Experiencing reverse culture shock in Canada

Written by on August 1, 2013 in Korea Abroad
The start of my journey, at Incheon Airport.

The start of my journey, at Incheon Airport, where reverse culture shock already kicked in.

Returning to Canada last month, I anticipated feelings of culture shock, and I kept track of my encounters with culture shock in my own hometown.

Culture shock is a condition of disorientation or total detachment brought on by exposure to an unfamiliar culture; reverse culture shock is when you return to your home culture and experience the same reaction to what was once familiar. When you’re abroad, you may develop an idealised image of home which doesn’t match the reality, either through the imperfections of memory or changes at home. Also, you may have acclimatised to the locals wherever you were staying abroad (in my case, of course, Korea), so when coming home, now all your family and childhood friends may feel alien.

I decided to keep a close watch on these feelings, what specifically triggers them and how feelings of reverse culture shock manifest. With these observations, I could learn more about not only myself but also my lifestyle in Korea.

I’ve already been back for visits twice from Korea, and I can still recall coming home after my first trip in 1996. Back then, everyone got really sick of me talking about Korea all the time, one of the more obvious causes of reverse culture shock. But this time, Canadians’ curiosity about Korea was still elevated due to North Korea’s threats and yes, still Psy’s music video (I had to hear a half dozen different terrible pronunciations of “Gangnam”).

I’d been expecting certain feelings, some which did materialise, but others were completely unexpected. So, here are some of the issues I had visiting Canada last month, many which you may also possibly experience if you’re in my situation.

From Seoul (below) to Edmonton (above).

From Seoul (below) to Edmonton (above).

Everyone looks the same

You always hear non-Asians who aren’t very experienced travellers whining that all Asians look the same. I’ve gotten used to the type of diversity you find in Korea, but when I went back home it felt harder to tell people apart. I would look at one person who was a stranger and I would recognise someone else in their features. This one started as soon as I got on the plane. I thought I saw an old friend on the plane who would’ve had no business being there, and I even called out “Matt?” Now I kind of understand Koreans when they tell me I look like Tom Cruise.

This continued only for the first couple days, maybe caused by my anticipation of reconnecting with old friends again. Even when it was clear that this person was not my old friend or high school classmate I haven’t thought of in over a decade, I would still form an barely conscious association.

I think this feeling cleared up after a few actual reunions with people I genuinely remembered.

Also, what's with all the foreigners? Am I in Itaewon?

Also, what’s with all the foreigners? Am I in Itaewon?


It’s so flat

As my plane banked to approach Edmonton International Airport, I was overwhelmed by how flat the land was below me, and how rural it all looked. And then I realised we were passing directly over the heart of the city. From my plane window I was able to see the better part of the city.

Looking down on the heart of Edmonton, you can see Whyte Avenue directly below, just to the right of the wing, and downtown Edmonton to the right. The University of Alberta is a little more upwards, contained in that one bend in the river.

Looking down on the heart of Edmonton, you can see Whyte Avenue directly below, just to the right of the wing, and downtown Edmonton to the right. The University of Alberta is a little more upwards, contained in that one bend in the river. The Butterdome, that yellow block, was how I first recognised where we were.

Edmonton  isn’t quite as in-your-face as it is in Seoul. In Seoul you can always see buildings and mountains and it orients you, gives you a spatial relationship with the city. Due to Edmonton’s prairie terrain, as well as the lack of tall buildings, the scope of city you can see is much, much smaller. You can’t see any mountains and you can’t see any taller buildings in the distance. Most of the time, all you can see are the houses and buildings immediately in your surroundings. What’s behind them? It’s kind of hard to tell.

Having lived in Seoul for the better part of a decade, I’m used to things being a lot more vertical. While in Edmonton I often found it hard to remember that I was in a city, and it left me feeling isolated. Sometimes it didn’t feel real at all, like I was visiting the set of a movie or TV show I was familiar with, or a reconstruction of a city I used to live in.

Sick of the flatness, I spent a lot of time in the River Valley, a large valley park running through the center of the city along both sides of the North Saskatchewan River. It offers nature, forests, and well-maintained paths for hikers and cyclists, and breaks up the landscape from the monotony of the prairies. It reminded me of the many mountain peaks of Seoul, but instead of starting at the bottom and hiking up, you start at the top, go down, and then have to hike up at the end. Once I had a pleasant conversation with a guy I met in the River Valley, and I had a bit of a surprise when he referred to it as “urban” even though from where we were we couldn’t see very many buildings at all.

Yes, this is considered "urban" in Edmonton, despite being more rural than what passes for rural in Korea.

Yes, this is considered “urban” in Edmonton, despite being more rural than what passes for rural in Korea. But at least it isn’t flat.

Urban sprawl

Edmonton is a fairly large city in its own right. It’s Canada’s sixth-largest city with a population of 1.16 million, and it’s actually larger in land area than Seoul (684.37 square kilometers  to 605.21 square kilometers), despite having roughly a tenth the population. The difference is, one is a super-dense urban metropolis and the other is sprawling suburbs with a small downtown core.

Due to a housing shortage, the city has been expanding quickly outwards, and on a drive through the outskirts of the city I saw many more suburban projects ready to pop up out of the ground, with the same flawed urban planning strategy that’s led to this massive urban sprawl intact. The houses on the outskirts are big, sure, but they’re aesthetically offensive and soul-crushingly uniform. It’s strange going out there, seeing where people expect to live so distant from everything. On first coming to Korea I’d look at the tall, thin highrises and wonder how people could live in them; now I’ve completely flipped around and now wonder how anyone could live like this.

This picture was taken from an overpass on the northern limit of the city, looking south all the way toward the distant downtown core.

This picture was taken from an overpass on the northern limit of the city, looking south all the way toward the distant downtown core. Pretty much nothing but suburbs all the way in.

I see that many Edmontonians are also bothered by the direction of suburban urban development, and an interesting campaign has been started to create a Zombie Wall around the city, “the rationale being that a more compact, densely built city is more easily defended, and maintained, than one that is sprawling.”

Sounds crazy, but here are the very rational questions they address:

How will YOU support the development of communities as opposed to new neighbourhoods?
How will YOU encourage infill development and curb urban sprawl?
How will YOU encourage transit ridership, bicycle ridership and walkable neighbourhoods?
How will YOU support locally owned businesses, locally grown food and locally made goods?
How will YOU support downtown vibrancy?

I solved most of those problems by returning to Seoul.

Dependence on cars

Living in Edmonton, you’re dependent on cars. If you don’t drive, you rely on people to drive you around. Public transportation isn’t much of an option unless you’re central, and taxis are extremely expensive even to go a couple blocks. Due to the extreme urban sprawl, living in the suburbs is extremely inconvenient, with residential and commercial zones isolated from each other. From my parents’ home, it’s at least a 15-minute walk to the nearest convenience store and the nearest restaurant (they’re both in the same mini mall).

Compare that to Seoul where the nearest convenience store from my apartment is less than a minute away, and the second nearest is just across the street, and you’re always surrounded by restaurants.

In Edmonton at times I felt like a prisoner trapped in whatever part of town I was in.

About the nicest thing I can say about Edmonton's public transportation is that it's never crowded compared to Seoul.

About the nicest thing I can say about Edmonton’s public transportation is that it’s never crowded compared to Seoul.

Unfamiliarity with streets

Probably due to the lack of high-visibility landmarks, Edmonton has an efficient address system. You can see how the streets and avenues are laid out in a neat grid, only disrupted by the topography. And it’s great because if you have an address you can find anything (provided you’re driving).

But during my stay, I was totally alienated by this system. People would talk about “24th Street” or “ninth” as if they were places with distinct character, but to me they were just numbers, with all the destinations we visited just arbitrarily spread out throughout the city with little connection to each other. Hearing them spoken of but not having any great feelings for them made me feel like an outsider, but a little worse because they probably once all conjured images in my head. It also kind of reminded me of that recurring Saturday Night Live sketch “The Californians.”

And the places in Edmonton which have more character, most notably Whyte Avenue (which I would compare to a smaller version of Hongdae), are oriented to long, straight roadways. In contrast, in Seoul culture radiates in all directions in places like Hongdae and Gangnam and Itaewon, which are all mazes of roads and alleys and pedestrian paths. It may be confusing to get around in, but it fosters interesting communities.

Whyte Ave is the part of Edmonton with the most character, though it too is situated along a road and its influence doesn't extend that far to either side (unless you count parking and roving drunks).

What I would consider the Hongdae of Edmonton, Whyte Ave is the part of the city with the most character, though it too is situated along a road and its influence doesn’t extend that far to either side (unless you count parking and roving drunks).

No umbrellas in the rain

I happened to be in Edmonton while it was going through an uncharacteristic rainy season, and I don’t recall ever seeing anyone with an umbrella. It rained every day I was there, and on the day I met up with a war veteran for an interview, there was a tornado warning for the city. As I type this now, half the province is underwater after serious flooding. But how I observed people reacting to the rain was totally contrary to what I’d survived in Korea’s rainy seasons (especially that particularly awful one in 2011).

If it was raining, people would just tolerate it until it went away. I even saw one woman pushing a baby carriage without any rain protection during a light rain shortly after the tornado warning had been moved north.

Edmontonians during a tornado warning.

Edmontonians during a tornado warning.

It weirded me out because I’m used to torrential rain, having to worry about carrying an umbrella, getting my shoes and even my scooter ruined, and having plans cancelled.

Koreans have a belief that rain will make you go bald. This could be pure superstition, or it could be common sense due to living downwind of China. There certainly is a cause for concern about acid rain in Seoul, but in Edmonton I suspect this would sound like lunacy or superstition.

Another obvious reason that Canadians don’t carry umbrellas when rain is forecasted is that we spend less time outside. During the tornado warning, we got into the car in the garage and drove to the mall, where I had to walk ten meters outdoors through the rain. The only time spent actually outside was going between the car and a building. In Korea, you spend time walking to the store, walking to the bus stop, walking to the subway station. Even if you drive, you’re likely going to be walking outside to your car.

Also, we had an unusually high number of sun showers, in which it would be raining but you could see the sunlight or see clear patches of sky in the clouds. I attribute this to the previous point: you see a whole lot less land in the prairies, but a whole lot more sky than you do in Korea.

It's dry over here, but raining way over there.

It’s dry over here, but raining way over there.


Art in the washroom

It was nice having access to a bathtub again, but my mom quickly pointed out that I had to keep the washroom fan on all the time, or the humidity will ruin the painting hanging in there. Hold on, art in the washroom?

I guess it’s made possible by that fan, as well as shower curtains, let alone having an actual bathtub, but still. Who hangs a painting next to a toilet? There was even a discussion at one point about finding a frame for one of the washroom paintings. All of this just feels fundamentally wrong to me, that it’s disrespectful for the painting as well as dangerous conditions.


Paying in a restaurant

For years I’ve been used to the Korean way of doing things, while also remembering the western way. Case in point, restaurants. In Korea, you don’t tip, and rather than waiting for a server to bring you your bill, you usually get up and go to the cash register. There are obviously foreign restaurants in Korea that accept tips, but for the most part the two sets of etiquette were neatly separated.

Then, my first time in a Korean restaurant I had a bit of trouble with this part. When the bill arrived, I got up to go pay the bill, before realising that I could probably just wait at the table for them to come to me. While I was wondering whether to go over, sit back down, or stand where I was, I also wondered whether they’d accept a tip. The two decisions collided, and I was left standing there for a few seconds in a panic, completely unsure what was expected of me. It turns out they did come to collect the money, and they did readily accept tips.

Next, I went to a bar for a drink, and due to the fact they didn’t charge us up front, I left without paying my part of the tab. That one’s less easy to blame on reverse culture shock, though, and more on me being an absentminded jerk.


One more look at the River Valley.

One more look at the River Valley.

I was only back for a little less than two weeks, so it wasn’t enough time for serious culture shock to manifest. If I’d stayed longer, that almost certainly would have changed, but in the time I was back it never elevated beyond a mild unsettling feeling, at least if you don’t count the few seconds of panic I had going to pay the bill in the Korean restaurant. However, I didn’t fully experience any of the more serious symptoms of reverse culture shock (boredom, alienation, reverse homesickness, etc).

Everyone expects a bit of culture shock when they go abroad, so you’re already prepared for it. But reverse culture shock is much more unsettling, mainly because you’re not expecting it. You’re back home, and suddenly it no longer feels like home. It’s true what they say: you can never really go home.

About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is a former editor and staff writer for Korea.net. His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats