Thursday, April 28, 2011

Combatting Culture Shock

I've given up on trying to remember what the stages of culture shock are. It's like the seven stages of grief - what are those again? Denial, Bargaining, Sleepiness, Wrath, Avarice, Bashful, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon...

The way it basically goes is you show up, you like a place. I recall that this is called the 'honeymoon' stage. Everything is swell and whatnot. I also remember that this is the shortest of the stages, not just in general, but for me particularly.

For this is take two of culture shock for me. The first round was in Leeds which was totally not coincidentally when this blog began. As Marilyn Manson will be paraphrased "When you are misunderstood and popular you form a band. When you're feeling misunderstood and unpopular you write." He was referring to adolescence. But as someone who started seriously putting thoughts on paper in that age, what can I say?

(This has been the biggest gripe of the island - there is far too much Mandarin-specific writing and information. When a guest speaker came to our school he began to speak in Mandarin, which must have been very comforting to the 20% of our students who speak Tamil or Malay. It's not isolated, and my reactions to it would fall into the classic 'withdrawal' stage.)

Not at the time really knowing what to do or expect in Leeds I had a sore time of it. Like an obstacle course of despondency I fell into each culture shock trap on cue. The problem is that the nasty stages of shock all happen in the first few months, and around month six or so you start to 'reintegrate'. I was in Leeds for five months.

My last weeks in England, I recall, were quite nice. I felt more at peace, had regrouped with the people I'd initially hung out with, and for the first time that year the sun was out. So getting on the plane back to the States I can't say I was glad it was all over - indeed, it seemed to only then be beginning.

Round Two: Asian Boogaloo (which sounds like a disease) has required all manner of precautions to ensure that the shock doesn't happen again. I'm at my most sociable since college. I'm trying to ensure that I'm pacing myself in my explorations and being adventurous.

Adventure isn't usually a top priority. In a freak of non-inductive stubbornness I'm still always surprised when I hear someone say they are drawn to adventure. Adventures are just accidents with happy endings. A description I can't imagine catching on, due to it's dual-fluid imagery.

Yet...for someone who isn't adventurous oftentimes I voluntarily find myself in adventures. Reading a New Yorker article I ran across this image of the author:

Jonathan Franzen on a Chilean isle. All copyrights, etc.

It reminded me of the time I was scrambling up a cliff in Belfast in a rainstorm, knowing full well from years of rock climbing that if I turned around I would plummet rather than descend. Muddy and exhausted I made it to the top as the rain lifted and the plateau was shrouded in high elevation fog. It was extraordinary.

Or the time when I decided with some of my companions that switchbacks would take too long, and so we abandoned the path and began a guided free fall down the side of canyon in Utah. In those aerial seconds between landings you had to make amazing split-second footing decisions. I nearly wiped out with remarkable consequence due to a lizard darting onto the rock I'd targeted for my feet. Doing a pirouette in the razor blue Utah sky - that I'll never forget.

Not forgetting the incident when time stood still because I was submerged in a rushing river, unable to swim as a small child, and moments from calm expiration. Straying from the shallows I had intentionally wanted to explore the more interesting bend of the river.

The point is, I'm a cautious person.

The other point is I'm drawn to exploring. Which brings me to the most important memory of my childhood. (Besides the one with the spider which, unfortunately, was the moment mortality 'clicked' for me.)

Preschool. 1989, San Francisco, a private backyard of terraced gravel with play sets and activity sets of all description, and lots of little kids running around. A big natural wood fence. At the corner of the yard and the plot next door was a telephone pole. Straying toward the back corner of the enclosure I discovered a notch allowing me to look into the neighbor's yard.

It was overgrown with Californian flora. No paths, no children, it could easily have been an abandoned lot. But I couldn't, due to my height and the height of the grasses, see the end of this wondrous meadow that wanted exploring. A butterfly flew by, and I looked up to the clouds, wanting to go into that yard, and then the next, and the next and keep going.

This experience can't be unique to me. My Neighbor Totoro wouldn't be nearly as popular if it was.

Now, statistically a third of the way through my life, two things I recall from that moment. Whether they've been adapted or invented who knows. One was a moment of conscience awareness - the decision that I wanted to remember this for when I was older. (Undoubtedly tried other times afterwards with less success.) Second was a deep-seated desire to explore horizons, and forge ahead towards the next rise, or through the next field.

Every place I've lived in or visited has a meadow moment. At some point my restlessness drives me, usually at night, to plunge out into the unknown and aim for the horizon. Just a few days ago it happened in Singapore. Finding myself miles from home, in a part of the island I'd never seen I ran across a vast green space, and on the edge a rise lined with trees - so I struck out and navigated blindly towards - whatever it was.

Vermont, Colorado, California, the UK, over and again this scene has played out. Even in cityscapes like Boston or Seattle. Somehow I always end up back at home, late at night, and tired. Having gone out walking not for leisure, but for the sake of striking out on one's own.

Culture shock hasn't gotten the best of me, yet. Singapore has kept me sort of sane. Undoubtedly I retreated, and criticized and felt isolated. But that's normal. Besides, how bad can feelings of isolation get for someone compelled to wanderlust into the meadows of the night?

Whatever the stages are, they should be clearing up soon, and around June, if all goes well, the emotions and exasperations will sort themselves out. That's the final stage: Acceptance.

Or was it 'Remission'?

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