Culture Shock

The other day I was “diagnosed” with culture shock by a very nice woman at the Immigrant Welcome Center (part of the Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Center – CVIMC).  Mind you this was after a day of multiple, very polite no’s from an assortment of Canadian institutions ranging from driver’s licenses to health insurance and back again.  I can do nothing until my paperwork for Permanent Resident status is filed.  Even hearing about the CVIMC was a fluke as a nice fellow immigrant in line for a driver’s license recognized our stunned looks and suggested we go to there for assistance.  I didn’t want to go to the CVIMC.  I didn’t want to be an immigrant.  I just wanted to be “home.”  Once at the CVIMC I nearly lost it after hearing about a few more no’s that I would soon encounter.  This is when the woman kindly told me that there is a term for what I was experiencing and it is called culture shock.  Now she had my attention.

 For an anthropologist to be diagnosed by someone else as suffering from culture shock was both embarrassing (that I didn’t notice the “symptoms” in myself) and enlightening.  It would never have occurred to me to think about my experiences in Canada in that light.  For any of my former students who might be reading this, it feels like all of my past exams where I’ve asked questions about culture shock have come back to bite me in the… well, you know.

 For any readers who are not former students, or for my students who slept through that lecture and therefore missed those questions on Exam 1, let me explain.  Culture shock is defined as “a syndrome precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all your familiar cues” (Golde 1986:11 in Delaney).  This disorientation can result in “frustration, [as well as] repressed or expressed aggression against the source of discomfort, an irrational fervor for the familiar and comforting, and disproportionate anger at trivial interferences” (Golde 1986).  Welcome to my life in Canada.  In the classroom this is where I have a fun discussion with my students sharing now humorous experiences they have had while traveling.  Invariably there are stories about things going wrong in foreign bathrooms, about never eating with your left hand in Morocco (or insert any Middle Eastern country name there), about how when traveling in Great Britain you should always look both ways before crossing the street (Americans often look the “wrong” way and then step out into full traffic), and recently an increasing number of stories from students experiencing culture shock while serving with the military in Afghanistan and Iraq.

 The culture shock story I always share is from my first field season as an archaeologist in Turkey.  The region that I specialize in is so far south and east as to be almost Syria or Iraq depending on the direction you are facing.  This is one of the reasons why I am not actively in the field at the moment… one of the reasons.  While I LOVE traveling in Turkey and Istanbul is one of my favorite cities in the world, at the time that this culture shock experience took place I was a long way from Istanbul and not feeling much Turkey love at the moment.  I had been in the field for eight weeks, was exhausted from the relentless excavation work, worn out by the 140 degree heat that literally felt like you were in a convection oven (hot air blowing down on you from the sky as well as radiating up at you from the hot stone streets), and I had just gone to the internet cafe to find that I had no emails from friends, family or boyfriend (Dave!).  Basically I was in an all around foul mood.  I was also dressed in conservative Muslim style out of respect for the culture, which in this case meant I was wearing a long, flowy skirt, a button-up shirt with sleeves that covered my elbows, and a head scarf that covered my hair.  I was a portrait of modesty.  However, I am also 6 ft. tall and fair complexioned amid a sea of very short, very tanned, dark-haired Turks.  You could put me in full hijab, head to toe black veils with a niqab face veil, gloves, the works and I would still stand out like a sore thumb on the streets of Diyarbakir.  Or perhaps more like a Darth Vader strolling through the bazaar shopping for cute head scarves.

 All of this leads up to me walking back from the Diyarbakir çarşa (covered bazaar), feeling home sick, and walking past a Turkish man heading the other direction.  As he passed me, he gave me a quick look over, up, down and back around, and said “Allah, Allah, mashallah…”  Did I mention I was in a foul mood?  He’s lucky it took me a minute to figure out what he’d said.  A rough translation is basically “OMG, forgive me for what I was just thinking.”  I was so tired, and so tired of trying to be respectful just to get ogled and treated like a circus freak (or at least it felt like that at the time), that if he had been closer I cannot vouch for what I would have done.  At the time I fantasized about having a full New Yorker Matrix-esque reaction involving all sorts of martial arts moves that even if I had wanted to I could not have pulled off.  Remember the part about culture shock and “disproportionate anger at trivial interferences?”  Yeah…

 That is a story that I share with my class whenever we first start talking about culture shock.  As horrible as culture shock can be while traveling, for me it has always been balanced out with other good travel experiences.  Great people I meet, the fantastic kindness of strangers, an unexpected lunch in a lush garden that looked like what I imagine the Garden of Eden to have been, swimming in the Euphrates River, and other fun memories.  But I’m not travelling now, and in fact once I file my paperwork for Permanent Resident status I will not be allowed to leave the country until that is finalized.  Also, we’re talking Canada here people, not Turkey, not Lebanon, not Spain, not someplace that looks or sounds or tastes all that different from what I used to call “home.”  This is a place where I never even considered experiencing culture shock, but I do feel like I’ve been stripped of all of my familiar cultural cues (see previous posting about not being able to figure out driving speeds/distances, temperatures, etc.), and I do find myself struggling to not respond with irrational anger at simple situations.  Culture shock without the benefit of having fun travel experiences to round out the struggles.

 So now I find myself in the odd position of being an immigrant.  I don’t know why I have resisted that title so much, but I have.  And in the meantime, one of my best places for making friends is among other immigrants.  The woman who “diagnosed” me stated another glaring fact; that when you move to a new place and don’t have any friends you are more likely to make friends with other people who also want to make friends.  And guess what, it is often other immigrants who have no friends and want to make new ones.  Last week Aiden and I went with the Immigrant Welcome Center to visit a bee farm in nearby Cedar, and this week we’ll be touring a local lake and nature center.  I am looking forward to sharing Canadian culture shock stories with others who are going through the same thing.

 -next day-

After writing this post, the very next morning Little Man was singing one of his own songs.  He LOVES music, and will sing and play whenever he can.  Little Man is still getting the hang of dancing, but he loves to play guitar on just about anything he can find, from a fork, to a piece of drift wood, to a plastic leg from his toy barbeque, he rocks out all the time.  He also likes to use all of those things to drum around the house.  Two of his favorite places for drumming are the living room front window ledge or the living room table.  He often signs along to his pounding… I mean drumming… but most of the time he sings made up words or just yodels at the top of his little lungs, which can be quite impressive.

 Then this morning, after writing about culture shock the night before, Little Man started drumming and singing at the top of his lungs in the living room while I was getting ready.  Suddenly I realized that I could understand the words he was singing; three words repeated over and over again with joy.  I figured I must be hearing what I wanted to hear because of what I’d been writing the previous evening so I asked Dave if he heard the words being sung.  Dave stopped for a moment and with a big smile said “yes, he’s singing ‘too far away.’”

 What happened is that just before Little Man started singing this morning, he was talking with Dave and asking if he could go to his beloved day care provider’s house in Pella, Iowa.  He misses her and her daughter very much and asks about them often.  So this morning Little Man asked Dave if he could go over there to play and Dave said that unfortunately no, he couldn’t go since they were “too far away.”  Then Little Man went out to the living room, picked up his “drum sticks” and started playing and singing “too far away” over and over again.  I was near tears, but Little Man was smiling, singing and playing with reckless abandon.  Joy and sadness together.


5 thoughts on “Culture Shock

  1. Shandi King

    My eyes just filled with joy when I read this one! We all do miss u guys lots. Hang in there Marie it’ll get better.

  2. Marcia Fraser

    Hi Marie!  I’m just now getting the chance to sit and read your blog.  Believe it or not I can relate to  this blog about ‘culture shock’….but not in Mexico.  LOL.   But more as it relates to the ‘changing times’ within our own culture.  Interesting.  We’ll have to have a good talk about it one of these days. Also…whenever I read about Aiden singing and drumming it ‘really’ warms the cockles of my heart as music has always been such an important part of my life….and from the time I started talking I was singing.   Hasta la proxima, Un fuerte abrazo, Auntie Marcia. xo


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