Korea to the Philippines back to Korea again. Confucian culture to Americanized South East Asia back to good ole Confucius again. Temples and mediation to beaches and barbeques back to ommmm again. You get the idea. When we landed in Manila, we had a few things to un-learn, a few things to re-learn, and a few things to just learn in general. Most of them came as a surprise; we hadn’t realized how set we had gotten in our Korean mannerisms and how different the rest of the world was from this wartime island we now call home.
A delicious sandwich that costs less than $10?! Gimme!
First and most obviously, we had to stop bowing our heads with every encounter. In Korea, it’s just what you do. You give a gentle dip of the head and shoulders as you say hello, goodbye, thank you, your welcome, I-don’t-know-you-but-you’re-looking-at-me-so-I-might-as-well-give-some-recognition-to-this-awkward-moment. The bow is a part of life here. A single movement that bookends all personal encounters. We had forgotten how engrained this had become in our everyday movements and how out-grained it is in the rest of the world.
Without noticing that no one else was doing it, we did this in the Philippines, too. We bowed to the man opening the door for us in Starbucks. Oops. We bowed to the woman who gave us our menus. Darnit. We bowed to the tricycle driver as we stepped out of his sidecar. Crap. We quickly learned this just wasn’t acceptable – we looked funny. For several days, Andre and I had to verbally spank the other as we bowed, a kind of informal cognitive behavioral therapy. And by the end, we were all bowed out to the point we had to consciously get the bow back when we returned. Albert Ellis would have been proud.
Yea, the cocks for cock fighting were definitely something to get used to, too.
Second, we were dumfounded at the amount of English spoken throughout the country and throughout the class structure. Besides the fact that English is everywhere (which makes sense because it is the official language of the Philippines), it isn’t even exclusive to the higher classes, those with the most money who go to school to learn it. Rather, everyone spoke it, some better than others, but all had a general idea of the things necessary to know at least those nuggets of English specific to their job. The number of times Andre and I sat in the back of a taxi listening to our friend talk to our drivers and we looked at each other shaking our heads, our mouths agape, our eyes wide open were countless. Is this what life is like in other countries? You can talk to people? Even if through a language barrier, you can still talk to them? You can tell a taxi driver where you want to go and they understand? If they don’t, you can show them your guidebook and they can read it? What?! It was…beautiful.
What kind of fish is that? Oh right, I can just ask the lady manning the fish stand. Booyah!
The lack of English in Korea is further trumped by the lack of Koreans who understand accents, slight variations of pronunciations, and “pigeon Korean” (“Me milk need”) of their home language. They have had so few people learning their language and so few outsiders in their country in the past that they haven’t worked up a base-knowledge of other interpretations of their language. So, we stand stranded at a crossroads: I don’t understand you, you don’t understand me, we are both trying, we are really trying. 95% of the time we leave conversations feeling frustrated and saddened. “If only we could talk to them,” I think. “If only we could understand…”
Third, tipping: it exists! I had completely forgotten about it considering Koreans not only don’t do tipping, but refuse tipping, even if it’s just to keep the change. So, being in a place where tipping is not only expected but sometimes forced upon you was a little surprising. I’m not going to lie, it’s great not needing to tip. But, that’s not how the world works. Just something to get used to again, I guess. It was fun while it lasted.
Want to be more specific about your Lechon order? Oh right, we can. Because this dude totally speaks English. English FTW!
Fourth, (this one is for the ladies) Asian bathrooms are well-known as being squatty potties, but what I didn’t know was that there are different kinds of squats. In Korea, it’s a oval-shaped hole in the ground that you fold your body over in an irregular Z shape. Fears of bad aim are rampant at these toilets and proof is in the sticky, smelly floors, but when you gotta go, you gotta go. Take what you can get. In the Philippines though, they have toilets just without the lovely seat on top. They also usually have signs saying not to sit on the toilet at all. Well, this is a whole different group of muscles necessary for this squatting. Unfortunately, a whole different group of muscles that I don’t seem to have. Let’s just say, I prefer the Korean hole-in-the-floor squatties. And I’m going to be doing some major squats before our next travels.
We went from zero to sixty and back again in one week’s time. Being in Korea for 11 months left me jolted with the striking differences between Korea and the rest of the world. Those differences now seem so natural to me, even though I still feel like an outsider. Well, that’s Korea for ya.