“Culture shock is the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.”– the all-knowing Oxford Dictionary.
I don’t think I’ve ever really experienced culture “shock”. The closest I might have come to this ominous feeling was Freshmen year of college when someone turned the lights off on me in the shower. At that point I was ready to retreat back to northern Minnesota for winter break. I longed for the place where I used to shower with not only light, but also barefoot and protected by a sturdy curtain that wasn’t prone to flying in the wind every time someone opened the door in our communal bathroom.
Yes, in my experience it’s the little things that get you. My university students just recently instigated a long conversation about culture shock, “Miss have you experienced culture shock in Tunisia???”– a question that often follows the icebreaker of, “What do you think of Tunisia?”. And then I proceed with some major disappointment.
“Sometimes when I can’t find the right shampoo I get frustrated” is my pitiful answer. Nothing here represents a profound difference between the U.S. or Tunisia, nor a nuanced perspective on cultural differences. But the truth is when my hair is overly greasy and plastered to my scalp because the selection of products here favors a much more voluminous head of hair, I start to miss home. Then I start to miss the Walmart where I buy the shampoo. I miss the smell of Pantene for thin hair, and I remember my favorite ice cream and the people I like to eat ice cream with… and as you can see it’s a domino effect. Things can get pretty bad, but thank god my sister recently sent me with a stash of Redken so I can effectively suds up my hair on this side of the Atlantic.
You see, to me this sounds more like homesickness than culture shock.
“Homesickness is the distress caused by being away from home. It’s cognitive hallmark is preoccupying thoughts of home and attachment objects.” — the highly esteemed source of Wikipedia.
And after searching google for the last hour I’ve discovered something. MOST PEOPLE use culture shock and homesickness interchangeably. It seems, however, that both experiences produce the same result of feeling out of place. Culture shock may be triggered by what is different, homesickness is provoked by what is missing. Perhaps my inner negative Nelly (the one that lives next to my inner fat kid) is rearing it’s ugly face here as I tend to focus more on what I miss than what is different, thus leaving me more susceptible to homesickness. Sometimes I wish I could tell my I.F.K. to sit on Nelly and squish her until her voice is no longer audible– that story is for another post though.
But I’m not sure if Nelly is the culprit and this is why: I find the differences so exciting, not in a weird orientalist/belly dancing sort of way, but in a way where I can listen to two dialects of Arabic and notice the differences in pronunciation and vocabulary. Also in a way that I repeatedly ask my Tunisian friends how they so beautifully deal with stress and everyday anxieties (really guys, they put the Americans to shame when it comes to enjoying life).
Don’t get me wrong, though. I do my fair share of complaining about things that America does better, like customer service and driving. After three months of persistence I still do not have functional WiFi in my apartment and earlier today I discussed the idea of keeping cat shit in the car to throw at obnoxious drivers on the road. Let’s just say the grass is pretty green on both sides.
So are we really shocked? If so, by what? Below see baby Celeste in 2016 at a Moroccan wedding. She was more impressed than shocked by everyone’s ability to party until 6:00 in the morning.
On our second piece of cake.
Single women wedding selfie.
In every pre-departure orientation meeting ever designed for college students traveling abroad there exists a section designed to warn bright-eyed young-ins about culture shock. I myself have completed three of these workshops. “For the first few weeks you will be enthralled with the new environment. You will experience the joys and excitement of traveling and discovering new places” *Cue the head nods of eager 20 year olds* “and then you might notice yourself a bit sad and lost”.
This shock sounds like it takes quite a while to set in. And the more I write about this, the more I prefer to use homesickness over culture shock to avoid the unnecessary othering and exotic approach. Isn’t it unfair to the beautiful differences we find in new environments? Isn’t it better to just admit that at some point we will all want our moms and dads? Or toilet paper in every restroom? Or a Chipotle burrito?
After all we are the guests in this scenario, and the main reason for visiting or living in the host country is the differences and diversity it offers.
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