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Monday, April 4, 2011

Learning Journal 27: Culture Shock

In the readings and class discussion about culture shock, I noticed so many ideas and opinions that I had had about travel and biculturalism that I wasn't quite able to put into words. The discussion and readings helped me not only put some of these ideas into words, but also helped me think about them on a deeper level. One of my ideas about why culture shock can be so intense and powerful is because sometimes we passively let our cultures define ourselves. Granted, there are a lot of aspects about our culture that have a huge effect on us, whether we want them to or not. But there are also a lot of ways in which we can differ from our culture. For instance, do I go to church, abstain from alcohol and drugs, and dress modestly because it is part of who I am, or because everyone else in my culture does the same thing? Do I value hard work and self-reliance because I myself am hard working and self-reliant, or just because these are (WASP) American values? I think a big reason why culture shock is so powerful is because when we are removed from our native culture, it is no longer there to define us or to help us make decisions. We must decide if certain values and personality traits are part of what defines us as a human being, or if they were just something we took on as part of living in our culture. Realizing that your self-knowledge and humanity depends on a culture that you left thousands of miles away can be rather frightening.
Another concept about culture shock that I've been thinking about for a while is the difference between cultural immersion and just simply sightseeing and vacationing. I have a lot of friends who have become world travelers while in college, and while they've spent many months of their college careers in different countries, they seem totally unaffected by culture shock. As I first learned about culture shock from the IAS prep course, I kept asking myself why my friends hadn't gotten culture shock, why they seemingly waltzed into a country, saw everything of importance, ate good food, enjoyed the nature, took enough photos for a facebook picture album, and were done. If I was preparing for symptoms like over/undereating, random bouts of crying, and irritability, how was it that their only negative experience during travel was a light sunburn?
As I've been thinking about this lately, especially after class discussion, I realized that there were two probable answers. First, they actually did experience culture shock, but not knowing what it was, they just assumed they were being weak or grouchy and obviously don't want to share their faults with me. And second, they may not have experience culture shock because they stayed within the Americanized areas of the countries they visited. Most of these friends stayed in nice hotels with very western ideas of service and living. And those who weren't able to stay in nice hotels still did not put much emphasis on cultural immersion--they were either there to study geology, wildlife, native plants, etc., or to look at art and see sights. They were as concerned with crossing cultures as they were with collecting data, and therefore they felt little need to mesh with the existing culture.
Another common practice that I noticed about these friends who had gone to foreign countries was how they described their travel experiences. They reminded me of the students described in the article we read at the beginning of the semester, "What Students Don't Learn Abroad." They viewed different countries and places as items to be checked off on a to-do list, and even had a "conquering" attitude when it came to visiting other places. Instead of enjoying the country and learning about the native traditions and culture, these students acted like the main characters of some rogue travel show, or as young missionaries spreading the gospel of American pop values to the savage people. They saw interesting cultural experiences as challenges to their intellect, rather than just interesting cultural experiences. They seemed to believe that one size could really fit all, as if the people living in these foreign places were hired to act as crazy/poor/happy/friendly/whatever as they did, and American culture was the only "real culture." As a whole, their experiences seemed crafted to end up on facebook or a resume, and the humility of approaching and learning from a different culture was far from their minds.
From this perspective, I think culture shock is the price we must pay if we want to avoid being the obnoxious American tourist and instead be the understanding, teachable American. Even though I am going to London, which has so much in common with America, I expect to feel culture shock because I want to experience the culture of London, not just the postcard version of London. I want to feel uncomfortable, because that may be the only way that I know I'm having a London experience in London, not just an American experience that happens to be in London.

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