zombie. I clicked into my routine, my life was barely conscious. I would drift to work, drift through my day, drift home, drift to sleep. Everything I did was subconscious. My life was a one without thought.

Then one day I ran out of elastic [rubber] bands.

Rubber Bands

To a postman, the elastic band is more than a simple piece of stationery. Each day the Royal Mail goes through 2 million red elastic bands, all used to bundle up mail. But despite this they are still a rare commodity. Postal workers hoard the bands in secret stashes to ensure there’s always a steady supply so that they never run out. I started my own stash. Elastic bands became valuable to me. I always had one eye on my bands. I started to cup them in my hands and purr the words “my preciousssss.” Until the day I snapped too many and I ran out.

Now the only way to get more elastic bands if you’re a postman, is to steal them off somebody else. While a co-worker is away from his desk, you need to sneak over, grab as many bands from his stash as possible, then run back to your own desk.

It was still early in my elastic band stealing career. I didn’t know the tricks. So I watched as a co-worker beside me walked away from his own fitting. I snuck over. I quickly started to search for his bands, and when I couldn’t see any in immediate sight I started to deepen my investigation. Each desk had one drawer, I opened his and started to rifling through it, finally finding the treasure: hidden under a piece of paper, the largest collection of elastic bands in the world. I wanted to jump into the bands and swim in them. But no time! I filled my hands as quickly as possible, then I heard a loud voice behind me.

“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING!?”

I turned around. My co-worker was standing in front of me, a thin middle-aged man with thick glasses and a buzz cut. The type of guy that looks like he was once in the army but got kicked out for being too crazy (which is pretty crazy). He pushed himself right up into my face. I was scared and I fumbled an excuse “I – um, I just, I needed some elastic bands…” He sneered at me “WELL YOU’RE NOT TAKING ANY ELASTIC BANDS OFF MY FUCKING DESK! THOSE ARE MY FUCKING ELASTIC BANDS! FIND YOUR OWN ELASTIC BANDS SOMEWHERE ELSE! YOU’RE NOT HAVING MINE!!!”

I squeaked an apology, putting the bands back on his desk and slumping away. For a few moments I filled completely with rage. I swore at my co-worker in my mind. Why should he have all the fucking elastic bands? What the fuck was I supposed to do? Why did he have to be so fucking mean? Fuck him. I called him everything I could think of. Fucking this, fucking that.

Then I caught myself in the anger, a short moment of self-realisation. I was shocked at what I could see. My life had degenerated to the point that I was feeling genuine, deep anger over elastic bands. I started to laugh to myself. The whole thing was absurd. They were just elastic bands.

I realised I was no longer in control of myself, I had subconsciously just become like everybody around me. Not focusing or thinking. I was becoming petty, mean and angry about insignificant things. Soon I wouldn’t want to share my own bands. My preciouses.

As the days went by I started to really look around me at my co-workers. I realised that the longer they had been working there, the more they had lost sight of reality. They no longer knew what was and wasn’t of importance. They had stopped thinking of elastic bands as something to tie up mail. They thought of these little pieces of rubber as a sign of power and authority. If you had the most bands, if you could protect your bands against everybody else, then you had some small piece of power. Nobody else.

None of this was conscious, no thinking was involved, it just happened. Like the children in Lord of the Flies, we didn’t become crazed elastic band hoarders overnight. It was gradual. Slowly creeping onto you until it seemed like normal behaviour.

I have seen grown men swear, out-loud, in a rage, because somebody else has told them they have to deliver one more package. I have seen postmen throwing packages against the wall because their elastic bands kept snapping. I have seen men – actual adults, with children – almost get into fist fights over having to deliver a few more letters. And I have seen how the majority of people I was working with thought this was all normal behaviour, I even thought it was normal behaviour myself for a while.

But it’s only normal when you don’t think about it, when you lose your life to a sub-conscious routine. When you no see the world rationally, and you give importance to unimportant things, like elastic bands.

Millions of people do this their whole life. Drift through life subconsciously. Never thinking. Never knowing they aren’t thinking. Losing sight of so many important things. Becoming attached to so many insignificant things without knowing why.

Then one day they hang up their cape. They look around them. They look at themselves. They wonder why those rubber bands were so important. And they quit.

_______________________

Photo 1 is titled Now All I need is a Cape by Zach Disner on Flickr.
Photo 2 is titled Rubber Bands by mattscoggin on Flickr.

A Hoodlum Spat In My Face

Yesterday a stranger spat in my face. Literally, not metaphorically.

I was sitting with a friend at the time – waiting for the bus – when a group of hoodlums walked by. One of these ruffians turned to me, shouted the word “BISCUITS” and spat in my face.

I don’t know why he shouted “BISCUITS”, possibly because he knew that I would go back to this word in an attempt to find some meaning within it. Perhaps he knew that word would keep me up at night, constantly questioning me, forever making me wonder “Why?! Why did he say biscuits?! What does it all mean?!”

Immediately after the spittle hit my face, I felt nothing. I did not feel angry or sad, just apathetic. I was apathetic, precisely because the entire scene didn’t mean anything. He didn’t do it for any reason I could fathom and without a reason, how could I have a reaction?

Later, I searched for meaning, part of me wishing that there was a little drama to the event. That I had somehow wronged this man in some way. That we were part of some tragic Shakespearen tale. I’m not completely against spitting if the scene calls for it. If the spitter minces their way over dramatically, shouting the words “I spit on thee and thy house for the wrongs thou hath done me *hawk-spit*” At least that spitting means something. Spitting in disgust. But I’m not disgusting. Give me some meaning if you’re going to spit on me dammit!

But NO, this spit meant nothing. Not spitting for feminism, or spitting for socialism. Just spitting for the sake of it.  What a waste of spit. Spit that was on my face. Spit that I barely cared enough about to wipe away.

Yet, I must confess, I am perhaps being a little misleading. When I say he spat on me, I know what you’re thinking:

You’re thinking it was in slow-motion. (Such things always happen in slow-motion.) A weasel-looking youth, with a small moustache, looking down on me with a crafty flash in his eyes.

You’re thinking of the sound he made as he built up the spit. A low rumble of phlegm in the throat.

You’re thinking of the quick instant when he shot the saliva out of his mouth. You’re thinking that I watched it slowly gliding through the air towards me as I screamed one long “NOOOOOOOOOO!”

You’re thinking the spit hit me on the eyebrow, my head kicking backwards like I’d been hit by a gun. You’re thinking the ruffian smiled slyly in my direction, so happy with all he’d accomplished.

But let me tell you, you’re thinking is wrong.

It all happened so quickly that I barely had time to realise it was happening. It wasn’t slow-motion, it was fast-motion. Suddenly this man was in front of me, he was shouting “BISCUITS!”, he was spitting.

And the spit was weak. There was no conviction behind it. It was apathetic spit. It was spit that said “meh, I don’t really feel like doing this, but I’ve got to.” It was like the piece of homework you leave until the night before deadline. Lousy, half-hearted and lazy. Just plain rubbish. I was the teacher that received that lousy homework, shaking my head and thinking “come on now, we both know you can do better than this! You’re underachieving. You’ll never make anything of yourself if you go through life like this.”

There was no build up of phlegm, there was no force behind the release. In fact, the lousy little shit didn’t even have the common decency to open his mouth! He instead spat through his lips. It was half spit, half accidental raspberry. His spit dispersed into a number of minute, micro-spittles. It was like when somebody tells you a funny joke, just at the moment you’ve taken a swig of cola. We’ve all been there right? The instinctive laugh that we try to hold in at the last second, which shoots a mist of cola onto our friend. (Or in my case, laptop, because I have no friends.)

That’s how his spit was. A short, shallow mist. If spitting were a sport, then my grandma could have beaten this guy. When the spit hit me I was barely aware that it actually had. When my friend asked seconds later “did that guy just spit on you?” I suddenly started to wonder whether he actually had or not. Had he just spat on me? I felt like running down the street after him. “Erm, excuse me, sorry to bother you, I was just wondering… did you spit on me back there? Just, I’m not sure if you did, which means I don’t really know how to feel about the whole thing. Oh. Oh, right. Oh, you did just spit on me. My mistake. Didn’t mean to trouble you. Oh, wait. Wait, wait, wait! Just one more question before you leave. Uh, soooo… what was that you were saying about biscuits?”

Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong though. Perhaps his friend had just told him a hilarious, long-winded joke. The type of joke that goes on and on, and is all building up to one, perfect punch-line. A punch-line like “BISCUITS!” Perhaps upon hearing this punch-line the ruffian was forced to also exclaim “BISCUITS!” Because after that long build-up the punch-line was so obvious, but also so hilarious. “BISCUITS! HAHAHAHA! MAN THAT’S GOOD!” But maybe all he could do was exclaim “BISCUITS” before trying to hold in his laugh. And maybe that laugh turned into an inadvertent raspberry of spittle in my direction. Maybe he didn’t spit at me. Maybe he just accidentally spat in my direction. Maybe he felt really bad about it, but he didn’t apologise because, well, that’d have been really awkward, wouldn’t it? Apologising to the stranger you just accidentally spat on. Maybe he was just being polite by not bringing me into an already awkward situation. How kind of him.

Maybe he had a medical condition that prevented him from controlling his lips? Maybe he thought I was on fire and was trying to put me out? Maybe he didn’t like my jacket? Maybe, he spat on me for no reason at all. No no. That can’t be right. Ridiculous! It must have meant something! Surely!

Maybe. Just maybe, I reminded him of one thing. The one thing he hated more than anything else in this rotten world. A thing that had haunted him since the day he’d been born. A thing that chased him down long corridors in his nightmares. A thing that had killed his mother, his father, and his pet goldfish. A thing he feared, but a thing he also one day vowed to destroy:

BISCUITS.

__________________________

Photo titled Hoodlum by carbonnyc.