The Internal Clash of Civilizations

Good afternoon.  All the best to each of you.  I hope everything is going well.

As I explained in my last post, I am in Washington, DC now enjoying lots of relaxation and time with friends and family while I look for work.  More on the job search in a later post.

Today I want to reflect more on the concept of culture shock.  I think in common parlance “culture shock” refers to a feeling you get when traveling that you’re totally overwhelmed (positively or negatively) by all of the differences you are seeing.  The Wikipedia definition which is taken from what looks to be a Sociology text book (look it up if you want more details) defines it as, “the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, or to a move between social environments also a simple travel to another type of life.”  And throughout all of my travels, I have never felt that.  I’ve been impressed, disgusted, inspired, confused, desperate, but never disoriented or “shocked.”  I couldn’t relate to that idea.  In retrospect, I can recall a few occasions where I probably did experience that, but they felt more like simple homesickness and loneliness.  However, during the TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) back in January (read more about that in this post, I learned more about the psychological phenomenon named culture shock.  It is actually a four-phase process: (1) Initial Euphoria also known as the Honeymoon period, (2) Irritation and Hostility, (3) Gradual Adjustment, and (4) Adaptation and Biculturalism.  And, of course, any given person may not progress through these stages at the same pace as another, and they may be returned to previous stages along the way.

When most people talk about culture shock in a casual way, they are most likely thinking of stage one, where a traveler is excited and in awe of their new environment – generally feeling great about being there, on their honeymoon before reality sets in.  It may be that “honeymoon period” is a more apropos title that we thought, as the same phases probably unfold similarly in many marriages… but I’m no expert.  At some point, the giddy excitement wares off and you start to notices little and big differences from your native culture that begin to grind on you, and thus you enter the second stage, Irritation and Hostility.  This happened about four months into my year and lasted for perhaps three months.  That said, it’s very hard to put this on a timeline because one’s feelings can change day to day.  But from about November through mid-February I spent a least part of every other day in Ecuador thinking, “I hate Ecuador.  I don’t know if I’m going to be able to tolerate this for another 7 months.  I hate how people here walk, I hate how my students whine and don’t know how to write, I hate getting cat calls on the street….”  Some of you will remember this post which I wrote in the middle of that Irritation and Hostility phase, can you tell?  My annoyance was probably compounded by the fact of it being “winter,” the rainy season.  I like sun, a lot, and I have a hard time maintaining a cheerful, positive mood when it’s cloudy all day, let alone for several days in a row.  And I was helped out of this stage by moving from my host family’s house into my own apartment with an American roommate.

The next two phases are less distinguishable.  I don’t know if or when I reached the final stage.  Biculturalism, like bilingualism is a task for a lifetime, but it develops over time, so I have likely achieved it in some aspects.  Something that helped me adjust and let go of some of the things that grated on me so much was trying to understand the rationale behind actions or systems.  If I can decipher the reason for doing something, I am able to accept it more readily, even if I disagree.  To offer a counter example, the idiotic grocery cart system at Supermaxi (Ecuador’s supermarket chain) will continue to annoy me even in memory because I don’t understand how on earth someone came up with it, and what led them to believe it would be effective.  Also, in order to find your place in a new culture or environment, it is important to find people that you can relate to.  This is why my move into my own apartment was a pivotal point, and why I am so grateful to have worked with so many other foreigners.  I wanted to have an authentic experience living in an Ecuadorian household, and I did, but as it turned out, I needed to have my own space where I could just be American and not worry about how to be Ecuadorian.

And considering biculturalism brings me to my present location and experience in adjusting back to American society.  As I think I mentioned before, it was a lot easier returning to my native culture – no surprise there.  One of the more subtle challenges for me has been thinking about how to relate to people outside of my socioeconomic-racial group here.  One of the wonderful things about travel is that is makes us more open and willing to put aside stereotypes and prejudices.  Ecuador definitely did that for me.  And one of the ways that that happened is that in Ecuador I existed outside the social structure of the Ecuadorian society.  Sure, there is a place for gringas and there are stereotypes that accompany that place, but I occupied only that small space which was peripheral to the main ladder.  I generally had the freedom to interact with anyone I chose to, regardless of race or economic status or whatever, with very little response or comment from other people.  While there is a definite racial divide between Afro-Ecuadorians and mestizos, I could cross that divide with much more ease that they would be able to.  And so, returning to my place in American society has been interesting.  In many ways I feel limited by it.  I feel like I have to be more cautious about how I approach people, because no longer am I an innocuous tourist, but I am a very obvious member of the dominant racial and cultural group and necessarily occupy a specific place in the social hierarchy.  Other people have attitudes and prejudices that are different and more intense that what Ecuadorians had.  I don’t like that, and perhaps it seems like I am exaggerating, but the feeling is exaggerated by my having been free of it for a year.  I feel like I don’t fit properly in the social strata that I belong to by default.  Now that’s disorienting!

Some of you know that I am addicted to salsa, and that I have returned to dancing at my regular old salsoteca here in Washington.  As it turns out, dancing has become something of a remedy for the feeling described above, or at least an escape from it.  One of the things I especially appreciate about this place now is that I can go there and feel a bit like I’m back in Ecuador.  I speak Spanish there, nearly everyone there is Latino, and this is where the biculturalism thing comes into play.  When I go there, I can turn back into Raquelita and feel totally at home in a sort of ironic place for a 6’1’’ blonde girl to feel totally at home.  Even though I’m clearly a minority, I don’t feel out of place culturally.  And I am now even more at ease there than I was a year and a half ago when I left Washington.

I find relief and encouragement in the familiar quote from Maya Angelou, which reads, “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” as well as in my recollection of influential humanitarian philanthropists such as Princess Diana.  Although I don’t know a lot about her, I imagine that one of the reasons people liked her so much and what made her successful was her ability to connect with people while transcending cultural, linguistic, economic, racial and other barriers.  She could go from glitzy fundraising dinners to mud houses and express the same grace and affection for the people she met in either place.  If you can just see someone for who they truly are and love them, then those other things become irrelevant.  And so, I am trying to use this transition as an opportunity to continue expanding my comfort zone to include a wider range of social environments by letting how I make someone feel triumph over whether I speak the right dialect, wear the right clothes, or gesture in the right way.

Three ideas give me additional inspiration for how to accomplish this, all resting on the importance of humility.  The first is following Jesus’ example of washing his disciples’ feet and then requesting that they do the same to each other.  In Biblical account, they protest and try to stop him from washing their feet and then insist on washing his, but he instructs them that they must let him continue and that by following his example and washing each other’s feet, they will truly be his disciples.  In this and many other stories, washing of feet is an act of humbling one’s self and showing reverence for another, and it is therefore notable that Jesus did this to his disciples.  Rather than reinforcing his position as the Master, he humbles himself and shows his reverence for those that have chosen to follow him.

The other idea is from South-Asian culture.  The word ‘namaste’ is a greeting used on the Indian subcontinent and has various meanings.  One such meaning that I’ve heard is, “the divine in me recognizes the divine in you,” which brings us back to cultivating that ability to see through to someone’s true nature and recognize that while casting aside the accoutrements of class and culture.  In the words of Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer and founder of Christian Science, “Break up
cliques, level wealth with honesty, let worth be judged according to wisdom, and we get better views of humanity.”  Working on it!…

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