I’m feeling the need to chart my culture shock. Partly because if it’s out there, I no longer have to carry it alone. I suppose this is a bit of a cry for help. And partly because I hope I’ll be able to look back in a couple of months and realise that I’ve moved on. Touch wood, hey?
Emerging from the honeymoon period, I am disorientated by the dislocation that comes from leaving my world of couple of months ago, and repositioning myself in this parallel academia universe of migration and development theories, coupled with a serious economics overdose. I am drowning in words and concepts that my poor little mind is trying to understand, critique, filter and assimilate: neo-liberalism, hegemony, modernisation, capitalism, decolonisation, agency, the state, Keynesian economics, and structural adjustments, to name but a few. Marx’s writing seems to be the pivotal point around which all subsequent theories live and move and have their being.
Literature is no longer a pleasant section in the library but an immense body of writing on a particular topic. An article is no longer something I flick leisurely through in a magazine but a weighty academic paper that I dredge through to find some sort of meaning. A market is no longer the place I go to buy cheap fruit and drink coffee on a Saturday morning. Suddenly everything is all about power and equality. All the institutions and systems are out to oppress. How am I ever going to understand all this enough to write essays by mid-December? I just want to get back into bed and pull the duvet over my head.
With each piece I read and each step I take I seem to dredge up more stuff that just muddies that waters in which I’m trying to swim. Last week, I felt more inclined to sink. Or at least to paddle back to the safety of the shore from where I had surveyed these unfamiliar waters from a distance, longing to jump right in and plumb their hidden depths. In my enthusiasm, I’d forgotten that I’d have to contend with the breaking waves, freezing temperatures and shingly seaweedy shallows that always precede the moment when you feel the sand beneath your feet, get beyond the battering waves which knock you over, and where you can kick back and swim around as your body heats up.
The last month has been like moving to a new country, with its excitements but also with its challenges: where you recognise just a fraction of the words you hear around you, don’t understand the norms and expectations, can’t contribute to conversations properly, feel absolutely shattered from trying to keep up, and where everything takes ten times longer than it does at home.
But I take consolation from the fact that when you learn a new culture you eventually get there. There always comes a moment when you suddenly understand what people are talking about and you work out how to survive. And then beyond that, how to thrive. That great moment when you feel fluent enough to communicate something that is a real representation of you – who you are, what you think, what you feel. Something that is a viable contribution to your context. And when you realise that being in that culture adds stuff to you, changes you, gives you something back, and makes you feel more deeply ‘you’ for being there.
Aye, that moment will hopefully come. At the moment, I just feel a bit despistada (a word integrated into my vocabulary from my life in Spain, since English lacks a better way of succinctly summing up the blugh-all-over-the-placeness that I feel at the moment.)
And as with moving overseas, it’s not just the spatial and linguistic transition, it’s also all the other little bits that come with it. That dislocation of leaving one group of friends and readjusting to another, of changing house, church, neighbourhood, city. (Ironically, I sense that these aspects of transition are actually harder in this more local move than they would be in a proper overseas move, where the excitement/hardness of a more overtly different culture would engender more character-building responses than my inclination here to push for greater self-sufficiency and an appearance of coping. Anyway, I digress.)
“I didn’t know you were left-handed,” one of my new friends said the other day, with surprise. And then laughed, qualifying it with “in all the four weeks that I’ve known you!” Funny how quickly any sense of time seems to vanish, and how this context feels like it’s been my reality forever. It’s nice when you feel like you’re starting to get to know then new people, but it’s also nice when you get to hang out with people who know the world you came from as well as the world you’re in now. Yesterday brought the bonus of lunch with one Oxford friend and dinner with another, which was incredibly well-timed.
Given that I anticipate spending my life either being overseas myself or working with displaced people in the UK who face this challenge of culture shock (and more), this tangible reminder for me of what it feels like to transition to a new place is probably no bad thing. Right?