Swimming in New Waters

Without crossing an ocean or a border or even my street, I switch cultures.

ONE WRONG TURN
and we end up passing through a neighborhood unfamiliar,
past people
whose faces and dress are different from our own.
And we call it culture shock.

Car doors locked,
we pull into a gas station,
seeking help.
Young men
standing nearby
approach,
offer directions.
They seem to be speaking English,
but we strain to make sense of what they say.
And we call it culture shock.

We thank them,
go on our way
and soon are back where we belong,
going in the direction we intended,
merging into the familiar flow.
And we breathe again,
and call it culture shock,
what just happened.

But strictly speaking, it is not culture shock,
but a cross-cultural experience.

* * *

TRUE ‘culture shock’ occurs –
I learned at a conference in February –
when you are in that new and unfamiliar place,
when you are there to stay
and are not returning (at least any time soon),
when it is your new dwelling place
and you must learn to swim in new waters.

There is no
holding your breath until it’s over,
so you better learn to breathe
in the midst of it.

* * *

I STOOD at the registration table
in the foyer that February day,
getting a name tag.
Two friends,
looking gravely concerned,
hurried over and asked,
“Where’s Wally?
Is he okay?”

“Yes, fine.”

“Oh, good!
We saw you come in alone and we worried…”

I CONFESS
the knee-jerk reaction in my mind
was not good,
but I remember to say
what I will WANT to have said
when I look back on the conversation:
“Thank you for asking. And for caring.”

And I do mean that
very sincerely,
but it is not my first thought.

* * *

A FULL HOUR after I enter
and mix in
and chat
and find a seat that suits me
and get out my pen
and arrange my handouts,
and well after the first coffee break,
I am still distracted by that brief exchange.

SINCE WHEN
does my showing up alone
make people assume
something is wrong?

And I know the answer:
since August 2008,
since his diagnosis,
since the day we crossed over
into a new culture.
Catapulted in.

New language to learn,
new values to recognize,
new customs/practices to acquire,
new things to understand
about how we are perceived by others,
even when doing things
that seem perfectly normal to us
(like one of us going to a conference
and the other one not).

It was then I began to discover
an entire world full of people
living in this other culture,
close by,
to the left and to the right,
and I had barely noticed them up to this point.

When I hear the speaker
talk about culture shock,
thoughts soar
about how,
without crossing an ocean
or state line
or even a street,
cultures can be crossed.
Just like that.

And the conversation in the foyer
does not need to be a black cloud over my day,
a reminder that I am not looked at the same,

but evidence that I do seem to be learning
to navigate the new waters.

This post is part of the Community Writing Project: Crossing Cultures.
Links to many other contributions on this topic appear at Dena Dyer’s Mother Inferior blog.

Next post: More about the Lock Keeper’s House

14 thoughts on “Swimming in New Waters

  1. I’ve crossed oceans and state lines and the street to encounter another culture, Marilyn. Your story shows how it can happen sneak up on you when you least expect it. Thanks for writing this and including it in the Crossing Cultures writing project.

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  2. “There is no holding your breath…” Wow. These words describe it all so well. There’s not enough air when the shock sinks in deep. Somehow we learn to live on less oxygen, you know? Or maybe we’re just walking around lightheaded, and don’t even notice anymore…

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  3. Thanks! This post was really ‘out there’ for me in terms of not having my thoughts on it organized enough, but the invitation to participate on this theme lit a fire under me to at least try.

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  4. Marilyn, I’m sure glad I clicked over from The High Calling and Dena’s place– this is one powerful piece…and there is so much truth here, too. I will surely remember this next time I am “out of my comfort zone” in a new neighborhood, or even approaching a friend who is in a different place than me. Thank you for your insights.

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  5. Marilyn,

    This is so poignant on so many levels. I think you hit on two things that I have only just begun to understand: the difference between a cross cultural experience and culture shock. Truly culture shock is when there is no turning back!
    Also the very nebulous idea of culture is something that even anthropologists have not been able to pin down. You have really blessed me with this post as I am now dealing with culture shock recovery and defining my own culture.

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  6. In high school, I went to Germany as an exchange student and learned about culture shock first hand. I learned that I could not talk my way into their heads. I could only listen, catching pieces here and there. And listen and listen and listen.

    I like the swimming metaphor, too. It was a vacation for a few months, like I was snorkeling through the culture. But around November, when my folks were celebrating Thanksgiving, and my German friends didn’t even know what that meant really, I found that I had to take off the snorkel and dive down deep if I wanted to really learn about these people.

    It was more than shocking. I was never the same again. Something inside of me died when I accepted my place in their culture. But something else inside of me came to life for the first time. It was a tough spot for a 16 year old.

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  7. Marilyn —

    I missed getting over here during the writing project, but I’m so glad David’s Around the Network Post brought me now. This is just beautiful, so poignant a description of what it means to travel into new territory, whatever that may be. I had a diagnosis that took me to those new places too.

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