Monday, May 24, 2010

Culture Shock

I've spent the last few days struggling with culture shock. Interestingly, I dismissed culture shock when we discussed it in class – I felt that I hadn't really experienced it while I was in Sweden, and so didn't need to worry about it for this trip either. I assumed I was one of those lucky few who adapts to new cultures without difficulty.

For reference, culture shock is the mental discomfort experienced by travelers who find themselves robbed of the cultural cues that make the world make sense. These are usually small and subconscious: the way a man looks at a woman when he wants her attention, and when he does not; the appropriate topics of conversation with new acquaintances; the implications and connotations of association with other members of society of various socio-ethno-economic backgrounds; the meaning of friendship.

Let me give an example. Solitude and quiet are both fairly standard concepts in North American / Northern European culture; we even use the expression “peace and quiet,” positively to denote a state of equilibrium, homeostasis, or rest. This is not apparently a common South African theme.

More importantly, the expectations based on that theme are not effective or useful as behavioral guides in South Africa. It is not so simple as, “Everything is the opposite of America” - rather, the pattern relies on different – unknown – logic. Hence, anxiety.

The lack of quiet particularly unnerves me. My roommate listens to music, the domestic servant leaves the television on, precisely so that it ISN'T quiet. I find it difficult to finish my notes with all of the sound, and get behind, which in turn causes further anxiety, which in turn makes it more difficult to concentrate and work. Fortunately, I have some control over this, and will work with my roommate in the future to establish a measure of silence.

Back to the past few days, I found unexpected help in one of the local families here. I was to attend a youth service with the family's Baptist church, and so Auntie and her daughter picked me up. On the way, we stopped at her brother's house for what was intended to be just a few minutes; when Auntie's brother found out that he had a guest, I was invited to join them for the poikei, and it became an evening. I sincerely hope that I haven't overstepped any bounds with this family, as they have been astoundingly generous to me with food and friendship.

Anyway, the man talked and laughed with me, and Auntie, and I again had a very good time. He mentioned specifically how, when you travel, you go through some rough adjustment (he is quite the traveler himself), and he offered his friendship when things were a little tougher than usual.

His timing was impeccable, as things were tougher just then. I had considered not going to the services that evening as I was not feeling well. I knew my illness was from mental stress – culture shock – not physical ailment, so I went anyway, but it was a tough day.

The man's conversation and offer of help had two important effects. First, it legitimized my struggles. I was, and am, neither weird nor weak for experiencing some discomfort in adjusting to a new culture. Also, it was not offensive for me to have some difficulty adjusting. I have some wiggle room; some room to be human and to succeed and fail. Second, it reinforced the idea that I am not alone in my time here, and it is nice to have someone else to turn to.

Advance the clock to Saturday. I attended a stake father and sons' activity here, which consisted of sports, and a scripture quiz period, and food. It was great to spend the morning and early afternoon with fellow priesthood brethren; however, these interactions did not entirely allay my feelings of discomfort and unease. To some degree, I was less comfortable after the activity than before; the common doctrine was comforting, but the differences in approach, sporting rules, and social interaction were a little disconcerting.

What really helped was kneeling down in prayer. There, I felt, strangely, that I ought to watch a particular movie I brought with me. This struck me as odd, as part of my anxiety came from the fact that I was (and am) almost a week behind in my field notes – roughly thirty five pages of writing that I need to finish very quickly. Prayer did not remove my anxiety - I still bore a painful weight at the back of my mind – but I had an idea of what to do.

In following the prompting to pray, I discovered that my computer had viruses and needed to be cleaned, which took almost an hour; in that time, I re-read the article on culture shock we had discussed in the prep class. Rereading the article further legitimized my difficulty; the article listed several of my feelings as symptoms of culture shock, and identified some of my specific concerns as normal and temporary. The assurance that these struggles are only temporary was particularly important – this will not be a miserable experience, I will be able to get my work done, and I will be able to fully appreciate my time here.

Somewhat reassured and calmed, I sat back to watch “Master and Commander.” It's my favorite movie, or at worst in my top three, and so for me, watching it was a delight. When I first wrote this blog entry, I described the movie as “reaffirming my cultural knowledge” and “speaking to my artistic and cultural ideals.” Although that is correct, let me cut the jargon. The movie depicts men behaving with valor in extreme circumstances. It displays and glorifies bravery, loyalty, courage, and friendship. There is very little moral ambiguity in the film, and the questions of morality brought up are discussed in acceptable terms. If any anthropologists are reading this, refer back to my previous terms. I found the film inspiring; I always do, in fact.

The film also provided me with my favorite piece of music – Bach's Prelude to the first Suite for Unaccompanied Cello in G major. The music itself brings peace to my soul. Together, the music and movie were precisely therapeutic and brought me through the mental test I was experiencing. The tumult in my mind was stilled. Although I still experience frustrations, those frustrations are no longer accumulating.

The theme of this week, then, is simply that prayer works, and that living in a new place isn't always easy. Pray for help, do what you feel inspired to do, and you'll get what you need, and don't worry about discouragements that come.

Note: I apologize for the lack of pictures today. I missed loading them on my flsh drive somehow, so I will try and do that tomorrow instead. Expect another, picture-only post or edit from me here in the very near future.

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