Once upon a time I thought I would take the plunge and do what other young people like me had done and travel the world while teaching English. The most popular destinations were Korea and Japan; you could also make fabulous money teaching in Saudi Arabia as long as you were willing to spend most of your free time – actually, all of it – on the sponsor company’s compound. Being the bookworm that I am, I spent my summer days doing lots of research on potential host schools instead of relaxing with a nice glass of lemonade on the beach and dozing the midday away.
I quickly ran into horror stories told by the participants associated with various programs. Many of them seemed to stem from acting as if they were still in the United States rather than adapting to the local culture. One young man told of trying to cross a busy Seoul street between the back of a car and the front of a bus; the bus driver inched forward so that there was no space between his front bumper and the car’s rear bumper. “I couldn’t cross,” the poor young fellow wrote. “He had an angry look on his face. I think Korean people are mean to foreigners in general.”
Woe betide the party boys and girls who show up drunk for every staff meeting and don’t cross the street using the marked intersections required by law. I wondered to myself whether “james0728” had ever thought to research his destination before heading off in search of good times, a paycheck, and probably a local girlfriend. At the very least, he could have been considerate enough to not generalize the behaviors of an entire nation of people based on the actions of one bus driver who may very well have been sick of seeing all these young American kids crossing the street wherever they pleased without checking for oncoming traffic. Perhaps he had been incensed by the news of American soldiers who had run over two young girls walking home from school in their military vehicle because they weren’t paying attention. Or it could be that a tourist had just gotten on the bus and didn’t pay the fare despite being told several times that this was a requirement for riding the bus. “I don’t speak Korean,” is the common refrain. To which I stick my tongue out and make farting noises.
You don’t need to speak the language to know these things. I’m sure there are more genteel responses. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people in rather dire circumstances for whom (most of them, anyways) the fear of strangers is washed away by the presence of an invincible superhero armed with bee magic. If the world weren’t in the throes of a global filth epidemic I’m sure there’d be more time to think about all the cultural differences that exist the second someone who doesn’t look like me and doesn’t speak my language shows up. Filth: the ties that bind us.
At the very least, though, I’ve researched my mission destinations well enough to behave in a way that is understood by the locals. I typically don’t stick around long enough to become fluent in the language beyond conversational basics. I didn’t have to worry about this when I met with Inbeda, head of the House in Exile – demons who got kicked out of hell – and communicated with him in his bathhouse resort through an ancient mask that was fluent in every language ever. He had a penchant for human females and told me several times that he wouldn’t mind at all if I wanted to remove my clothes and relax in the onsen. He (it?) even offered to scrub my back for me. No xenophobia there, not even between species.
When I returned to Gozen to deliver the mission’s tangibles, I touched my right arm lightly with my left hand as a gesture of respect I had picked up in Korea – elders are given items with both hands. As I did so, I thought back to a time when I had been invited to my friend Thuyên’s house for breakfast. They were having bún riêu, a popular morning meal, and I was asked to help serve. I had inquired about the ages of the relatives present beforehand and made sure to serve the person with the most seniority within the various birth orders that were present in the extended family. I didn’t need to be familiar with the multiplicity of Vietnamese terms for the myriad aunts and uncles that were there – I just needed to know who was number one, number two, etc. Never mind that among my relatives we’re much more liberal about these things. It wasn’t relevant in the context. What was relevant? Research. (Do I sound like a nerd?)
It’s the sum of all these small things that would have made life less difficult for people like james0728 and his compatriots. He might have even come to the realization – if he had put enough effort into thinking about it – that for every apparent cultural difference, there’s usually a similarity that goes unnoticed because we’re too wrapped up in cultural exoticism. “Write a paper on all the differences between North Korea and South Korea!” says the young Californian English teacher to his South Korean student. The student groans after the phone is hung up and dutifully writes a laundry list of everything he can come up with to satiate his instructor’s lust for information on the “hermit kingdom.”
You know what they have in common, though? They have the same blood. Same with me and my Taiwanese friend Ting Ting. That one’s pretty important. That’s why when I go into these places expecting the unfamiliar, I’m already armed with something that’s only slightly less important than my sword and my assault rifle: knowledge of what’s expected, and the places where our seemingly vastly different behaviors find common ground in the shared experience of being human.