Cultural Imperatives: Adapting to norms and habits different than your own.

Becoming a successful expat requires one accept and adapt to cultural norms and practices that may be very different from one’s own. The most unsuccessful expats judge their new surroundings from their own cultural perspective and usually end up very unpleasant and unhappy people, always quick to complain about their new country.  One of the worst cases I’ve come across was a trenched coated American Japanophile from New Jersey who loathed all things Korean. His hatred and rage for Korea was matched by adoration and praise for all things Japanese and every gripe and bitch about Korea ended with some variance of ‘but in Japan it’s the exact opposite.’ It eventually came to light that he had never set foot in Japan, garnering all of his knowledge from Japanese animation and comic books and not too long after he became a social pariah. The last I heard he was back in New Jersey putting the finishing touches on a doctoral thesis about the parallels between the decline of American Freedom and the fall of the Roman Empire or maybe it was about the Japanese helping to bring East Asia into the modern age with their invasions of China and Korea at the beginning of the twentieth century. I can’t remember which as both were favorite pet topics of his he used to torture the expat community with.

As hard as I try there are several things I still can’t adapt to in Korea. For almost five years I tried to sleep in the traditional Korean style; on the floor. At first it was novel but after a few months the novelty turned into tossing and turning, never ending kinks in the neck, and shooting pains in my shoulder. I struggled against what I was sure had to be culture imperialism, determined to keep an open mind. It’ll take some time to change your preconceived notions, come on hang in there tiger! Think about the early settlers in America!  I repeated the mantra every morning but my misery only intensified once winter set in and I remembered how the Roanoke settlement in what’s now Virginia vanished without a trace.  Korean houses and apartments have radiant heating built into the floor, called an andul, and in my first apartment the heat was either on or off, there were no individual thermostats, just blazing heat all winter that would have me sweating buckets within minutes of laying down, even with the windows open. The worse it got the more determined I was to sleep in the traditional style. I fought a good fight but finally broke after five years of floor sleeping and bought a bed. I still giggle with joy every time I slip under the covers.

Another thing I’m unable to adapt to is the throwing of soiled toilet paper into trash cans. In almost every public restroom, and in many homes, you can see cans beside the toilet full of soiled toilet paper. In the summer the cans are alive with swarms and flies and other insects and the smell is piercing. I’ve used some bathrooms in the deep countryside that surpassed my wildest nightmares, the bathroom from Trainspotting an ivory tower in comparison.  I’ve been told it’s because some older buildings have plumbing that can’t handle toilet paper but I’ve never once encountered a clogged toilet in any of my apartments and I flush my paper. .Regardless of the reason it started it has become part of Korean culture and it brings up an interesting question about the limits of cultural acceptance. Is judging one culture using your own cultural imperatives always wrong? On one hand it could be argued that there are limits when we talk about culture and right and wrong for example female circumcision in Africa. On the flip side some would call such judgments cultural imperialism saying it’s a slippery slope that leads to things like the fatwa against Salmon Rushdie or the extermination of the indigenous cultural practices in the Americas. I still have formulated an solid opinion but I do know it’s a fine line you have to be constantly examining when living in a country and culture not your own. I’ve had several friends that have been involved in various versions of the following situation; a foreigner witnesses a husband slapping, or beating, his wife on the street and immediately restrains the man, which led to a verbal argument with the wife and husband on one side and the do-gooder on the other. When the cops arrived the wife and husband try to press charges on the foreigner. Who was right? It’s not as easy an answer as it seems.

In our own culture we have practices that seem downright crazy to outsiders; male circumcision, the right to bear arms, bikinis, “mankinis,” competitive eating, keeping animals indoors, eating certain animals, and the value we place on material things to name a few. A cartoon I recently saw comes to mind; two ladies are passing one another on the street one wearing a bikini and sunglasses, the other a burka. There’s a bubble above the bikini clad lady “Everything covered but her eyes, what a cruel male dominated culture!” the woman in the burka thinks “oh what a cruel male dominated culture nothing covered but her eyes.” Beyond being satirical because both are living in male dominated societies it speaks to the blindness we have to our own cultural imperatives. When living abroad it’s something one is forced to deal with on a daily basis and it can either open one’s mind to how strange their own cultural views and norms can be or turn them into closed minded cultural imperialists. I’m trying for the former although you won’t find me sleeping on the floor or storing my dirty T.P. in trashcans anytime soon.

Columnist Joshua Lorenzo Newett is a novelist, entrepreneur, and English professor at The Korean Naval Academy in Jinhae, South Korea. Saving Bill Murray, his second novel, was recently published here.

image via Matej Hudovernik /

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