Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Choque Cultural.

You know when you get a medication prescribed to you for the first time and maybe decide to look at the list of potential side effects before taking your first dose?  And without a doubt get a bit overwhelmed because without fail--from the simplest to the most complex meds--these always include things like internal bleeding, nausea, vomiting, maybe even depression or changes in mood, dizziness, fatigue, constipation, diarrhea, loss of appetite, changes in taste, malaise (ie feeling like death), etc.  But you take the med anyway because you think the actual chances of you getting any of the really bad side effects are so low that it's not worth worrying about.

It was with this exact mindset that I first reviewed the list of potential "symptoms" of culture shock--or what sometimes can be thought of as potential "side effects" of living overseas in another culture--what now seems like a lifetime ago during my MKLM orientation in the fall of 2014.  And what a list it is.  Below is a compilation of some of my "favorites:"

  • Extreme homesickness
  • Feelings of helplessness/dependency
  • Disorientation and isolation
  • Depression and sadness
  • Hyper-irritability, may include inappropriate anger and hostility
  • Sleep and eating disturbances (too little or too much)
  • Excessive critical reactions to host culture/stereotyping
  • Hypochondria
  • Excessive drinking
  • Recreational drug dependency
  • Extreme concerns over sanitation, safety (even paranoia), and being taken advantage of
  • Loss of focus and ability to complete tasks

Wow.  Now there's a whole list of horrible if I've ever seen one.  No wonder I glanced at it and then mentally set it aside. Also, before this stage of "culture shock" hits, there's a wonderful initial "honeymoon" stage we were told about, making it much more easy to focus on the positive without thinking about the hardships that, in my mind, potentially could come further down the road.  To help those of us who are very visual, below is a graph of what the mental adjustment of living abroad can look like over time.

As many of you wiser and more traveled people know, regardless of whether you want it to or not, culture shock is a very real experience that apparently all expats/immigrants (or at least the vast majority of us) must go through.  I love how the above graph calls that lowest of the low point, "Acceptance of Reality."  Ha. To me, that gives it too much of the air that it's somehow a choice.  And I guess for some people it is.  But for me, the choice was not whether or not to accept the reality around me, but instead it was whether or not I was going to choose to stay in this new cultural reality or instead just throw in the towel and hightail it back to the U.S. (a thought I had during this time quite frequently).

However, despite going through pretty much all of the above listed symptoms to some extent over the course of a couple months (with the EXCEPTION of excessive drinking and recreational drug dependency I am happy to say), I did stick it out.  But as I look back, I think I can honestly say, it was the hardest thing I have ever gone through in my life. Ever. I won't go too much into the gory details, but I will say that at one point I found myself needing to take a break from washing dishes and physically sit down on my kitchen floor due to the fact that I had quite suddenly and for some unknown reason (at least to my conscious being) begun sobbing uncontrollably. Which then to my even greater surprise lasted for like an hour. That was a new experience for me. And one I hope doesn't repeat all that often in my life. Or ever really.

I think overall I would describe culture shock as a life-sucking fog that I felt constantly enveloped in. I can only imagine that my experience was a lot like being pretty depressed for a defined period of time. It took all my effort to just, "go through the motions" some days and try not to appear as "irritable" or as, "angry at all things Bolivian," or as "numb" as I felt inside depending on the day or moment in time. Now, I should pause for a second and add that there were other challenges going on in my life during this time as well, which did not help the situation--ie my community of support was going through a whole lot of hard changes, I was knee deep in the very frustrating and time consuming process of renewing my Bolivian residency visa, and I was dealing with a fifth diagnosis of "bichos" ie parasites and the pain and suffering that goes along with that.  However, although all of these things likely compounded my culture-shocky experience, they most definitely were not the cause.  And also most likely wouldn't have appeared to be such "dramatic" and "traumatic" experiences if I hadn't been going through culture shock at the time.

Ok. For those of you that are still with me, I will end this uncharacteristically photo-lacking and somewhat depressing blog post with my one big realization that kept coming back to me during this experience time and time again: Living and working in this other culture that is Bolivia was my CHOICE.  That's right. All this misery and hardship I was going through was pretty much my own fault since I didn't have to be living in Bolivia if I didn't want to be. There was no one or thing stopping me from moving back to Madison or any other city in the U.S. for that matter. I could have picked up at any point and done just what I wrote about earlier in this blog--ie thrown in the towel and called it quits, running back home to streets where I would hardly ever get catcalled and would be able to understand and be understood by pretty much everyone (to name just two of the many things I was desperately missing about U.S. culture at the time).

And this very choice is what sometimes threw me into the greatest depths of despair. Because it opened my eyes to a small sense of what it must feel like for the masses of immigrants living all around the world that for some reason or another never have the real choice to return to their homeland, to their culture, to their idea of "normal." And thus for a very different reason, "Acceptance of Reality," is also never a choice for them either; it is a means of survival. And most must go through this difficult experience--often times out of necessity and maybe even against their will--without the luxury of having their parents just a "skype call away," or without the security of knowing they live in a safe place or will have enough food for the week, or without being able to understand the new language they are surrounded by, or with the ever-present anxiety about their legal status or the fear that they and/or their children will be constantly harassed for "being different" and "less than." Even as I write these words, I get a heavy feeling of nausea in the pit of my stomach and a strong desire to scream. Loudly. I can't even imagine what it would be like to go through culture shock NOT in the "most ideal" of conditions. It quite honestly must be horrific and maybe even impossible at times.

So with that in mind, I will actually end this blog post by asking us all to remember (myself included), that there is a whole lot of difficulty associated with moving to and living in a new culture--much of which is not apparent on the surface. A fact I find especially relevant to all of us as citizens of the United States, a country filled with immigrants, both new and old.  So regardless of legal status, I pray that our country, and the people that make up our country, can find it in their hearts to not only NOT treat immigrants as "foreigners" and the "other," but instead reach out and treat them with even more compassion and kindness than some might see as "necessary."  Because, although this will not make culture shock go away, it will most certainly help, and I hope in the long run will help make our country a place where all feel welcomed and accepted.