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Culture shock 3: the line

August 24, 2010 in culture boundaries, culture shock

I just shared a positive anecdote about surrender in a culture shock situation, but it can also be a liability.  A traveler has to be willing to push boundaries, to grin and bear the uncomfortable situation.  However, especially during the early phases of adaptation, this flexibility makes her vulnerable, too.

The subtle culture shocks – tremors, as I called them – can define a culture in contrast.  You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.  And sometimes “it” is something as minor as a healthy selection of peanut butter.

Likewise, a person can be defined in contrast – you are marked by your limits, notable for what you do not do.  Let’s add a moral element to the food, and say that a vegetarian may identify as someone who does not bloody their mouth with the inhumane slaughter of animals.  But what if the vegetarian’s host family slaughters a goat in celebration of her arrival?  If she ate it, it would be a sign of respect to the family, and certainly reflects a willingness to push her boundaries.  But at what point does she violate her own beliefs?  And, if they are constantly in negotiation, how will she know?

I tended to know when the line is crossed – rampant sexism always gets my goat – but I had trouble knowing when to keep that goat as a pet, or when to slaughter it in public (I think this feeling of disgust means the metaphor is officially exhausted).

My question is:  How and when did you learn to set boundaries when you were traveling?  Which of your convictions – culturally transmitted, personal, religious, etc. – are nonnegotiable, and how do you react appropriately in situations where they are threatened?  Where, and how, do you draw the line?

Culture shock 2: surrender

August 15, 2010 in culture shock, Gregory David Roberts, santa maria pilgrimmage, shantaram

I wrote about culture shock a few weeks back.  It hits everyone differently.  Katie was disoriented but liberated when she realized that she was no longer a member of the tourist majority in Mallorca.  My friend Ben started bobbling his head while people were speaking after he spent six months in India.  These moments of realignment – or, more frequently, the tremors of adjusted detail – give the traveler a new space in which to define herself.

Gregory David Roberts’s Shantaram provides a literal example of this redefinition.  The novel’s protagonist leaves Australia with a forged passport bearing the moniker Lindsay; he becomes Lin-sang when his Bombay guide has trouble pronouncing his English name; he becomes Shantaram when the inhabitants of his guide’s home village decide to give him a Maharastrian name.  His name means “man of peace,” a contrast to his violent past, and the protagonist explicitly states that “the man I am was born in those moments.”

Shantaram is not a subtle work – two pages earlier, “Lindsay” commented, “My culture had taught me all the wrong things well.” – but it contains some excellent advice for travelers who venture out of their element.

When Lindsay confronts a particularly awkward situation – say, his host’s father insists that the visitor pat his prominent “tummies,” and repeated this request despite polite refusals – he notes, “Sometimes you have to surrender before you win.” He then asserts that “surrender is at the heart of the Indian experience.”  Surrender in some form – to circumstance, to strange-looking currency, to a radically new sleeping schedule, to communicating through a series of drawings – is at the heart of any travel experience.

My most vivid moment of surrender came on a Sunday during spring in Argentina.  I was supposed to be taking a walk with my friend, Sergio.  Most travelers – especially control freaks whose unfamiliar environment renders them powerless – build routines, fulfilled expectations, safe zones.  Sergio and I had a pattern.  I could relax with him, and his family, because they felt familiar.  I knew what to expect.

So when he asked if I’d like to go for a walk on Sunday morning, I said yes.  When he mentioned that his mother would be joining us, I was surprised, but affable.   When we worked our way out of his barrio onto the main street, I was concerned – his mother, Ophelia, was walking in the middle of a major road, which is particularly dangerous on the route to the truck-heavy campo.

Before I could ask Sergio what she was doing, we had turned the corner, and stepped into the middle of a large procession.  People filled the road for blocks behind me.  A quarter-mile ahead, a pick-up truck carried a statue of the Virgin Mary and blasted prayers over a loudspeaker.  I punched Sergio in the shoulder – this was a pattern, too – and considered my situation.  I hate crowds, loud noise upsets me, I’m not Catholic, I had no idea where we were going, and I had no escape plan.  I was, in a word, rattled.  Sergio gripped my arm, told me that we were walking to Toay, the next town over, and urged me to follow his mother, who was hand-shaking and elbowing her way up to the statue, laughing a Santa Maria.  I took a step forward and began to mouth the prayer, learning as I went along.

Culture Shock: places are strange when you're a stranger

July 26, 2010 in Uncategorized

I went to a college that I often compared to a boarding school, but boarding school graduates compared it to summer camp.  We were coddled, gently incubated to adulthood in a single-path Ohio village.  Our dining hall had a “continuous feed” policy.  Our health center offered support groups for socially isolated students.  Our professors regularly granted extensions for existential crises.  It was a place apart, with the remote location, Gothic architecture, and demographically limited population you’d expect in a period piece, a horror movie, or a combination of the two.

Given that my college experience combined the odd and the infantilizing so frequently, when my study-abroad materials raised the possibility of “culture shock,” I considered it an overstated concern and a welcome diversion.  Junior year was the perfect time to go abroad – I had just begun to internalize the limitations of my campus, to reduce my worldview to a population excessively concerned with the social capital of obscure indie rock bands, or their ability to express the inherent inadequacy of language in a fourteen-line poem.

To prepare myself intellectually for my abroad experience, I took a course on 18th century travel narratives.  We covered the requisite Boswell, Johnson, and Smollet, but also the landscape-mirroring-emotion letters of Mary Wollstonecraft.  In retrospect, I wish I’d devoted more attention to descriptions of more dramatic culture clashes – Passage to India, Wide Sargasso Sea—or the science-fiction narratives on my brother’s bookshelf.

Psychologists, literary scholars, and international studies counselors throw around the terms “defamiliarisation,” intercultural awareness,” and “negotiation phase,” but they are all talking about the newcomer’s confrontation with a novel environment.  The first shock of a “foreign” sensory experience – the dense scent of Bombay’s airport, the preemptory “sorry” in a crowded Dublin street, the first mouthful of French headcheese – has the makings of a vivid, and entirely individualized, description.  The writer’s vocabulary is drawn from the language and experience of the host culture.  Here’s an illustrative passage from Fred D’Aguiar’s “A Son in Shadow,” where a Guyanan bride encounters English weather:

The first morning I opened the door that autumn and shouted “Fire!” when I saw all the smoke, thinking the whole street was on fire, all the streets, London burning, and slammed the door and ran into his arms and his laughter, and he took me out into it in my nightdress, he in his pajamas, and all the time I followed him, not ashamed to be seen outside in my thin, flimsy nylon (if anyone could see through that blanket) because he was in his pajamas, the blue, striped ones, and his voice, his sweet drone, told me it was fine, this smoke without fire was fine, “This is fog.”

Travel literature produces these salient encounters – Sloane Crosley’s description of an encounter with Portuguese circus clowns in her latest essay collection is the first that comes to mind.  Specificity is not a handicap, either — Bill Bryson has made a career of highlighting the finer points of contrast between England and the United States.  Still, given the globalization of culture, the increased accessibility of international travel, and the propensity of memoirists to dash abroad, I am concerned that, just as expatriate communities live in their native tongue, just as the Grand Tour followed an itinerary, so today’s traveler/readers are losing their ability to cast off established frames of reference.  In other words, I fear that the contemporary writer has been limited to seeking food in Italy, prayer in India, and love in Indonesia.

If our planet has become overly familiar, then science fiction is an ideal platform, a means of approaching our world as alien.  The man-from-Mars trope is classic, but the graphic novel Black Hole, and, sigh, yes, even the Twilight series, lends a sparkle of originality to the well-worn terrain of lust in the American Northwest.

Of course, I may be underestimating today’s authors, just as I underestimated the unmooring I felt during my second month in Ireland.  Plenty of writers – Tolstoy foremost among them – have made the familiar strange without resorting to science fiction, surrealism, or writer-seeks-self narratives.  If you’re interested in estrangement of familiar, I recommend Cortazar’s Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates, or a viewing of PBS’s “Culture Shock” segment on Huckleberry Finn.

Do you enjoy reading descriptions of culture shock?  Do you think that a glut of travel narratives compromises a writer’s ability to be original?  What was your most shocking moment abroad?  I’ll be writing more on this next week, so let me know.

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