My computer just crashed, so I write this piece by hand at a ubiquitous café chain with a Hello Kitty pen in a little burgundy notebook on which are printed Jetsons-style cartoons and the following inscription: "Space ships from the beyond may be on their way to destroy our planet. Mar Attact." Cryptic, misspelled, surreally phrased Japanese and Korean writing paraphernalia like this is sold all over Southeast Asia, where I spent a year working and travelling.
As I look around, I notice that my communication "art" seems not only childish and mildly eccentric, but completely alien in a sea of laptops, palm pilots and mocha half-cafs. My taste for unknown cartoon heroes did not make a freak out of me in Bangkok, where Starbucks patrons displayed their stuffed-animal key chains beside the latest cellphone models as the last word in upwardly mobile accessorizing.
Of course, many other qualities did make me a freak. There was my distaste for rice, my inability to figure out the local customs and my choking on smoggy air for at least a month after arrival. The locals constantly stared at the "farang" (foreigner) no matter how long I'd been there.
When travelling, we expect the unexpected. We prepare emotionally to be totally confused, disarmed and bowled over by the customs and habits of other peoples. When coming home, well, we expect home: the familiar, comfortable cadences of "us."
So as weird as it was getting used to life in Bangkok, I never imagined my return home would be accompanied by an even more potent culture shock.
Canada is a new country to me now, not only because the political landscape is changing, but because of all the little things we never notice about the people and things closest to us.
The empty streets: In the suburbs, we open our eyes to nice green lawns, housing, parked cars and recycling bins. But what I first saw when I got back was absence, sheer emptiness. After the chaotic street life of Bangkok, where not a single centimetre goes to waste between street vendors, bagsful of durian fruit, outdoor restaurants and mounds of items for sale, I was awestruck by the very grey expanses of paved concrete completely unadorned by the crowds of the East. Where was everybody, and how come nobody wanted my business?
The passive food-service staff: It goes without saying that Bangkok's food culture is a public one, where a street restaurant is like a second - or first - kitchen. No pleases and thank you's are in order. The owners/servers are almost without exception friendly, energetic and eager to feed you according to your own tastes and preferences (like many Canadian moms at the beginning of a work week).
Here, eating is a private activity. When we don't eat at home, we go to enclosed restaurants where an unwritten code of behaviour dictates that staff serve patrons cordially and with reserve. No sitting down and joining our conversation or coming to our table to stare at us as we eat so as to gauge our enjoyment of the food.
The lack of individually wrapped Hall's cough drops consumed as candies: self-evident.
The obscurity of existence: In Southeast Asia, I was a star. The women all thought I was beautiful for my light skin - I couldn't convey to them that I felt the same about their skin colour. The men gaped for similar reasons. People stopped to talk to me all the time. Once, three camera-laden girls begged me to be in a photo with them. My very Westernness made me an object of hitherto unparalleled affection and attention.
When I first got back, I felt a bit like an aging movie star. No longer different in a country where difference is the norm, I walked around in the oblivion of obscurity, struck and saddened by the complete lack of fanfare I was generating on the street. In Bangkok, anticipating this might happen, I often talked about starting a support group for Westerners who returned home from Southeast Asia and couldn't get used to being just one of the crowd.
To communicate or not to communicate: Perhaps the biggest shock I received upon my return is that in Canada most of us, no matter what our background, can communicate with one another. English as the international language binds most of us.
But we don't communicate here. Verbal language is our easiest gateway into other people's heads, but I noticed how little we take advantage of it amid societal rules of propriety that create invisible walls around us.
Here, trying to be friendly to others spawns wariness, if not outright hostility: Are you crazy? What do you want from me?
Back in the land of streets devoid of vendors spilling piles of pineapple and outright gaping, I take comfort in the knowledge that I can once again communicate with whomever I please. I eagerly anticipate the results of actually trying to do so, for the first time in my Canadian life.