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South America Expat Ezine, Issue #001 -- Things that Make Expats go Hmmm...
October 31, 2009
Culture shock, three-toed sloths and things that make expats go hmmm...
When you first move overseas everything is new and exciting. Despite the moving, unpacking and sheer exhaustion, you might continue to feel almost like you’re on vacation for the first several weeks or even months (especially if you move somewhere different each time you ship out, in which case everything really IS new and exciting). Expats often call this the “honeymoon” phase.
But after several trips or terms overseas, or when you tend to return to the same country over and over, things begin to take on a much-desired sense of familiarity. Just how familiar we feel with a place, how well we fit in, or how at peace we feel living there depends mostly on us and the choice we make about how we’ll approach our new home.
Having grown up mostly overseas I tend to fall into a familiar routine pretty quickly by now, both in places that are new and in familiar places that have changed a lot during my absence. So sometimes when I’m writing for my sites I forget my audience! I forget that most of the visitors to my site are “newbies” to the place I live or may be new to the expat life altogether, and I have to remind myself that I often write for people who don’t already know about the place I’m describing.
Because I design two expat/travel sites I have to make a concerted effort to stay in the “vacation/honeymoon” phase as much as possible. Everywhere I go I try to see things from a foreigner’s view point and ask the questions a new arrival might ask. I take in details I might normally pass by because I’m in this “mode” of always looking for something “new and interesting”. And it’s really very therapeutic! I feel blessed that I can take my small culture shock moments and turn them into something descriptive for someone else. It takes away many of the negative impressions the situation may have otherwise had on me because I’m actively searching out the fun in it to share with others.
Despite this, there are times when something just takes me by surprise. These small moments during the day when I abruptly “realize I’m a foreigner” usually happen when I’m deep in thought and am brought sharply back to the present by a sight, or sound or smell that triggers one of those “I’ve got to write about this” moments. These little specks of time are what I like to call
The things that make expats go hmmm...
Most of us experience this once in a while and if you’re a newbie expat it should comfort you to know that in time you WILL really, truly, honestly feel familiar with your new home – so familiar you may for short spells even forget you’re in a foreign country. It’s good to laugh at ourselves a little. I think it’s healthy. Just for fun, I thought I’d share a couple of these silly moments and I’d love you to share your own "hmmm" moments and what triggered them. No hmmm moment is too short or laughable. Learning to laugh in the face of culture shock can be healthy!
I remember once when I was sitting on micro (a small city bus) in La Paz, Bolivia speaking in English with my brother. I was about 12 and he was about 9. Now children tend to speak pretty loudly and are often completely oblivious of those around them when they’re deep in conversation but in La Paz, on city buses, everyone just sort of quietly murmurs amongst themselves. Paceños don’t talk, they murmur. My brother and I were chatting away when suddenly in the middle of a sentence I looked up and realized (probably from the disapproving looks we were getting) just how much more loudly we were speaking than the other passengers. I turned to my brother fully intending to say, “Shhh, we’re being too loud,” but instead what came out of my mouth was “boy there sure are a lot of Spanish-speaking people on the bus today”. Obviously my body was in Bolivia but my brain was hovering somewhere over Minneapolis.
Then there’s the time I had piranha for breakfast, which OK, isn’t something I do every day, but it’s not an abnormal thing. Now what strikes most people as weird when I say this is the eating piranha part. Most are like, “Eeew, blech!” or “What do you do with the teeth?”, but to me the hmmm moment was not triggered by eating piranha (you can get it at the supermarket any day, although I had fished this particular one myself). What made me go hmmm was “Eeew, I had that at 7 in the morning with a side of papaya?” Yes, even things like eating cannibalistic razor-teeth fish may soon feel familiar.
Then there’s The-Sloth-With-No-Name. He lives on the tree just below my third-story apartment window in the middle of downtown Santa Cruz. In Santa Cruz it’s not unusual to see sloths. They travel (in a mind-numbingly slow fashion) from tree to tree throughout the city and it’s kind of fun when one of them decides to hang in your garden for a week or two (literally, they hang upside down most of the time). Sloths are extremely slow – so slow they often grow mold on their fur. So when they decide to cross a street it causes complete vehicular chaos.
On the other hand, they’re so slow most people just pick them up, place them back on a tree so they don’t get stepped on, and go back to whatever they were doing. So normal is it to see these s-l-o-w animals moving along the plaza sidewalk that I was taken by surprise when I had a hmmm moment involving a sloth the other day at the zoo. One of them made its way up to some visitors, extended his arms and shook claws with some kids. Suddenly I was fumbling for my camera like a tourist thinking “how many places in the world can you just walk up and shake hands/claws with a sloth?”
You see even when things that are shocking to others are truly familiar to you, you never know when, for just a small moment, they might unexpectedly surprise you again. I think culture shock creeps up on us like a slow, slow sloth, in bits and pieces, when many very short moments like these happen to us continuously throughout the day. Because, unlike most other fairly stationary people in the world, expats are constantly and continuously switching between cultures, mentalities, and languages over and over again each day in their minds. Therefore it’s not surprising, abnormal, or even a negative thing, that we’d experience a short circuit - or three.
The question is, can we take these tiny continuous specks of culture shock, and turn them into fun, healthy moments of curiosity? Things that make us go “Hmmm… I actually want to know MORE about this?” Can we turn cigarette sand into snowflakes?
Wait … screeeeech!! Huh??
OK, I’ll explain. When I was 7 and my brother was 4 we returned to the US for the first time after living in Cuenca, Ecuador for several years. We had been told what snow was, but we hadn’t ever seen any, or at least didn’t remember it (and geez, we were born in Minnesota). When we got to the Miami airport, our eyes were as big as saucers. Glass doors opened and closed all by themselves, machines spit out soda in cans (we’d never seen soda in a can, only in bottles) and candy!!! (nuff said) AND Americans had SNOW right there in the airport waiting for us to see it! (???)
My brother ran over to a big trash can (you know, the kind that’s like a tall tube and the top is full of white sand smokers use to put out their cigarettes). He took the sand in his hand and started throwing it up in the air shouting “Mommy, Mommy, look! It’s snow! Real snow!” It was the middle of July and I repeat – IN MIAMI - but his joy at experiencing something new (something he’d looked forward to) was unmistakable and unforgettable!
So could we take the culture shock and try to see things through the eyes of children, with wonder and amazement, and be joyful about it? Could we then take all those little “wow!” moments one by one, and treasure them as great group of unforgettable memories about how truly privileged we are to experience cultures others may never see? Could it even be possible to view culture shock as something to look forward to? Hmmm...
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