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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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