I knew it would happen eventually. That I would have “that moment” when everything became too strange. When the honeymoon was over.
It happened within the same amount of time when I was in China. I was in a city just outside Zhangjiajie National Park. It was an odd town to be situated so rural. There were high rise buildings and department stores, pubs and clubs, … and dog meat markets. That was the moment for me. When I turned a corner and all of a sudden I was thrown out of a city and into something completely the opposite. The market was dirty, dogs were split in half hanging from metal frameworks, the stall owners had metal bins next to them containing the contents of their spitting addiction. It was too much.
It was fascinating.
It was too much. I walked back to the hostel. Sat down and chatted online at length to a friend who I knew would laugh it off and tell me to buck up. The next day I went on a two day hike and let off steam. It was fairly easy to get over. Nothing had happened to me, I’d simply overwhelmed my senses.
My Korean culture shock moment was quite different. To start with I wasn’t expecting it to happen on my birthday. My birthday is usually one of the most delightfully uneventful days of the year; smack in the middle of the festive season, no one, not even I, can be bothered celebrating on the 28th of December. Yet there I was, celebrating the end of the year with my company. The dinner was delightful. I had a wonderful time, and I was looking forward to discovering the appeal behind booking out an entire norebang (singing room – aka karaoke house) for the next chapter of the night. It turns out, norebangs and I don’t really suit each other. Especially when everyone around me is too drunk too speak English or even Korean slowly and clearly. Especially when every song is in Korean with a bad 80’s backing track. Especially when it lasts for more than 4 hours.
That was my limit. One of my coworkers asked if I was tired and well… I couldn’t help it… I started to sob. I tried to explain that no, I wasn’t tired, I was overwhelmed. That I was in shock. That my senses couldn’t handle it anymore. The smell of spilled soju and dried fish; the sound of the Korean language and flat vocals; the touch of the tambourine against my hand over and over again to a never wavering beat; the sight of flashing blue lights and semi-naked women on the teleprompter; the taste of the air in such a smoke filled room. It was all just too much. I gained permission from the CEO to leave, and ran home. Before I even made it to my apartment the tears were flowing uncontrollably.
I felt like a failure, but I wasn’t worrying about that. I needed to hear English. Preferably a strong Australian accent. So naturally, I turned to the Hilltop Hoods. I blasted them so loudly that I probably gave the Korean’s culture shock. I let out my frustration, yet I couldn’t stay the tears. Luckily, a close friend of mine was online:
H: I’m feeling massive culture shock tonight.
J: Why? How do they celebrate birthdays in Korea? Do they feed you live octopus and make you dance Gangnam Style? Do they make you play scrabble blindfolded? Do they play Starcraft with your name as a player character name? … Do they make you drink so much you pass out, and then they take a photo of you and put it on the internet?
H: I had to go to the company (the large company that owns the school) end of year party. Everything was great until we went to karaoke. I was fine for the first round of singing, but they started all over again because someone had passed out for the first round… yeah… that much drinking is involved at these things. Everything was in Korean. All the sounds were in Korean! For hours!!! I freaked out a bit. They could tell I was “tired” so I tried to explain… The big boss let me go… you can’t go without his permission. Partying is part of the job. Now I’m at home crying and listening to terrible English music.
J: What do you mean all the sounds were in Korean?
H: Music, conversation, etc.
J: Oh wow, that would be a culture shock.
H: All the tunes sounded like bad eighties hits because of the karaoke backing music.
J: That sounds like a nightmare I had a few nights ago.
H: What happened?
J: I was DJing and all I had were bad 70s/80s hits. Everyone got angry and asked me to play better music but someone had deleted all of my good music and replaced it with ludicrously bad music I’d never heard of before. I just kept on DJing hoping that a song I’d never heard would be ok. It never was. I got booed out of the club and my reputation was left in tatters.
H: That’s exactly what it was like…. for hours. I’m pretty sure we started at around 7pm… and I left at 11pm.
J: You sat through that for 4 hours?
H: Yes I did! To make it worse, there were tambourines and bongos!
J: You’re amazing.
H: Thank you. Yes I am.
J: Even those Guantanamo Bay prisoners caved after 3 hours.
H: I should be a spy.
J: “Sir, it’s been 4 hours. We’ve played 내 인형을 사랑합니다 on repeat and she’s still not broken.” “She is not human.” “She must be…..SUPER HUMAN” DUN DUN DUUUUUN <Cue heroic music>
H: I just made the Superman arms.
I laughed for about 10 minutes. I was definitely in hysterics.
I was made aware of a group of friends out playing “screen golf” for the night. I whacked that ball so hard. I laughed. I chatted. I watched the soccer. Just for a little while I was able to forget that the place I was in was new, exciting and foreign. I let go. I got home at 5am having had one of the most memorable of birthdays, feeling better than I had in days.
I feel so exposed and vulnerable having written this post.
I’ve admitted that I’m not a constant force of optimism; that I’m not always a party animal; that sometimes, I crave the familiar; that sometimes, adventure is the last thing I need to be happy.
I’ve admitted that I’m human, and that sometimes, just for a moment, humanity is too much to bear.