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Culture Shock

Senegal Sangalkam, Senegal  |  Jan 09, 2009
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Or "The Bloom and the Blight," the Joys and the Miseries...

From our handbook provided by Living Routes:

"One of the main reasons we visit other countries is to discover cultures and lifestyles that are very different from our own. We want to draw to your attention the fact that some of what we discover in any new setting is pleasant, beautiful, inspiring, rewarding, and/or deeply meaningful, but that other aspects inevitably are frustrating, less pleasant, not at all beautiful, tedious, and otherwise stressful. We propose to you that it is not possible to deepen our insights into human society and its relationship to its environment without looking at both the bloom and the blight."

 

Here are some other paragraphs from the handbook section on Culture Shock, out of order:

"While the introduction to new and foreign cultures greatly benefits students, it can also be overwhelming. Cultural differences can be so great that a student may need extra time to adjust. This is normal. The new cultural elements a student encounters may be so different that they seem 'shocking' in comparison to cultural norms one is used to at home. A student's reaction of feeling 'shocked' by a culture's attributes can manifest itself in mood swings ranging from anger, to depression, to panic. It can be difficult to explain culture shock, especially if you have never been through it. As Bruce La Brack wrote in his article, 'The Missing Linkage: The Process of Integrating Orientation and Re-entry,' 'Just as you can`t really describe the taste of a hot fudge sundae to someone who has never experienced one, it is difficult to actually convey just how disorienting entering another culture can be to a student without any cross-cultural experience.'

"Experiencing new cultures and obtaining a better understanding of our own culture can result in some of the most positive life-altering experiences students have while studying abroad. When going abroad, students will experience differences in manners, beliefs, customs, laws, language, art, religion, values, concept of self, family organization, social organization, government, behavior, etc. All of these elements combine to form culture.

"We want to encourage you to accept in coming to Senegal that your learning experience will combine insights that are easy and joyous and others that are highly problematic, such as the problems surrounding the lives of beggar children, and the difficult struggles of certain neighborhoods with a crisis in garbage collection."Prepare yourself for some down times; they happen to practically everyone trying to make it in a culture they have never lived in before. Realizing that what you are feeling is natural, and that other students are probably experiencing the same thing, will help you to avoid discouragement. Culture shock has its ups and downs, good days and bad--but you will pull through. Many students studying abroad experience times when they feel depressed. However, the overwhelming majority comes away from their experience abroad even stronger and better adapted for living and working with others."

...

From my journal...

Senegal – January 6, 2009.

I miss home, all kinds of things. Soft drinks, toilets, sinks, dentists, showers, hand sanitizer, health, cold!—didn’t think I’d miss that!—all kinds of “American” food, my computer, my nail clippers, my sweaters…no mosquitoes, no flies, trash collection, fresh air without all the wafting smells, drinkable tap water, my room, people who understand me when I speak, secularity, Omaha…Outside of the U.S., IPEC and my childhood dacha, tricycle, the walk, the smells…Dedushka, Dodge Street, Gene Leahy Mall in October (my birthday in 2006 I recall fondly), Soul Desires, Omaha in spring and summer (minus the tornadoes and floods), Eugene, Boston…

I feel very much placeless, untethered, and somehow this vapid lacking just doesn’t help displace my habitual negativity, stubbornness, unkindness. I get so frustrated, so boxed in my focus that I can’t find calm, placidity, acceptance, positive outlook, kind words, cheerful thoughts. Why am I so high-strung? Gah!

I’ve never felt so homesick before – Well, I guess I’m still not used to thinking in terms of homesick. That June evening in 2006 when the distance between me and Bellevue settled heavily on my shoulders, that was homesick. I remember that. This past semester, time away from the person who I’d lived with for two years, that kind of fatalism that nothing could be okay because it had shifted…it was all so unnecessary. It’s okay. I’m going to be okay.

Today we met with the group leaders in Thiaroye again, this time with less tension – but then, I was also much more detached from the whole thing. The group leaders discussed amongst themselves which projects would benefit most (and would most benefit the whole ecovillage) from a SEM microcredit loan. I was most taken back/surprised/shocked with a little man, Massamba, insisting that the women’s projects be funded first because women work harder—get up earlier to work, are more organized, will pay back the loan on time, etc.—it’s not that I didn’t realize SEM’s loans were more heavily weighted to women’s projects or that a general theme we’ve learned these many days in Senegal wasn’t that women are more dedicated and strong-willed workers then men—I just somehow didn’t see it coming that this man would open his mouth to advocate fro the women’s project. His projects, the chickens and the fishing, we were told, had been overlooked for this cycle of loans for different reasons—his chicken project with Doudou because, although their operation employs/involves 15 workers, it only really profits and benefits 2, and in this way, it is not the choiciest project for this cycle; the fishing because the new engine the men require for modernizing their “canoe”/boat cost 1 mil. CFA and the maximum amount that SEM grants for its loans is 700,000 CFA. The thing is, this purchase over the limit of the SEM base funding would have also benefited the women’s fish-curing operation, which group was struggling most with keeping transportation costs down, and so was looking at buying directly from fishermen, instead of paying the gasoline-adjusted prices.

After choosing the women’s cooperative for the first loan, the ecovillage leaders continued to discuss which project should benefit from the second of the two microcredit loans. Several were vocal about the disable persons’ cooperative because the education and employment of handicapped persons is an important and positive recent development. However, because Massamba continued to argue that men overall were less productive and effective (I’m not sure to what degree he took into account any sensitive rationale about the inherent reduced productivity of disabled persons!), the villagers, when eventually round up by Pape (our homestay “contact”) for a private counsel, came back and announced that they had agreed upon the two women’s activities and groups for the first set of loan recipients. Whey they went out, they stepped out on the pretense that Mamadou had prior working knowledge of these processes and selections to convey to the leaders…Not long after everyone returned, we shook hands with many of the men who then departed. We were left with the women, with the responsibility of getting down the information about their activities into draft loan application form…which we did, El Hadj and I in a kind of haphazard, disorderly detailed overview “order” and Adama and Jisselle in step-by-step fashion. I felt very good after we got all the information (we still need to get a photo with all the women involved) because the loan application helps a women’s cooperative with 3 women involved in gardening by that little lagoon we’ve become acquainted with in “Baghdad” (it’s such a soul-lifting cheery happy green place!), one women further her life-long fish trading business and another her cloth dying business (though it’s regrettable she has to use toxic dyes – I joked with El Hadj about starting a business here to sell natural dyes, or to do the fish trading or to join Aissa in her gardening work). Then we walked back, rested, ate lunch, and then Jisselle left to go back to Yoff. Then a sudden heaviness, emptiness, trapped-ness, overwhelming homesickness set in. I’m feeling a little better writing, especially because when I write I get to enjoy the cooler air out her in the corridor/courtyard, watch the cat go about its cat day, enjoy the children’s laughter/silliness/smiley-ness/playfulness/and bounciness, and watch the daughter? who seems about my age clean the courtyard, brushing of ff the sand and dust with a broom (2 different kinds, a long and a short kind). I do so enjoy watching people and other animals (cf. class notes w/ Ousmane pronouncing, “I refuse to be…an animal!”) going about the motions of everyday, quotidian, placid, unassuming, basic, restful, repetitive, meaningful in its simplicity as it is. The noises – t.v., mosque? Sending out call to prayer via loudspeaker, trucks, kids’ feet, kids’ happy high-pitched voices, the whisking of the broom, etc…are pleasurable, likewise. Horse’s hooves just now, as well, the rustling of leaves on this courtyard tree. It’s a nice day. I’m so happy to have this time to enjoy the good weather, the good views, the good people, the good life, the good tastes, the good words of this place. There’s a lot I don’t like on the other hand, but I’m glad to be here, but even though I’m almost halfway through my stay, I still really can’t wait to be home (in spite of the stressful course-finishing/course-beginning apparently). I miss New England, the Rock, America, in ways I just haven’t and hadn’t missed them before.

 

January 9, 2009. Sangalkam.

What do I like about being here in Senegal?

I appreciate the women carrying their children wrapped up on their backs; I appreciate the shared platters at meals – djebu djen (fish) and djebu yoff (meat); the children’s gentleness; the proliferation of polyglots; the prayerfulness; the colorful fabrics; the seas; the sun and the gardens very much out in splendor; the tropicalness; the mango/orange/mixed fruit/tamarind juice and the soft drinks, too; the tastiness of the meals; the pain chocolate for breakfast; the Nescafé at class coffee breaks and the Senecao at breakfast; the modernness of the Samb house; Marian`s rooftop view; doing my laundry in early evening on the Samb's rooftop; the singing and the music, the strength of solidarity all around but most inspiring somehow in the tontines and women's cooperatives; Seido Touré and his scouting skills, permaculture awareness, leadership and technologically savvy (he`s one of the most inspiring people I`ve met here); the cool soft sand everywhere; the prolific livestock (chickens, goats, cows, horses, donkeys – and today I saw my first ducks!); the historic Ile d'Gorée and the heavy knowledge and the vast sadness it arouses – how it completely changes my perception of the "sea"/Atlantic Ocean; the large families – the connectedness – the physicality—the friendship – the un-brokenness; the courtyard houses with their may rooms; getting chances to read, recite, and kind of practice, at least avoid losing by remembering even fragments of my Arabic; learning bits of French and Wolof; having the time and occasion to write, think about, and interrogate/question the premises of different approaches to sustainable living, sustainable (international) development, human health and happiness, education/feminism/sanitation/modernization/globalization; the French-influenced cityscapes; the overall gentle attitude; the malas everywhere (before it seemed that people didn't actually use them); the crafts; the markets; the different brooms; the beautiful faces; the dizzying hubbub; the fishing boats; the wrestling training/culture of wrestling adulation and watching; the un-strict and flexible, loose schedules; slower lifestyle and timing/sense of time; the time to rest and nap; taking my first "bucket splash" shower (also, in regards to water usage, the squat toilets or latrines turning out not quite so horrendous as they first seemed); the Euro-like design of the currency (with the added beautiful decorative flourish of the harp-like mask); time to read; the sublimation of computer usage (though it's hard when I have a blog to write); the colorful blossoms on the trees; the tailors; the taps (? ... I think I meant the fountain-like space with the faucet and the drain); the clothes lines; the communal spirit... But then what the culture shock consist of? See, that`s the thing, much of these things that I can perceive as beautiful, enjoyable, pleasant, and in an otherwise pleasant way can also be view in negative light, as the uglier side of life and travel here in Senegal...

...

I`m homesick, uncomfortable here, and missing the ease and routine and sanitation aesthetic of living in the states, at hope; I feel disrespected, I feel that boundaries have gone un-honored, exasperated that the boys have not bothered to listen or to find out, to understand what I'm used to and comfortable with and how Senegalese customs and attitudes (or just that of the boys, perhaps!) fall far, far away, on a different part of a spectrum or maybe on a different side of a completely different spectrum, far far away from what I'm accustomed to. Of course this is culture shock, and apparently I'm not taking it so well, apparently not ingesting or imbibing it quite the way Henri Nouwen would suggest or wish for conscientious travelers. Apparently I'm failing to get past the culture shock and even to take it in positively if all the relationships around me have splintered in ways so elegantly complex that I can only improve upon bad habits, negativity, volatility, impoliteness, rudeness, anger, and cannot further my spiritual or personal development as a decent human being, taking in the inconsistency and nuance, uneven-ness, idiosyncracy of others, seeing myself in another, finding my own weaknesses by recognition, accepting inconsistency, repetition, and humbling processes that remind me it`s okay to learn the same thing twice (I don`t always have to make a point of asserting my prior knowledge, authority on a subject, potentially superior thinking--in most situations? see, I`m still very much holding on to the vanity and pride!--but I do...I don`t make enough of an effort to let go--to let go of pride, resentment, annoyance/nuisances/getting riled up/having my feathers ruffled, let go of power and control, claims to knowledge--though I strive for such conclusions time and again!, let go of presumption and judgment, let go of anger and irk-dom, let go of pretension and self-importance, let myself be deflated, debased, dethroned?--uh, from what?, torn apart, find in humbleness my self, selflessly unselfish, caring for others in the minutest and most particular of ways, find in humbleness my self-honor and my self, my selfhood and my self-appreciation--without letting these things take over my humility and awareness! Right now, my life stretches out before me in "either" direction, past and future (quotations--I taught the boys about so-called "air quotes" the other day--because perhaps someone can explain it to me in different terms, in terms of a different directionality or non-linearity!), a big empty void, developing the sense of being unloved and unvalued by my assigned family, seeing out love and appreciation in surrogate families, romantic lovers, friends, many of which only disappoint because in the end, constructing reliance and dependence on an individual or even a small handful of individuals does not solve much bigger problems of societal (though this refers to a very particular society -- no preclusions about humanity or human nature allowed!) brokenness and disconnection (see, who needs psychoanalysts--harking back to Nouwen--when you can see into the relational dynamics of your own life and see how well-being derailed long before that lifetime came to be, derailed centuries--nay, millenia!--ago?!). It hasn't been what I expected, I guess, though I can't quite put what I expected...I guess this is me seeing what happens when you don't really have any expectation...or the one you had is too far from possible to see fulfilled anyway that it amounts to having none...The bulk of my time here, at least in this one third of my experience and travel and time here, this second week, has been miserable, and that I did not expect. I guess I've been clashing hard against old-fashioned masculinity and a sense of irrelevance, but who says I can't learn something of humbleness at least from the latter and maybe even learn what expending pointless energy for hopeless cases means in terms of the former. I've just gone up in smoke, a big firework exploding with bits of confetti shrapnel flying every which way, a bright big ball of flame, flash, and failure, fizzing unimportance, unsubstantial. My feelings of loneliness, unimportance, invisibility, hopelessness, and exasperation at living in "a broken world," my out-of-placed-ness in Academia and otherwise presumptive and prideful circles, with feelings of incompetence, inarticulateness, inadequacy, not fitting in, feeling perpetually misunderstood, as though I`ll never find a parallel soul, someone to see things with me on my level, to commiserate, to share, to be a companion, a friend (spiritual or otherwise meaningful friendship), someone to remind me that I`m not alone, not an alien/Martian/extraterrestrial...these feelings might never go away, might only become more pressing, more opaque, more individualized and esoteric, more isolating, more of my unique Atlas-sized burden, more of something to (? dropped thought, apparently)...more of my own personal weighty companion through life--if I can`t find a mental match, I s`pose I`ll have to do with myself, my solitude, my maddening/oppressive emotional luggage. And in order for these elements of myself not to devour me, to create an ever-widening spiritual vacuity/vacuum, a burgeoning emptiness, a suffocating placelessness/homelessness (that is somehow also a homesickness), a partially inexplicable malaise, a heavy loneliness, that lingers...I have to find some way to get past it, to get over these obstacles and myself, to let go, to detach, to humble myself, to find solace without any grounding, any precedent, any emotional "primer," to find myself, my selflessness, my goodness/"my better self," my happiness, fulfillment, forgiveness, okay-ness, peace/solace/reassurance/stability/acceptance/acceptability/grounding...But HOW? Is there any way to insure I find these elements of utmost important and QUICKLY?

...

From Henri Nouwen`s Gracias!: A Latin American Journal, the entry dated October 30, 1981:

"Today Gerry McCrane, the director of the language school, gave a presentation to the newcomers. In his gentle and pastoral way he offered us an opportunity to share our struggles in adapting ourselves to a new culture. One theme that came up was the re-emergence of long-forgotten conflicts. In displacing ourselves into a new and unfamiliar milieu, old, unresolved conflicts often start asking for our attention. When our traditional defense systems no longer are available and we are not able to control our own world, we often find ourselves experiencing again the feelings of childhood. The inability to express ourselves in words as well as the realization that everyone around us seems to understand life much better than we do, puts us in a situation quite similar to that of a child who has to struggle through a world of adults. This return to childhood emotions and behavior could be a real opportunity for mental and spiritual growth. Most of the psychotherapies I have been exposed to were attempts to help me relive those times when immature ways of coping with stress found their origin. Once I could re-encounter the experience that led me to choose a primitive coping device, I was also able to choose a more mature response. Thus I could let go of behavior that was the source of my suffering. A good psychotherapist is a person who creates the environment in which such mature behavioral choices can be made. Going to a different culture, in which I find myself again like a child, can become a true psychotherapeutic opportunity. Not everyone is in the position or has the support to use such an opportunity. I have seen much self-righteous, condescending, and even offensive behavior by foreigners towards the people in their host country. Remarks about the laziness, stupidity, and disorganization of Peruvians or Bolivians usually says a lot more about the one who makes such remarks than about Peruvians or Bolivians. Most of the labels by which we pigeonhole people are ways to cope with our own anxiety and insecurity. Many people who suddenly find themselves in a totally unfamiliar milieu decide quickly to label that which is strange to them instead of confronting their own fears and vulnerabilities.But we can also use the new opportunity for our own healing. When we walk around in a strange milieu, speaking the language haltingly, and feeling out of control and like fools, we can come in touch with a part of ourselves that usually remains hidden behind the thick walls of our defenses. We can come to experience our basic vulnerability, our need for others, our deep-seated feelings of ignorance and inadequacy, and our fundamental dependency. Instead of running away from these scary feelings, we can live through them together and learn that our true value as human beings has its seat far beyond our competence and accomplishments. One of the most rewarding aspects of living in a strange land is the experience of being loved not for what we can do, but for who we are. When we become aware that our stuttering, failing, vulnerable selves are loved even when we hardly progress, we can let go of our compulsion to prove ourselves and be free to live with others in a fellowship of the weak. That is true healing.This psychological perspective on culture shock can open up for us a new understanding of God`s grace and our vocation to live graceful lives. In the presence of God, we are totally naked, broken, sinful, and dependent, and we realize that we can do nothing, absolutely nothing, without him. When we are willing to confess our true condition, God will embrace us with his love, a love so deep, intimate, and strong that it enables us to make all things new. I am convinced that, for Christians, culture shock can be an opportunity not only for psychological healing but also for conversion. What moves me most in reflecting on these opportunities is that they lead us to the heart of ministry and mission. The more I think about the meaning of living and acting in the name of Christ, the more I realize that what I have to offer to others is not my intelligence, skill, power, influence, or connections, but my own human brokenness, but my own human brokenness through which the love of God can manifest itself. The celebrant in Leonard Bernstein`s Mass says: "Glass shines brighter when its broken...I never noticed that." This, to me, is what ministry and mission are all about. Ministry is entering with our human brokenness into communion with others and speaking a word of hope. This hope is not based on any power to solve the problems of those with whom we live, but on the love of God, which becomes visible when we let go of our fears of being out of control and enter into his presence in a shared confession of weakness. This is a hard vocation. It goes against the grain of our need for self-affirmation, self-fulfillment, and self-realization. It is a call to true humility. I, therefore, think that for those who are pulled away from their familiar surroundings and brought into a strange land where they feel again like babies, the Lord offers a unique chance not only for a personal conversion but also for an authentic ministry."

Due to the nature of his Catholic-ness and priesthood, I believe that anyone`s resistance and discomfort with the God language above can easily be excused, especially using Julia Cameron`s semi-useful terminology, "Good Orderly Direction" (not that I don`t have problems with this approach!...it`s just the first thing that comes to mind to placate those who fear God language). I really appreciate his observations and insights, his awareness and spirituality, but then again, I`ve been really sucked into the beneficiality of spiritual practice (and the variety of spiritual practices) after so many years spent in the company of folks who concentrate their thoughts and energies, livelihoods and schedules, on the creation, maintenance, and perpetuation of sacred space, such that it works both for all and for each one, alone.

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