The view from elsewhere can be jarring, but a new perspective provides insights.
How small I am, and how big and beautiful the world
Published August 19, 2021 on Medium as part of the Medium Writers Challenge on #Reentry
The summer after my junior year my sister and I went on the high school Spanish club trip to Spain. It was a two-week long trip that visited most of the country in a circle: Madrid, Toledo, Sevilla, Barcelona, San Sebastian. I am almost overwhelmed at the thought of that trip, even today. For a 17-year old girl from South Dakota (even one who had been to Washington, DC, California, Florida, and New York City), seeing cities and structures that are thousands of years old was something that boggled the mind. And in my desire to learn and practice Spanish, being in a country that is filled with people (especially little children!) who speak the language fluently, without translating from English in their heads… well, it was almost too much to bear. How small I was, and how big and beautiful the world.
There was so much to take in. The smells in Spain, like the damp stone smell of the gypsy caves where we went to see flamenco performed. The dry warm air of the Mediterranean climate. The tastes of the split pea soup, the bread and meat at breakfast, so different from my own breakfasts. The castles, windmills, paintings of royalty and Moorish mosaics. I felt like I had landed inside a real storybook and I didn’t want to leave. I was astonished to find that the “regular life” of others could be so different from mine.
Perhaps it was this experience that opened me. It certainly planted in me a question: “What is life like for people who speak Spanish?” I wanted to know how they saw the world; as if speaking Spanish itself was what built the Roman aqueducts or invented the running of the bulls. It was a simple question, really, as it was based in my very basic revelation that people around the world are much different from me. I now think this is a basic piece of information, but for my 17-year old self it was really revolutionary.
My question was important though, I think, for the same reason. It opened me to the idea that other people experience life differently than I do, that they think and plan and learn and feel entirely different things, because their lives are made up of different smells, tastes, sights, neighborhoods, histories.
On September 11 of that year, just a few weeks after my return from Spain, my high school homeroom watched in horror as the second plane hit the World Trade Center in New York, after having watched the first smoking building while thinking what a terrible freak accident that had been. As probably nearly every US-ian felt that day, it was a shock that I didn’t think possible.
Some friends and I had all taken Advanced Placement (AP) US history the year before. We learned a lot from that class and we trusted our teacher, Mr. Lubeck, so during band period we skipped class and went to see him, to see if he could explain what was going on. “I am not surprised by what happened,” he said. We were taken aback. Weren’t we well informed on US history and current events? We had taken his class. We were good students. Why were we so shocked by the day’s events, while Mr. Lubeck was not surprised? What did he know that we didn’t? Also, what did the hijackers see in the US and the world order that I couldn’t see?
When I was in my first year in college, one of my professors had us do an activity to simulate the (mis)interpretations at which one can arrive when one enters a new culture. The idea was to pretend that we were aliens, arriving to Earth for the first time. We were to go somewhere, like a grocery store or sporting event, and interpret the place or event as if we had no idea what was going one. The example given to us was of aliens attending a football game. One could imagine that they might interpret the game as a fertility ritual, in which large, virile men would carry an object representing an egg to a special destination, with barely-clothed women jumping up and down excitedly next to the ritual area.
This example interested me. While the aliens were wrong about football (they were wrong, weren’t they?), the plausibility of the interpretation meant that I had to give football a second look. Perhaps there was a kernel of truth in the meaning they found.
Regardless of the true meaning of football, the idea of the activity was to see a familiar place with new eyes, and to imagine seeing a new place for the first time.
In my own work I have presented study abroad students with information about cultural adjustment, culture shock, and re-entry: I talk with them about positive and negative feelings that one gets when entering a new culture, and also when coming back home.
The stages of cultural adjustment are: initial euphoria, culture shock, gradual adjustment, and adaptation and biculturalism.
The causes of culture shock that I have spoken about with students include: detachment from familiar cultural cues and known patterns of behavior; entering a social environment with different ways of believing, valuing, performing and organizing; high performance expectations in ambiguous circumstances; and finding that things you value about yourself may not be valued in the new culture.
As have many others, I have often found that the most jarring culture shock can occur when one returns home, when one least expects it.
2004 The day that I watched the American flag burned at a concert in Nicaragua was in the same month that the Abu Ghraib photos came out...
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