This month, Dana Filek-Gibson learns that anxiety runs in the family and South Korea has no deodorant.
In case you were wondering, there is no deodorant in South Korea. Shocking, I know. But the internet has confirmed and, in this age of Facebook groups and Wikipedia and YouTube comments, we cannot argue with the infinite wisdom of cyberspace. Indeed, it seems unlikely that an entire nation would collectively choose to forgo the prevention of body odour, but there you have it. A word of warning to the overly sweaty and those with a heightened sense of smell: think twice before you a book a flight to the land of soju and fan death.
How do I know this? Because I have a brother, and that brother is a bit like David Sedaris on speed. To say he’s anxious is an understatement. We don’t call each other anymore – at least not in that old-fashioned way of picking up a phone and dialing – but when we used to, he would sometimes start our conversations with a tickle in his throat and 20 minutes later, voila: lung cancer. At the very least, he worries.
And last month, in a streak of well-planned spontaneity, that same anxious, hypochondriac brother became an expat. After a handful of Skype interviews, my younger sibling managed to fool a total stranger into believing he was responsible enough to employ and this is how he came to live and work in Seoul. Like large swaths of the expat community in Asia, he will spend the next year having children compliment his golden hair while he corrects their English. Before he left, we spoke:
Me: So, are you ready to go?
Him: Yeah, but my suitcase is too heavy. It’s mostly the shoes. And the deodorant.
Him: They don’t have deodorant in Korea. I looked it up online.
Me: Spence, I promise you they have deodorant in Korea.
Him: No, they don’t.
Me: I’m pretty sure they do.
Him: WELL I BOUGHT TEN STICKS AND THEY’RE COMING WITH ME.
Already, I am counting the days until he gets the nervous sweats, uses up his entire supply and is forced to go out into that cold and unforgiving concrete jungle to forage for antiperspirant. But not yet: right now it’s serious, in the way that everything is serious when you arrive in a new country. Three years ago, a paler, more gullible version of myself remembers the rapid-onset anxiety that came when a xe om driver or a banh mi cart was nowhere to be found. I, too, feared the unknown. Of course, Vietnam’s unknowns have less to do with unwanted body odour and more to do with being poisoned by street food or gambling your life in a rush-hour game of chicken, but still the worry visits on us all when we are new to a place and not yet able to form sentences like “Is this safe?”, “Please drive slower” and “Tell me you carry Speed Stick” in a foreign language.
And yet, serious though they may be, to me these are some of the most rewarding moments of being an expat. Stupid, yes, but rewarding. For they remind us just how far we’ve come and just how desperately, deeply naïve we were. Once upon a time, long ago, I was afraid of driving. Traffic was hectic and there was no way that I, the proud owner of not a single license in any country anywhere, could sit astride a motor vehicle and be entrusted with getting myself from Point A to Point B. It seemed impossible, weaving irresponsibly through traffic, and yet now I do it everyday. Just last year, after getting mauled by monkeys on your average day trip to Can Gio, I cried for days, paralysed by the fear – nay, the knowledge – that I was going to contract rabies and die a slow, horrible, excruciating death. Many a seasoned expat dares not speak aloud the embarassing concerns he or she once harboured, but in the end it is these foolish moments that mark our growth as human beings. And so I wait with anticipation for the day when my brother – teacher, expat, walking anxiety attack – can look back on this, too, and laugh about his intense deodorant fears and see the change in himself.
Dana Filek-Gibson is a Canadian expat living in Ho Chi Minh City.