There’s a phenomenon that I believe I have mentioned before, but must mention again because it continues to baffle me.
It’s called: Same same, but different.
I don’t know if this little saying originated in Korea, but that is where I first heard about it. My friend, who was living in Korea for about four years before I was, used it to describe life in Korea. And when I arrived I too clung to this one-liner as the most efficient way of summing up the surprisingly bizarre sensory experience that is life in Korea.
At first, it was the roads. For whatever reason, I wasn’t expecting them to be so big and nice. But they were almost exactly the same as the roads back home, only twice as big and ultra-black with freshly paved tar and neon dividing lines. And of course, because what else is a road supposed to be? How different can a road really be?
These roads were the same, but they were huge. Standing at a crosswalk looking into an intersection felt like looking at the world through a fish-eye lens. Your brain tries to curve the edges of your vision to fit everything in. What you see is almost exactly the same as you are used to seeing, just covered in Hangul and seen from an entirely new perspective. The best way to describe this sensation is to compare it to what you might imagine an out-of-body experience would feel like. You are looking at your life only now you are dead, or I mean, on the other side of the world.
It is a feeling so consuming and strange, I have decided to refer to it as a phenomenon. Because really, what is it about a place that brands it? Globalization has swallowed the world and yet, even with large monopoly companies dominating our medicine cabinets and food shelves, even with McDonald’s arches visible from nearly every single country, even with the Internet, places still seem to put their own twist on things. This happens even if the place doesn’t intend for it to happen. It is unavoidable. Therefore, when you eat a big mac in Korea it is never, not ever, the same as it was the U.S. And isn’t this truly a phenomenon? Because McDonald’s has all their food down to a complete science of uniformity and yet there is still something of culture that has managed to evade it’s call for conformity. It’s the same same, but different.
This phenomenon is at least three times as amazing when applied to people. After coming to Korea, I can no longer make vague and euphemistic statements about how everyone is really the same and generally wants the same thing from life without cringing a little. People are different. And they do want different things. Our cultures, our families, our daily routines, our personal relationships are so completely different from one another’s. There are so many layers there that make it hard to see to the very core that unites us, which generally is similar but not always exactly the same.
All of this said, there is still that unifying core. Even when it is different, just the fact that we all have it is astounding. It comes in so many forms. It can never be just one thing because it is always changing, it is never consistent or ever-lasting.
The other day on the bus I was feeling especially moody. It was early and my head was in the clouds. Everyone pushed and shoved me in the line so I didn’t get a chance to grab a seat which usually doesn’t bother me but since I was gonna be on this bus for a whole hour, I thought myself more deserving of a seat than a tiny elderly woman pregnant with twins (I’m exaggerating but only slightly). The bus shook violently back and forth and I was very annoyed with life for no particular reason, though I was using the no-seat thing as the nearest viable excuse. Some people finally left and I took this one corner seat in the very back of the bus. Then more people left, and I got up to move closer to the front and in the meantime the bus jerked and my foot slipped and sorta budged onto the toes of another woman. It didn’t do any real damage. She moved her foot fast enough. But it was enough to have warranted a “sorry.” I had my headphones on. I was groggy. I didn’t do it. And to make matters worse, I sorta stalled and stood still for a minute looking at my foot and thinking about whether I should take off my headphones and apologize. And then I just went to my seat. So now I was rude and awkward. I sat in my stupid seat and felt bad about it.
Later, this woman was running up to the bus at a stop just as it was pulling away. She was so mad. She hit the bus with her purse and had a little freak out. The people on the bus saw her and watched her. The people at the bus stop watched her with downcast eyes. I almost thought, ‘how crazy of her, another bus will come,’ but then I remembered: None of us are at our best all the time. We are all so ridiculous and imperfect. We all do awkward things. We are all subject to emotions, both positive and negative.
This is powerful because if we can understand the true depth of the cliche nobody is perfect then we can forgive ourselves by forgiving the people around us. This is because we are the same same, but different. Just think of it as a new law of physics. Yes, we’re all super different and unique and stuff. But even the things that make us different are what make us sorta the same. People, man. They’re all the same. They’re nothing alike. But they’re all flawed. And this really takes the pressure off, because we know that when people piss us off it’s just you catching them in a bad moment. Or decade. Or whatever. But you can kinda give them a free pass because you know one moment, probably pretty soon, you’re gonna have your own sub-par moment. It might be in a different situation, but really, it’s all the same.