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December 3, 2010

Some observations following a sudden, unexpected trip home to the UK.

I’ve been in Korea, and successfully built a life there, for such a time and to such an extent that I now experience, upon returning to my homeland, a phenomenon which I can only describe as inverse culture shock. It’s my culture, and I’ve known it for many years, but the sudden reintroduction to it is like a form of social decompression sickness. Familiar accents, expressions and facial features prove instantly distracting. I stepped off a plane yesterday and heard an airport staff member ask an elderly gentlemen, “There’s naebody here tae meet ye, sir?” My god, the novelty of that, I thought, a man in Glasgow with a Glaswegian accent. I forget how to use the chip and PIN payment system in shops and have to fight the urge to launch into a babbling, five-minute explanation to the shop assistant detailing my ex-patriot adventures and the toll it has taken on my capacity to shop at Tesco. I failed to fight that urge the first time I returned home from Korea and found myself chatting over-enthusiastically to the clerk in an over-priced shop that sold snowboarding clothes – “It’s so incredible to be able to talk to you like this!”, I exalted to the staff members behind the desk, before issuing an elaborately polite farewell and exiting the store with a manic grin. That is what I’m trying to resist now. I have to adopt the camouflage of the West of Scotland everyman and so I draw my face into an embittered scowl and mutter small obscenities to myself as I shuffle through the streets.

One of the more jarring aspects of such visits home is the removal of the language barrier as a vital shield against trashy pop culture. In Korea I can ignore or engage with such things on my own terms, in an ironic or not so ironic fashion should I so choose. Here, the torrent of filth engulfs me almost as soon as I step off the plane. British television and British celebrity culture are exhaustingly low, astonishingly crass, and their uncanny ability to rekindle my adolescent misanthropy is something I appear to wilfully forget every time I flee back to East Asia. My loved ones all wear weary frowns and dejected snarls on their faces and I am reminded of exactly what has put them there. It’s like finding yourself trapped, paralysed by fear, in the path of a gigantic dung beetle merrily rolling his massive boulder of shit toward you. There’s no escape, nowhere to run, and that mega-shitball has been so triumphantly assembled that it simply will have the satisfaction of crushing you.

The UK has experienced what some have described as its worst snowfall in 40 years with impassable roads, cancelled rail services, closed schools and many people stuck in their homes costing the country an estimated £1.3 billion per day. It has been fascinating to witness demonstrating, as it does, that British people truly do live in a temperate climate, and perhaps complacently so, as reports of widespread panic buying in supermarkets and petrol stations suggest that heavy snowfall, in a country on a parallel latitude to Russia and Canada, is treated like an extinction level event.

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3 comments

  1. You know, I’ve never pondered the idea that a simple language barrier would be a sufficient shield from that particular type of ennui caused by modern pop culture. Then again, not having cable TV (or even basic network TV) is also a pretty good way to guard yourself. It’s worked for me and Lori. But there are still those days when I’m at a friend’s house watching their TV, or seeing ads in public, etc., and even those small encounters cause me to experience a very mild form of culture shock.

    Hope you enjoy the rest of your time on the home front. I’m going to snag your “massive dung beetle” rolling a massive boulder of [pop-culture] shit” quote and keep it in a safe place. Might illustrate that sometime…


  2. Also, I had no idea that Glasgow accents were referred to as “Glaswegian” until now.


  3. Yep, Glaswegian denoting things “of Glasgow”.

    Sometimes shortened to Weegie, to refer to the people there.



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