Culture shock - what was I thinking?

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Culture shock is something we were told about. It was not being homesick. Things would not be any different, but we would feel that something was different. We might be depressed or feel uneasy. This would happen after we were in country typically after 3 months.

I went through that when I went to Nigeria, then after I transferred to Somalia, when I came home after Peace Corps,and when I was in the Army. Franconia College was a big change, but I don't remember a transition from the Army to College. However, I spent a year with the Navajo and it happened and it was difficult readjusting when I went back to Franconia. Basically, I recognized that I transitioned through culture shock 6 times.

There were two funny things that happened to me that demonstrate some sort of switch that went on in my head. The first happened in Port Harcourt while I was with a group of Nigeria XVI volunteers for some reason (party or maybe a group debriefing). The second happened outside of the Greyhound Bus station in Sacramento while I was home on leave from Somalia.


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Culture shock at the movies

I was 21 maybe close to 22 and was at the end of my group's tour in 1967. I remember I took my cook Fabian with me on my first trip to the big city of Port Harcourt, the oil town full of ex-pats and civilization. We went shopping at a 3 story department store. I stepped on an escalator while talking to him and realized he was still at the bottom not knowing what to do. We were both laughing as I showed how to not step in the cracks and how to get off. My point is that on some levels I was had no problem with common things from my culture that I had not seen in two years or more.

About 10 of us decided to see a real movie. The Port Harcourt Presendential Hotel had a big movie theater and there we went. It was the real deal. Sloping room, real movie seats, big screen and about half filled as we entered.

Understand, both then and now, I am a "casual" dresser and know it. I appreciate that in some situations, the shirt should be buttoned straight, maybe tucked in, the socks put in some sort of order, my hair patted down and things like that.

As I entered the theater and started walking down the aisle with my friends, I started my ritual without looking at what I was doing. I checked my top buttoned button on the shirt it was in the right hole. Then I tucked in my shirt tail and sort of smoothed out the shirt around my waist into my freshly presssed shorts (thank you Fabian). The MOST IMPORTANT THING to check for a male casual dresser is THE FLY. Most of my shorts had a button fly. Fortunately there were no inappropriately exposed body parts and everything was secure. I probably ended with running my fingers through my hair in a vague attempt at combing it and checking my collar of my shirt at the back. That was the normal ritual.

The theater had some empty seats where we could sit in a row, about 2/3 of the way down. We filed into the row and took our seats. Just before I sat down, I realized that I had continually repeated the ritual since I entered the theater. Part of my brain said "Why are you doing that?" The answer was obvious, I was nervous.

Why was I nervous? I was with a group of friends, in a very orderly and civilized place, dressed like everybody else. I sat down. Then I had another revelation. There were a lot of people. Two or three times more people than would normally attend the monthly meetings at any of the 12 community farms in Ikot Ekpene Division. But certainly there were fewer people than on any street in the Aba market or at any modest village celebration. It was something to do with people. Even thinking about it, I still felt nervous sitting there.

Being nervous around people was not something that was or is a common occurrence with me. As I sat there, listening to the chatter of my friends who acted completely at home, I found my hands checking my hair and collar again, but nothing else. This is weird. Right then I put together that I thought people were staring at me. I literally turned around and scanned the theater behind me. I was full of ex-patriatrates and nobody was paying any attention to me. This was logical but why did I feel that way?

Another idea broke over Marble Head when I remembered my first couple of months going to meetings. By the way, generically I fit into the "White" category, with blue eyes and had hair (then), brown in color. In a group of Nigerians I was physically different. Old women and children would come up to me and carefully reach out to feel the hair on my arms. Sometime after I went through the culture shock of being in Nigeria, the self conscientious of being different went away. Until I walked down that aisle in the theater in Port Harcourt.

I started laughing. I thought all those strangers were looking at me because I was different. Actually, it was my cultural reality that so many people in one place should have all been Nigerians. In some twisted way, my brain said in effect, I was different than all those people around me and maybe part of me thought I looked like a Nigerian. I had mentally changed my race to African.

Now that is culture shock. I still think it is funny and it was very real.

Bump and run and beer at a Bus depot

About a year later, I was given a month leave from Somalia and went home to Sacramento. I lived outside of the city in the suburbs, frankly typically WASP in 1968. I was on some errand in Sacramento, walking down the street next to the Greyhound Bus depot. Somebody came charging out of a door and we collided.

Without thinking, I automatically said "ndo" (sorry, in Ibo) and started to move on. "What the hell did you just call me!", shouted the man I bumped into. This kind of verbal confrontation happened almost every day in Somalia to me. It was never personal, always cultural. Here was an African American, in my face. A vaguely sub-Saraha looking male, very angry and mad.

My experience and training in Somalia was not show any emotion and move on. Later, Drill Sergeants thought I was being a tough guy because I did not react when they got in my face. They loved to give the tough guy with the broken wrist, pushups. That was later, in Sacramento right then, I was in culture shock.

I was not smiling when I said something like, "I am sorry. I spent the last 3 years in African in the Peace Corps. That is how the Ibo people in Biafra say I am sorry. I forgot where I was." I figured the absolute truth was the best approach and I would see if that was even more of an insult or at best put me into the category of a harmless cultural idiot. I took solace that I was on a busy sidewalk and probably would live.

This man took a hard look at me and must have figured out that such an outrageous story had to be true. The result is that we went back into the bar, he had come out of, and bought each other a beer, then went on our separate ways.

Moral of the story?

Obviously, I have held onto these memories for years. No doubt both stories have been polished in my mind since they happened. But happen they did.

I believe I am a better person because of those little culture shock events. They remind me how much of what I see is a construct of my mind, rooted in my habits. It is too bad I am so culturally blind to my habits most of the time, just like the rest of the mortals around me.


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