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.


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.


Slippery People

I woke up this morning with “Slippery People” by the Talking Heads in my ears and sure enough, today has begun to take funky turns and shake its booty as if it were as loaded as the backup singers in “Stop Making Sense”. For reference:

On the face of it, no one’s having more fun than those onstage and to be sure, I’d have given anything to up there in some other life. Sometimes when you whip your tail in funky splendor, though, there is shrapnel: we made sounds this morning, the girlfriend and I, which indeed were funky but of the discolored variety which, admittedly, lend relief to the lush sounds we’re capable of. She intends for me a potential disappointment which she’s suffered this year and feels unwilling to suffer next year. It’s about work, about where and what hours, and it’s ugly. Working in a high school and normal hours has jaded her against working again in that capacity in Thailand; rather, she intends to split her time between very tiny children in the late morning and extracurricular work later in the afternoon/early evening, leaving me to work a regular day with 9-11 yr old children at a regular elementary. Maybe not too hard to savor, but for me it is and let me explain why.

Let’s pretend that we’re dancing the night away together at a Talking Heads concert at CBGB’s. Let’s also pretend we’re the same sex, and likewise are attracted to people of a common gender. You turn to shake awhile with someone and after a while, turn back to me a little turned off, with a sour look on your face. You plead with me to dance with that person who, granted, I may have danced with anyway but given your point of view of the situation, knowing that you yourself wouldn’t do it, I’m given to feeling that I’m expected to wear a mantle you would pass up should it appear again before you. You plead with me to dance with that person because if I don’t, you’ll be made to dance with them again.

Thus the funk falls in glops and gloops all over us and jams up our eyes and ears. A good wingman would fall on the grenade, wouldn’t they? What gives me pause is the feeling that I should owe it to her to do it because “it’s my turn”…to do what? To be disappointed? To become jaded? Perhaps had I known we were taking turns being broken on the wheel, I’d feel less suspicious. Perhaps if I could imagine myself asking someone to do something I’d sooner scorn, I’d feel less suspicious.

I sense envy lurking in this argument. I sense it has to do with the cold day, the early rising which runs contrary to her nature, the hostile atmosphere of her teacher’s lounge, the regularity of her dread for the workday…or am I selfish? Do I covet my mornings? Have I become dependent on the schedule I’ve built? Is my mind closed to a new experience? From the bottom to the top, we’re confounded in our towers.


Tempranillo and Roasted Bananas

I heard E and N outside on the street from our open balcony window. I greeted them and called down that we’d be there momentarily. S and I gathered our coats and descended out and traded besos with our friends. N was poorly outfitted for the cold and shivered on the way to E’s home. This was our first social call to the house of a local since we’d landed in Spain, and we were excited that night to try and forge a bond. We moved past the great old stone church and through the narrow streets and when we drew close to our destination, E spoke up.

“It’s easy to tell which is mine,” she said.

She was right; of all the shoulder-to-shoulder houses on this street, the terrazza of only one was overflowing with flowering tendrils, hanging so low as to obscure the high-street side of her door.

“It’s beautiful,” S said, fingering a woody vine on the way in.

The house interior remains one of the more well-produced I’ve encountered. We shed our jackets onto an old plush, wood-frame couch in the fireplace room. Then through the dining room and its upholstered, high-backed chairs (no two the same) into the dim kitchen, with its bin of potatoes and hanging garlic, its fruit bowls and field of spice bottles atop  a florid, Spanish-tiled counter top. Five people were a crowd in that room, but we nonetheless watch D, N’s man, spill large mushroom caps onto a cutting board and begin preparing them. In a moment a liter of Cruzcampo vanished into us and the second was opened as the Irish couple vinegared the caps of one species and sauteed the others in butter.

A spliff was passed around and we poured experiences into the evening’s intercambio. E had been in Zafra for better than twenty years, and now she’d been estranged from her husband. She called her son, B, down from his video games and introduced us; I was to be his English tutor. The boy’s father was American and at the time, I understood only that he and E no longer shared time. In her 50’s, E was ornamented with crows feet and a few frizzy gray hairs. Clearly, she had smoked for the better part of her life. We got the impression that she was kind enough, and perhaps laden with stories.

N was from a town near Belfast and was a touch younger than myself, but the young of us were interchangeable twenty-somethings. Her defining feature was a protuberant mole upon her eyelid, which I imagined to affect its function. She and D had come for a her year-long contract in the institute and had left back to Ireland, only to return after a year away to remain another two years.

“Life in Zafra is easy, and mellow,” she explained.

“I do odd jobs,” said D when his turn came. “Build houses, or whatever the day’s calling is. I’ve got a dome now-”

“A geodesic dome,” I asked.

“No, just a dome,” he said, and went on to talk about the ease of life in Extremadura.

The mushrooms soon were ready. One strain in a large bowl, yellow with vinegar and salt, and the larger, meatier strain in another, shallower bowl, warm and buttery. Between the bite of winter and the final sighs of fall, a window for these huge fungus opens, and not unlike morel hunters in the US, each local hunter has his or her “spot”. Both bowls depleted rapidly and conversation, fueled by continual spliffs and standing  a little shakily on four empty liters of beer, turned naturally to the political opera in the US.

“…and this missile which was launched off the shore of California, nobody knows who’s done it,” D said, his voice raising as the question drew on. This after a few examples of our government’s loosening grasp on their traditional reins and then, handing me a new joint, he asked what we thought of 9/11.

“I watched it happen, man,” I said, behind a lungful. “I can see it now; I was in an anthropology discussion section and it was a beautiful day. We started at 9:05 and I walked in on time and there was the projector screen pulled down. The smoke and fire and helicopters had me wondering why the hell we were screening a Die Hard movie in anthro. Then the second plane came in from off-frame and slammed into the second building and that’s when my blood went cold.”

“It’s kind of weird,” he replied, “the whole thing. The sound recordings of the explosions after the impacts, and have you seen the schematics?”

On cue, E produced from a drawer or shelf in the other room some material for our parusal: some DVDs, a book, and an envelope of color photographs. The unifying theme of these materials was “conspiracy”; the government has lied to the people, and recalling its fiscal success post-WWII has sought to generate war profits artificially. In the US, these people are called “9/11 Truthers”, and are ubiquitously understood to be conspiracy theorists and thus, worth skepticism. S and I turned the DVDs over in our hands and read the book jacket. I spent a good deal of time shuffling through the photographs while someone was talking.

The first was a shot of a steel support, rising vertically behind a fireman and sheared at a sick 70-degree angle. The message was that the cut was too clean to be a mistake. The fireman was gritty, and dramatic. Next, a shot of the building plan, with red lines and circles indicating breaking points. A shot of a firetruck reduced to molten metal. A shot of an empty stroller covered in stone dust. Near the end of the stack came a shot of a bald eagle, drawn and quartered seemingly by hand, its body strewn about the floor of an airplane’s cockpit.

“This shit is shopped,” I breathed to S. “All of these are shopped.” I flipped back through the stack and began to notice tell-tale signs of photo editing: cleanliness, for one, of line definition, and lighting abnormalities which suggested long work at a keyboard gone long enough to draw a “this will suffice” from the editor. The work was good; nay, excellent, but once revealed as a product I felt as though my hands held the loose rubber of an airless balloon. There was nothing here. Not a damn thing.

With the introduction of the materials the conversation’s tone had begun eroding and then, after twenty or so minutes of listening to the Europeans speculate over my government’s niggardly kindnesses weighed against the cost in lives of its transgressions against the race, the fire began choking on all the jingo gasoline. I was not ashamed; rather, pity flooded through me when I considered the weight these thoughts must press upon these people, these new friends of ours. The anger I understood, because what right does a foreign country have to rove about the world inciting conflict with intent to profit by it? Really, it’s not a question of understanding their feelings but a question of understanding the environment within which nights like these, with discussions flavored thusly, emerge.

A small voice cried within me: “Rehearsed!” It could have been the preparation I discovered in the photos coupled with the image of rich old white men scheming against their WTC countrymen, but the arguments were coming too readily to the lips of these people, and I could sense that they smelled my skepticism, and S’s. Without beer and ganja, the conversation gave way to tired eyes and covering our departure with warm smiles and a rain of gracious words, we left E’s just ahead of the Irelanders. I remember only vaguely our volleying remarks of disbelief as S and I made our way home through the cold.


The next week I tutored B, entertaining fantasies that his mother would pay me in marijuana rather than Euros. Nothing strange; I used a Spanish real-time strategy (RTS) computer game as a theme through which to teach vocabulary meaning and pronunciation (metal, wood, campaign, warrior, and others of the like) and after, was handed cash and bid good day. The following week, I met B’s father.

The end of our lesson had nearly come when he stomped up the old wooden stair treads and entered the room. Like B, he was short. In his face I saw a waste, like that brought on by a development soaked in liquor or psychedelic drugs. Beady eyes and hard lines, if you know what I mean.

“Got these new boots, B, new boots, man, for eight dollars, or, Euro or whatever,” he said. He showed off his boots and sat down in a heavy armchair at the head of the table.

I greeted him and we shook hands.

“And what are you doing in Zafra,” he said.

The following conversation was awkward. He was probing me subtly, or at least as subtly as he could. In return I’d asked about his role in this tiny Spanish city, so far from his homeland.

“Been here twenty years,” he told me. “Came here twenty years ago.”

He looked at me. I looked at him.

“You have chickens, right?” I said, remembering something D had told me weeks ago about someone uncharacteristically slaughtering five chickens in a day. I had made a leap.

“Yeah, yeah I have a campo,” he said, and he dropped the phrase “Food Forest” and the word “dome” while telling me about his little plot. Everyone here has a place in town and a “campo”, which translates to “country”, which in complete English translates to “country home”. He wouldn’t elaborate on “Food Forest” and I played delighted to hear about a dome. I knew who D worked for, and I had a good idea of where he got his weed.

“Gotta spend your money somehow,” he said.

I don’t know what he does for a living, but he doesn’t till a foot of land on that campo.

His arrival had all but killed the lesson. At the old man’s prompting, B recited a phrase: “9/11 was an inside job.” Many things were illuminated for me at that moment. This was an 11-year old kid who spoke only simple sentences.

“I know it’s wrong,” the old man said, “but it’s great, I mean, I tell him something and then test him, test whether he understands.”


I handed B some homework and descended the steps with father and son. The old man stopped me before I could leave; he produced a skateboard-type device which is popular now in Europe. He set it down, stepped up and began swiveling his hips to make it go. Up and down the house he went, dodging around corners and always narrowly missing his son on his Wave skateboard. What’s a Wave? Here:

Anyway, when I left the place B’s dad walked downtown with me, remarking that he hadn’t spoken to an American in a long time. As we meandered up the Calle de Sevilla, he acted distracted and was largely silent.

“See some weird stuff, man?” I asked him.

“That pizza place back there,” he motioned, “it’s new.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “People have said it’s been around for awhile.”

“No, it’s new. I don’t know. I don’t come into town very often,” he said.

“No? Why not?”

He leaned in as if the Spaniards understood English. “I don’t come into town anymore because of all the willing ignorance in these, these people,” he said.

I told him I knew what he meant. In fact, I think I understand now something about the whole situation. The recluse, the old man, he’s seen CoIntelPro and was scarred, and taught E to feel scarred. He left the US twenty years ago, left a Californian life. All the ideas we’d heard that night at the dinner table were his, regurgitated from the two heads that lately, at least, had spent the most time with him. He was conditioning the boy, who can’t express simple thoughts but says 9/11 was a sham job. Ignorance isn’t what frightened this guy; he had developed a degree of agoraphobia due to his lifestyle of voluntary exile.

Next weekend we’re headed to someone else’s campo to see D and N off. They’re finally leaving Zafra, and I might be receiving calls from some of her students. It’ll be interesting.