Culture Shock: a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation (from the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary)
When Global Citizen Year first presented the idea of culture shock in Fall Training, I was a little skeptical. I mean, I was pretty open minded and educated. I earned my IB diploma, and the “I” does stand for “international,” after all. And I’ve traveled some. Besides, culture shock per the definition was for those people who blindly jumped into a foreign environment. Culture shock wasn’t for me.
I did not anticipate how my first week in San Pedro El Valle would completely deflate and squash me with its reality. So what happened that first week?
No bathroom. Illegal immigration made real. Being laughed at. Funeral of a neighbor seven days older than me who hung himself after his girlfriend told him she didn’t know with whom she was pregnant with. The grief. The girlfriend drinking a bottle of fly poison days later. An open pipe behind the kitchen to shower. Fleas. Collecting la basa, food scraps, with tía. Failing miserably to understand my family after sooth communications in Quito. Many, many dogs. Poverty. Meeting girls pregnant at 14 and 15. Really hard physical labor. Feeling alone.
While most of these experiences would have been manageable on their own, together these completely overwhelmed me. I was far, far outside either my comfort or growth zone, and the tunnel vision and judgemental thoughts blindfolded me. Comparisons between here and my life in the U.S. began sprouting rampantly, or as Mushu from Disney’s “Mulan” said, “like daisies!” I was in a bad place that eventually did me good, but that didn’t make it less hard in the moment.
Looking back, I could have easily checked off each of the culture shock symptoms presented by Napo team leader Andy in Fall Training. But oh, how retrospect is so clear! With the respite from the consuming darkness of the Maddy-San Pedro combo during the first Training Seminar (interestingly enough called “Training Seminar Zero”), I was able to slowly crawl out of the nasty pit I had chipped for myself during my first week and up the slopes of perspective. Now I am on my feet, walking slowly and steadily. I can’t help but wonder if there is a peak. I hope not.
Anyways. Not too long ago, I described myself as “uncomfortably uncomfortable.” After the pitiful cave and towering mountains of that first week, just walking upwards wasn’t enough. My life had found a sort of rhythm, but I wanted the drum to break, or the drummer to take a rest. It seemed obvious that tripping into another crevasse could only renew and enrich my trek upwards.
When Global Citizen Year first presented the idea of reverse culture shock (being culture shocked by one’s own or “home” culture) during Fall Training, I was completely skeptical. I mean, I wasn’t going to be susceptible to regular culture shock, so reverse culture shock was absurd. Besides, how different could they really be from me?
This past weekend, someone I grew up with visited Cuenca. We’ll call this person “Southwest.” I have always respected Southwest’s intelligence, drive, and world experience. But with each minute in Southwest’s presence, I grew more and more frustrated. The thought that tinted all others was “you don’t get it.” And more disturbing, “why do you make me feel so alone?” Southwest reminded me of a lifestyle of the past, where grabbing lunch or a coffee with friends was no big deal. Where a lousy internet connection had rained on my parade. Where prestige and “climbing” meant so much. And these shards of my past lifestyle cut at my raw self; while I was disgusted or made uncomfortable I couldn’t help but associate myself with them and want some of those shards to be set into my new stained glass window. When Southwest asked me what was bothering me so much as we strolled through the coin portion of the Museo de Banco Central, my discomfort was reaching a peak.
“What exactly do you want?” Southwest asked me as I stumbled with my slowly-less-comfortable English to explain why these reminders of the past threw me into a dark place.
After over an hour of clumsy English and scrambled thoughts, I finally articulated myself. “I don’t want anything. If I really want something, I will dedicate myself to and fight for it, and I’m not ready to fight for this. I only have a vision. I am bothered by wastefulness and self-centeredness that I see in my own past and around me. I believe that the awareness and intentionality in decision making could benefit not just the human race, but also the planet as a whole. This awareness and intentionality, in my experience, comes from a global perspective. How a person reaches a global perspective is individual, of course, and there is no end points of this global perspective. And the duality that I personally face with my growing ‘global perspective,’ of astonishment of unaware decisions in my past mixed with an association still for some part of that past, makes it hard to live with myself right now.”
Now, post visit, I am left with many, many thoughts about my role and impact in my community. Because of how I look, how I talk, how I act, and how I think, will I ever integrate into my community? While I recognize that this reverse culture shock illustrates that I am neither here nor there – I am associating entirely with neither the Ecuadorian nor the United States cultures – I’m scared what this change in me means for my future. Will I find a permanent place in either culture four months from now when it’s time to get on a plane to California? How am I supposed to integrate into a freshman class coming straight out of high school and who are almost all a year younger than me? How can I possibly explain myself when showing Southwest wasn’t effective?
This reverse culture shock experience reminds me of “growing up” in so many ways. Sure, it was easier when I didn’t know, when things were simpler, when I could still pretend that they were different without facing the reality every day. Sure, the world seemed to be drawn more black and white, in less shades of gray. Sure, I have a lot more to think about. But is that necessarily a “bad” thing?