Reflecting on culture shock has brought me back to my roots in the basketball-crazed land of Louisville, Kentucky (for the rest of the world, just pretend I’m talking about “football”).
Culture shock is like a basketball game. You give it your all, full speed, full-court press, no let-up on defense for 20 minutes: 1 half.
Then, after halftime, somebody changes the rules, but doesn’t tell you. Everybody else seems to know. When you make a play that seemed legitimate, the referee blows his whistle.
The uniforms have changed. Familiar names and colors have been replaced by unfamiliar ones. Somehow, even the lines on the court have been re-arranged, and its up to you to figure out the meaning.
Good-natured teammates will answer your questions, occasionally even volunteer information. Others will make it more difficult.
The fans chant things that don’t make sense. The coach is calling plays that you don’t know.
You find yourself at the line, physically and mentally exhausted. Perform the simple task of hitting a free throw. Deep breath…
Simple task: shopping for groceries. You find the cereal aisle and realize that all the brand names have changed. None of them make any sense; there are no corollaries to help you make a decision. Once you’ve figured out something you might like, you have to start currency conversions in your head. Even the checkout becomes foreign territory. They charge for bags?
The simplest necessities become an exhausting battle. How do you find internet access? Telephone? Bank/money?
When I first began to travel, I don’t remember having an issue with culture shock. Perhaps I was sufficiently shielded by organized tours, accompanying friends, and/or trip length.
My first journey to Europe was eased by each of these security blankets. The next journey, for a semester to London, added the element of time. Later, in Ecuador, I learned a distinctly different culture. As I began to travel on my own, I became more responsible for my own security, transport, plans, and relationships.
The breeding ground for culture shock, as it has manifested itself for me, is loneliness. You leave a community of friend behind for…nothing.
The prior experience of culture shock is good preparation. It doesn’t prevent it, but serves as a reassuring whisper, declaring, “You’re OK.” You may not feel OK, but you know its normal and that it will pass.
In a few months, you’ll feel like a regular, and you’ll feel proud of your adjustment. You’ll know the quickest route. The nearest entrance. The best brand. It begins to happen already…