Archive for October, 2012

Some thoughts on culture shock

We’ve ended our China chapter. For now.

Being back in the States, one of the first questions we’re asked is: are you having any culture shock?

The answer is yes, of course. But what that really means for us is difficult to put into words.

Yes, we are shocked by the new foods we can eat, by the wonderful clean air we can breathe, by the new language we’re speaking day to day (not new for us, but the first time for our kids). We use forks instead of chopsticks again, we use seat belts in cars, carseats, we drink from the tap, we can walk on sidewalks. We don’t greet neighbors with more than a look, and don’t ask intruding questions about money, rent, family and children.

But is all this the shocking part? Any time we switch geographic locations, we also switch the customs around us as a matter of course. These are more like switching conventionalities than experiencing anything truly shocking. As in, "Oh, you brush your teeth with your left hand? How strange." But not really.

Expressing the truly shocking part of our new life in USA is more difficult. Leave it to Leo’s five year old wisdom to put it succinctly, as he did tonight: "Dad, in America I feel crazy."

It’s been over three months back here, and we’re all going a little crazy. Even Rosie, who can’t quite seem to decide where her Chinese ayi is hiding from her.

Adding up the sum total of conventionalities we’ve switched doesn’t really amount to the degree of crazy we’re all dealing with, each in their own way. For Leo, school in English is just a little crazy- he doesn’t quite know how to situate himself in an English speaking classroom with all kinds of new freedoms. As much as he loves it, he already has the discipline report record to show for it. Liz does great in her new job, but she’s not quite yet ‘settled’ in the new routine. It’s going to take months.

And me, now mostly home with the kids with no ayi to tag team with, I too have a new set of conventions to follow that have restructured my daily life. But I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a duplicate reality chugging along whenever my back is turned, the one that I ‘really’ belong in but has proceeded quite unaltered without me there. Nanjing still sees the same sun rise and set every day, and the place I called my community for five years still goes about its daily routine.. without me. I realize how much of myself I actually left when getting on the plane, and won’t in any way be able to claim back in my new life. This feeling stays in my background of every day, and it’s enough to make me a little crazy. At least for awhile.

So we’re shocked, no question about it, but it’s more of a low voltage current that pervades every moment of our days. It’s not enough charge to set off any sparks- I mean, how hard can it be to use a fork and knife and eat bread instead of rice and use credit cards again and so on- but when our family quiets down for a fleeting moment, we all can see the same questioning look in each other’s eyes. "Really? America?"