Watching all of our guests lately has me thinking about culture shock. In the case of moving to New Zealand, culture shock is sometimes so subtle you have to look carefully to identify it. We’ve become better about naming it at our house, but it still sneaks in and catches us off guard from time to time.
Obviously, we live in a highly developed, westernized country. It’s not a country or a culture where everything is drastically different from our birth country. Instead, we make our home in a place that, in so many ways, allows us to rock along like we have our whole lives… until it doesn’t. It’s that whole similar… but different thing we talk about so often.
So many things seem the same, but it would be ignorant to assume that this is business as usual and that we know exactly what to expect in any given situation. And we’ve found it takes a lot of energy at some of the most surprising times. It’s an input thing.
Most of us function as full participants in most situations in our daily lives, meaning we’re in our jam, naturally tuning out all of the details that are irrelevant at a given moment. It’s what we do instinctively to avoid going into input overload. However, when we choose to intentionally engage in a new culture or situation, we become participant observers. James Spradley talks about this in much of his writing including, Participant Observation. As participant observers, all of a sudden, we’re having to pay attention to everything. Those words, that voice inflection (Did I miss a joke?), those signs, this traffic pattern, these daily routines… and the list goes on. We are part of the scene and observing every detail of the situation at the same time. It’s input to the max.
Take Caleb our winter intern, for example. One afternoon last week, he wandered into the kitchen and said, “I’m totally beat, and I can’t figure out why. I haven’t done that much.”
Right. Except that he had gotten dumped out of the car (by me) downtown in a city he was completely unfamiliar with, hunted for a seemingly obscure coffee shop he had not been to, had coffee with someone he had never met before, navigated conversation with someone from a culture he is brand new to, and ridden his bike back across that brand new city on his own (on the left side of the road no less).
Then there was the day this week that Caleb set out on the simple mission of finding a coffee shop nearby to work from. He expected to type “coffee shop” into Google Maps, hop on his bike, and find a hip little joint with Wi-Fi and a plethora of electrical outlets and hot beverages to choose from. Everything he saw around him, his access to technology, and the prior experience he brought with him told his brain that’s what should happen. What he found instead was super outdated geo caching that led him from one mistaken location to another (some closed, others without coffee, and still others without outlets) until he was many kilometers down the river. When he returned home a few hours later, he ravenously consumed six meatballs and a load of pasta and then retired to “Mabel” (his camper/caravan/refuge) at promptly 7:32 p.m., not to emerge for a solid 12 hours. True story!
It’s culture shock making its appearance in the sneakiest and most subtle of ways. We can totally relate. Research says there are other symptoms besides fatigue (our primary symptom), such as family conflict, frequent illness, sadness, mental fogginess, etc.
This isn’t a bad thing. It’s normal. And it’s important to name it. As things have become more familiar over the past seven months, we’ve experienced input overload less and less, but it still happens and will as long as we make it a point to be participant observers of the culture in which we live.
It’s a cycle that kind of goes like this over and over again:
Honeymoon (This is the best place in the world!)
Confusion (I totally don’t get this! What was I thinking?!)
Disillusionment (This is the worst place in the world!)
Determination (I can and will do this!)
Success (I am totally rocking this!)
At any point it can start all over again, marked by those sneaky symptoms that creep in when we least expect it.
So when Caleb described his time at a prayer group he really enjoyed yesterday morning with this little tidbit, “I was talking to people and feeling pretty good about understanding what they were saying, and then someone else would say a complete sentence, and I would just think, “I have absolutely no idea what you just said!” I wasn’t the least bit surprised that he followed up by saying, “I took a power nap when I got home” … at 8:30 a.m.!