Culture Shock

Sedona, AZ - because you deserve something pretty to look at after reading my rant.

Sedona, AZ – because you deserve something pretty to look at after reading my rant.

I think I was a little naïve. I thought culture shock was for people who hadn’t gotten out much. While this is my first time living abroad, I have travelled abroad enough. I’ve also moved around the U.S. living on the East coast and in the Midwest which are two very distinct cultures. I felt pretty confident that I could roll with the changes and adapt pretty easily. So, imagine my confusion, when I suddenly find myself irritated on a daily basis just walking down the street. I couldn’t understand where all of this negativity was coming from. And then yesterday, I had an epiphany. Didn’t Peace Corps say something about this in our training? Didn’t they talk about when the novelty wore off? Oh, right, that’s what culture shock is! It isn’t a knee-jerk reaction by “ugly Americans” who expect everything to be just so. No, it is more or less a stress response to living day to day in a culture that is foreign to your own. It is about learning to navigate in that world (when you don’t speak the language) and being frustrated by it. And it is about a natural resistance to these cultural differences.

At the moment, I feel pretty confident that I will never feel okay carrying on a lengthy, fairly loud conversation with my neighbor while someone attempts to give a presentation. But, you know, I might get accustomed to shoving myself to the front of the shapeless blob that Georgians prefer to an orderly line. I may never understand the reason they prefer the blob, but I’ll learn to do it. I will definitely NOT get accustomed to the way any Georgian, no matter how sane in every other way, suddenly becomes a king when they get behind the wheel of a car. Anyone not in the car becomes a valueless obstacle in their way whether that is an old lady, a puppy, or the car coming directly at them as they pass the car in front of them. To call the average Georgian driver aggressive or reckless would be an understatement of colossal proportions. And I honestly can’t even speak about the things I’ve witnessed in terms of animals – dead, dying, or just neglected.

But you see where this is going, right? Nowhere good. So, yesterday, as I’m walking back to the office from a presentation, seething at the rudeness of the audience at the presentation, shocked by the woman who pretty much shoved me out of the way to get to the food, frustrated by my inability to talk to and therefore have any kind of relationship with my coworkers, and on guard against the drivers that I’m pretty sure would run me down no problem as long as it wouldn’t hurt their cars, I’m also thinking what the hell is wrong with me? Why am I so angry all the time? And then it hits me. I’ve left the “honeymoon” phase. I’ve moved into the “negotiation” phase. This was perhaps a bit harder to recognize because the “honeymoon” phase wasn’t all that pronounced. While Georgian culture is definitely different than American culture, it isn’t strikingly so. There is nothing “exotic” about being in Georgia. I do love many things about Georgian culture. Most of these things have to do with how much they value guests and neighbors. I think Americans could learn a great deal in this area and I certainly plan to bring Georgian hospitality back with me. But on a day to day level, life here isn’t obviously different than life in the States. The infrastructure is crumbling more, there are more unemployed people, and, of course, the social norms for women are more oppressive (although women here don’t really seem to notice). But I live with a family in an apartment as nice as any I’ve ever lived in, I go for day trips to the beach with coworkers, and I go out for food or drinks with friends . I guess my point is I’m not living in a hut on an island helping to harvest the local crop. Life here feels, in a lot of ways, very ordinary. I go to work every day and sit at a desk in front of a computer. Which I think is why the less obvious cultural differences frustrate me so much. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that if things were MORE different, I’d have an easier time adjusting. But because in so many ways, they are so similar, the differences just piss me off. Well, at least the ones that offend my sense of “appropriate” social behavior.

Anyway, upon getting back to the office, I decided to do a little research to find ways to constructively get through this “negotiation” phase and on to the “adjustment” phase where I get used to these differences (or stop having the energy to care). I found a useful article with some good suggestions which I plan to try to follow. My favorites were to every day find something about the culture that I like, do something that takes courage every day which shouldn’t be hard since everything is new, and keep a journal. It was also a good reminder that one of the reasons I joined the Peace Corps was to push myself and to grow. Somehow along the way, I forgot that growth comes from challenging one’s self, and challenges are by definition difficult. So, suck it up and be more positive, Jenson!

Of course, this would all be a lot easier if I didn’t have a fantastic guy at home making me wonder, “why is it I did this again?”. And of course my boy Chester who I miss desperately, but from all accounts is having a great time with his grandma.

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2 thoughts on “Culture Shock

  1. Oh, I do sympathize! And I agree that the more similar a culture is the more the culture shock sneaks up on you it also lingers and passes in different ways. I have the easiest but most insidious culture shock when I am in other English speaking, “first world” places. Good luck! Try to keep recognizing it as a part of the experience that your will appreciate most in the long run.

  2. Thank you for your candor, “Jenson”! Your insights are wonderful, especially for me since I have never lived abroad, but, like you, lived ‘back East’ (in the south), the Midwest, and now the Southwest. Good coping strategy. The sad plight of the animals there is heart-breaking to read. Wishing you all the best and looking forward to your next post!

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