Culture Shock: the Sliding Bell Curve

This post is aimed at potential long-term travelers, among whom may be language teachers or other illegals, wanderers or adventurers and the point of my thoughts is to illuminate a mysterious and powerful (and potentially plan-killing) phenomenon: culture shock. The affliction hasn’t gone unstudied and there’s no shortage of professional advice to be found on the Internet or at the library. I’d like to add to the heap, though, with a couple tips that have helped me acclimate to a foreign culture.

On the Malaise, Briefly

Culture Shock

What isn’t really explored here is something I was told in my teacher training, which is that culture shock is adaptable: the longer you perceive your stay to be, the more gradual will be the transitions up and down the emotional bell curve (Citation needed! I’m calling myself out for you.) For example: if you’re two weeks in Honduras, your psychological movement through the four stages of the emotional state will hasten to accommodate that period of time. If you’re a year in Russia, your personal parabola will look considerably flatter than that of the former scenario.

I suffered the mal-effects of culture shock only mildly, and sporadically. I’ve seen it emotionally cripple friends of mine and even sent one packing back to her home country. Perhaps I respected it as a force or perhaps I was better-prepared for its eventuality (given a day of training in Denver spent reflecting on this subject), but I think I have some believable strategies that could ease another person’s transition into a foreign culture and I’d like to share them now.

1.) Your identity and its tie to “place”; reflect on this. If you tend to classify yourself as a “city person” or a “country person” or a “New Yorker” or “hillbilly”, you may find that this self-identification could obstruct your integration into a new society. What masochism to take in parts of your past and parts of your local environment and affix them to your self-image! These extraneous baubles may be defined by all of your gentle, defensive adjectives but on the chopping-room floor, you will find that those things which are not inherently part of you can be severed not without pain, but severed surely and handily with concerted effort. Maybe it’s facile to think that once you compartmentalize those parts of your self-image which aren’t of you, they (the modifiers) ought to be tossed out and/or pushed away; not so fast! You can keep them around as remembrances (ex. In X place, I was X. ). Trying to hold on to those things which aren’t structural facets of your character will cause you misery as they slide away from you as your foreign tenure grows by days. Before you step on the plane, sketch out your identity on a piece of notebook paper and try to separate acquired qualities (city person, nationality, political leaning) from those nearer to you (shy, thoughtful, easygoing, etc.).

2. Burn away the shadows of your new territory. In your mind is set a map of your local environment. You know the streets, the way the morning and afternoon shadows fall on the various surfaces, and the likelihood of seeing a certain person or group of people at a certain time of day. Subconsciously, you know enough about your local, familiar environment to keep you out of danger. The aforementioned qualities and more represent gaps in your knowledge of your new environment. Where there is ignorance, there likely is fear and fear, affirms Yoda, leads to the dark side. Some stages of culture shock (notably the second (Negotiation)) will see you tending more and more to keep to your quarters as you reject your new surroundings as inferior or otherwise flawed as compared to your old familiar territory. This tendency is your enemy, and it lives in your head. If there is a time of day, for example, in which you haven’t experienced the clientele of a given cafe, you must strip yourself of any justification you may have for feeling jaded. If you don’t know the route of the postman in a given part of town, you aren’t doing your job. My advice is this: simply go outside.

Walk and make a point of remaining conscious of your immediate environment. The new map you’re illustrating in your mind won’t suffer for becoming finer in detail. The more information you feed into its conception the less you’ll feel a stranger to its intricacies. The story you’re telling yourself won’t have a choice but to change a little. Your old definitions will be modified. The verbal mistakes you make will become part of the day’s lesson, and perhaps you won’t make them again. This information has no price, so collect it as you would gems from a sea wreck.

3. Nourish integral parts of your character. If you normally read books, keep reading books. If you normally grab a drink in the evenings, keep at it. If you sustain a measure of artistic output, keep at it in your new environment. Everyone has some basic emotional needs and there are no two sets of these the world over that match. A useful exercise may be to list these hobbies or needs that you have found yourself to have needed and think of ways to satisfy them in your new environment. This is another excellent opportunity to be honest with yourself about what you like and don’t like.

4. Embrace ignorance.  Unless you have some deep history with the language and customs of your host culture, you will come into it as a baby would: unintelligibly, awkwardly, and resting in a state of constant threat of exposure. The good news is that you are not a baby, and thus won’t be in danger of being eaten by street animals. The hard-to-ingest news is that you must undertake with your crusty old mind the work a supple infant mind excels at: adapting to your environment (a second time). Everything you don’t understand about your host culture represents an opportunity to add to your collective understanding of the world at large. If you don’t know how to speak properly in your second (or third or fourth, etc) tongue, illuminating that ignorant corner of your knowledge-base could potentially multiply the number of people within range of your communications by millions. Try a new dish. Try making a new dish. Do you see where this is going? The opportunity to pursue your native desires lives in foreign places.


That’s all for now. There’s a mountain of things that could be added to these advices, but I can’t spend my whole day listing them. If you are having trouble adjusting to a new culture, comment on this post and I’ll respond in a helpful way.


Roof Poopin’

It was a terrace Saturday and maybe we were just basking out there but Savi looked over the kneewall separating us from the neighboring rooftops and there, furtively picking a path between the terra cotta tiles, crept a little orange kitty. Being an experienced kitty rancher on the order of the Bubbles character from Trailer Park Boys, I proved once again the time-honored truth that cats will swallow their fear as long as they can wash it down with delicious, delicious meat.

At first I’d set a strip of jamon serrano on the knee-wall to see a little orange paw flash up and claim it. Maybe I’d dangle a strip of bacon or some chicken skin and let him war with his instincts and lose. Little by little, with constant persuasion-by-protein, the kitty gained the courage to leap onto the terrace. A bowl was set for him and on it the usual meat scraps or else a little white milk puddle for the lapping. Soon his skittishness became persistence and on a fateful day, he stepped through our door.

Last night he wedged himself between us in bed (no doubt the warmest spot in the house). He knows how to open our living room window and worse, the refrigerator door. We once were alerted to his presence by a quiet scratching from inside the fridge; he’d opened the door and under its own weight it’d shut on him, casting him immediately into cold darkness for we don’t know how long. We buy him cat food and give him pens to play with. He disappeared for a week and lately returned sans his male equipment, so he’s got owners several rooftops over who care for him. We’re thinking of buying flea collars in several different colors so as to fuck with his real parents big time. Of course his name is Kitty, the same as all of the cats who’ve leapt in and out of my life. The rooftops are his toilet and hunting ground, and as we’re in an arid climate rather than receive the sort of gifts given by temperate-weather cats (birds, mice, moles, rabbits) we get halves of lizards and bats. The lives of kitties are mysterious and wonderful.

The Language Forge

In terms of the “just go” experiment, I can’t say I’m doing poorly. My most recent survey has revealed that I entertain 31 students over something like 22-25 hours per week. That’s running on almost no plan, coming here fresh and unknown to a 17,000-person town. The phone is still ringing from anonymous numbers, people looking for “huecos” (gaps in my schedule) and by now I’ve passed off several students to other Americans as I can’t possibly field another failing Spanish teenager. In essence I’m making what I did in the US in just over half the man-hours in a country where unemployment for my age range hovers around 40%. The weeks fly by.

My Spanish, which was also rudimentary on my arrival, has since grown and improved steadily. I can hold conversations with anyone about any topic which might come up on an average day, from global/national issues to the day’s weather (an absurdly popular topic here). I have failed to study earnestly, and so am behind my goal of not reading and writing Spanish like a child. Also, I make regular mistakes in conversation but nothing which bars my meaning from coming across. In the interest of keeping it polished I’m thinking of turning to old lucha libre films and/or original literature and for support. Maybe South America comes after Thailand for us, so I’d like not to land there green as I was that October day in Madrid.


The Building that Saved Me

We were waiting aboard this modern jet for takeoff, me and several of the people from my CELTA group. There was no telling where we were headed but everyone was strapped in and specifically one of the teachers, she was seated in the back, atop this sort of sofa which stretched the width of the fuselage. I looked back at her from mid-plane and exchanged with her a warming smile.

The air was abuzz with nervous, excited twittering:

“Will it work?”

“I feel so lucky!”

“…history is being made here today.”

…and the like. The aircraft must have been new technology, and that day must have been its inaugural flight.

After a short time the lights dimmed and an engine whirred to life. It kept a low hum, and contrasted with conventional airplanes the way an electric car might with an old Peugeot. I braced myself, not knowing what to expect.

With smooth but sickening alacrity the jet whipped forward and up. Our ascent, we were making it through a short corridor of tall buildings, punctuated at the far end by two pylon-shaped structures dotted up and down with windows. As we were passing them the aircraft banked left at an impossible angle and began to extend a bit in the middle, wrapping around the left pylon like a salamander; we were breaking some barrier, possibly light as physical matter was bending as we went snugly around this huge pylon-structure. I understood then that we were to be shot like a slingshot outward at some unintelligible speed toward our destination. We’d be there in minutes.

Just as we were on the brink of coming full around, we failed to clear the pylon. The pilot had driven too close and one of the wings clipped the structure. No one could hear it as the plane cracked at my seat, and I didn’t have the presence of mind to call out, futile as that may have been. Strapped to my seat I tumbled through the air into the bay below as the plane frisbeed down and down, disintegrating in stages until it landed somewhere in the bay-side city in loose pieces without an explosion; all its fuel had been sprayed out in a mist, dissipating in the air.

I was the only survivor, bobbing in the water.

Yesterday morning I woke up from this dream and stumbled into the shower. Of course I was disturbed, trying to piece a meaning together. The only survivor of a plane crash; what was happening in my life right now and how could I relate it? As the light bulb in our bathroom is out and our hot water tank is very small, I quickly scrubbed down in the dim light, was sudsy when Savi broke in and said, “The bus is leaving in twenty minutes.”

She had shut our alarm, the one which would tell us to rise in time to shower and pack, she had clicked it off in her sleep. That day we were headed to Gibraltar for a little border magic. It was the day after which I’d become an overstayed tourist in Spain and my mission was to leave the Schengen Area on my American passport, check in to the UK’s littlest territory on my Canadian passport, and re-enter Spain a few hours later, when none of the border guards on duty would recognize me. I’d shoot a few pictures of the Rock of Gibraltar, a few of the airport runway which cuts straight through the territory (and is in fact in the middle of an urban area), all while Savi waits in a rented car in a big city park in La Linea de la Concepcion.

We ran for a few minutes up the narrow, cobbled streets of Zafra, past the baffled pre-dawn cleaning crews, until Savi couldn’t continue. Lately she’d been coughing the night through, leading me to suspect the onset of asthma. Lungs burning in the cold, wheezing cough, and both of these exacerbated by a seasonal cold…even at a slowed pace we made the bus and I outfitted her with travel pillow, eye mask, and ear plugs. In the gloaming I shot a little of the trip, up until sunrise, while she stole back a couple hours of sleep.

Fog was resting heavily over and through northern Sevilla when we arrived. I woke Sav from the depths of a sleep cycle and she only woke fully when we ordered hamburger-bun tostadas and burned café con leche at the bus station café. The old ladies at the next table sat scandalized and staring, and the trick, I’ve learned, is to stare back and outlast them, to remind them of manners. Sated we collected a map and the bus number we’d have to take to get to the car rental place. The driver eyed us a bit and collected our money, and after ten or so minutes clinging to the padded handrail I surveyed the map and learned we’d be riding nearly the whole C1 line before we’d reach the rental office a full hour late.

In vying for deals, Savi had reserved some cheap Citroën in my name. We showed IDs, we showed the reservation number, and when it came time to show a credit card, we were found wanting; we had left the card at home, in Zafra. They refused to rent to us, and our plan was a shambles. Back at the bus station, across the street from the rental office, Savi wallowed and I tried to comfort her. What had been a complicated plan had indeed been too complicated and we had no reason then to be in Sevilla. Our hostel reservation for that night would go unanswered-for by us, and the car rental money was gone. Our bus fare had not borne fruit and we were starving and tired. All of Spain was buzzing from shop to shop in preparing for Tres Reyes Magos, their gift-exchange day. If we could get to Zafra and back with the card we could have the car, they had said; that would mean four lost hours on a bus and another 40 Euros down the drain…I collected Sav and we decided to head home and think of a solution after a meal. On the way back, beautiful Andalusia and its castles were visible from the highway.

After devouring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some reheated Chinese food, and the rest of the leftover pizza, I read online stories of Americans deported from Spain. It was a short read; there was only one, and from its dissuasive tenor and cleanliness I suspected the writing team of having been on government payroll. The other, completely positive accounts on ESL message boards felt less machined.

At risk of being judged a sun-worshipper, I admit that morning’s dream returned to me then. The whirlwinds looked too alike, and the forced removal from a situation felt so natural I couldn’t help but decide to let my tourist visa lapse. Having been so buffeted twice I opted for the sea, and let come what may.

Tomorrow we make for Sevilla again, and relative leisure along its storied streets and relative peace in our rescheduled hostel beds.