Thursday, 6 August 2009

Culture shockin'

've done this before, you know, this moving country lark. Of course, that was 14 years ago when I was a good deal younger and it was to a country that spoke (a version) of my mother tongue and had a culture that wasn't a million miles removed from the one I had grown up in thus far.

This move is something quite different.

I've been here for four weeks now and I'm just starting to get a handle on what it means to live here. The language. The culture. The masses of people and profusion of concrete. Driving on the other side of the road - not just a trick for young players who are also trying to drive but a hazard for newbies trying to cross the road who are used to looking left, then right then left again. The proliferation of all kinds of signs in neon and flashing lights. People staring at me because I'm the only white woman in a 5 mile radius. Yup, I've got a case of severe culture shock.

Apparently, according to anthropologist Kalervo Oberg (1901-1973) there are four stages to culture shock:
1) The Honeymoon Stage - Where everything is new and exciting.

2) The Crisis or Culture Shock Stage - Reality hits! Everything is overwhelming and you're insanely homesick.

3) The Adjustment or Recovery Stage - Things become a bit more normal and you feel somewhat more settled. This stage is not a clear stage as it involves a bit of oscillation between Honeymoon stage excitement and Crisis stage depression and frustration but hey - it's progress.

4) The Adaptation Stage where you've come through the darkness and made it out to the other side and you feel settled and comfortable in your new environment.

At this stage I'd estimate myself to be in the third stage. I'm excited to be here but on occasion I just want to curl up in a ball and hide. The main anxiety for me is going out alone without the hubby in tow. As he's originally a local, fluent in the language and culture and has been living here for the past 2ish years, he can translate for me, guide me across roads and gently guide me on issues I'm unsure about ("what on earth is THAT?!") Not to mention that when I'm with him and people stare at me I don't really mind but when I'm by myself, already feeling self-conscious and awkward the last thing I want is to think people are witnessing my awkwardness.

I was thinking about what culture shock means to me personally the other day and basically I boiled it down to complete and utter DIFFERENCE. You come to a place with ideas and expectations only to be met with a completely different reality. It's not just the big things like "I can't understand a damn word that person just said!" it's the small things too. In fact I think the small things are sometimes the ones that make bigger cracks in your ability to cope as they're usually things you never realised would be an issue.

Small things like going to a public loo and there being no tissue supplied, or not being able to flush the tissue down the loo and having to stuff it into the bin provided (ill-attended public toilets on a hot day - not advisable). Things like going for a walk and there are no pavements in one half of the town. Going to the supermarket and the layout is completely different and confusing and it takes you three times as long to find what you wanted. Sometimes you don't find what you wanted. The constant smell in the air - not necessarily a nasty smell, just a smell of something or other. My favourites are when you go shopping and you are blatantly reminded that you're just not in Kansas anymore, Toto, by seeing some of the things that are sold. For instance vodka on the shelf next to the magazines at the local 7/11. Or a wide and interesting array of sex toys (including items for gentlemen) at eye level in aisle six alongside the stationery at your local supermarket.

It's things like this that are culture shock to me. The things I didn't expect and couldn't possibly have anticipated. The things that blow your mind and leave them in a forever-expanded state. This is what travelling is about, after all, right? Seeing things that make you go "Wow!" or "Gross!" or "Who knew?!" It's coming home with a armload of "You'll never guess what!" stories. It's knowing that you've been there and experienced that.

I just wish it wasn't so damn hard is all. Mind you - I guess nothing worth achieving was ever easy... or so they keep telling me!

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