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.

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

  1. I do enjoy reading descriptions of culture shock. Probably the best description is V.S. Naipaul’s travel narrative An Area of Darkness. He bluntly discusses his trip to visit his Indian roots in India, and is not only in culture shock, but disgusted by what he sees and smells. I believe the Indian people shunned him for this book.

    Yes, it’s hard to be original these days. As you said, that’s why originality wins out because everything starts to sound the same. We’re not shocked anymore by the poverty in Africa or the beauty of Tuscany … our world is so globalized.

    My most shocking moment abroad … well, that’s hard. When I lived in Barbados, I was shocked to see the extreme poverty of the Rastafarian community. When I lived in Estonia, I was shocked to see how strong the neo-Nazi movement is there.

    Thanks for a great post!


  2. I think culture shock is a really interesting topic, because it is such a fundamental part of the travel experience. Even the most confident traveler occasionally feels a little lost in a foreign land, somehow without footing, and for those of us (like me) who tend toward introspection and natural confusion, well, those moments are even more frequent and even more disorienting.

    But they’re also really rewarding.

    To answer your other question: I don’t know if I think it’s harder to be original. I don’t really think so. Though there is nothing new under the sun, the way we say it, and the words we use, are unique and different. I think you touch on something real, something human, and that’s far more important than being just simply new, or original.

  3. I find well-written accounts of culture shock to be very interesting. I think it’s such it’s an incredible reminder of how much our native places can affect who we are, a concept that we perhaps don’t consider very often. Even someone who rejects his/her native culture or considers his/herself to be enlightened and worldly can be deeply affected by culture shock.

    However, I agree that unique tales of this nature are more and more difficult to find. I think this is partly because culture shock is something so incredibly personal. When we experience culture shock for the first time it can be so jarring and eye-opening for us that we don’t always consider that there are many other people who have had similar experiences. When we write about culture shock we have to keep in mind that we are entering a previous conversation, and this sometimes makes it seem as though there are no new angles to cover. However, I believe that as long as there are new people experiencing it, culture shock will continue to inspire original and fascinating narratives.

    One of the most shocking things I found while abroad was the extremely large population of German tourists in the Spanish island of Mallorca. Spanish street vendors would call out to me from their shops, “Guten Tag! ¿Cómo estás?” and there was German music playing in many of the bars and clubs. This was shocking not only because it was unexpected, but also because I was so accustomed to vendors speaking English to me and playing American music. It was an odd sensation to no longer be part of the tourist majority, but at the same time a freeing one.

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