Tag Archives: cultural differences

Let’s talk about culture shock

To be honest, of all the culture shock (and reverse culture shock) I’ve experienced in the past few years, I have to say that the culture shock of interacting with my students — inner-city former high school dropouts, mostly African-American — has been greater than Zambia, greater than Spain, greater than coming back home.  It’s funny, because they’re only about five years younger than I am, and most of us grew up in the same city, some in the same neighborhoods, and one would think that they are not so different from the children I went to elementary school with — but somehow it is.  I don’t know if the differences are more apparent as we get older, or if I just wasn’t paying attention back then, or if somehow it is different.

Part of what makes it harder, I think, is that culture shock is expected when moving from country to country.  Who expects it a 20-minute bus ride away, or even just a walk of a few blocks?

When I arrived in Zambia, I effectively had the skills of a three-year-old.  I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t wash my clothing.  I didn’t know how to get water.  I stumbled over the most basic human interactions.  I could barely wash myself.  But this was normal — this was expected — this was accepted.  The people I interacted with understood that Ba Miriam did not know how to be a Zambian because she had lived all her life somewhere else, and accepted that I had the skills needed to behave as an adult in my own society, but would require time to learn them in  Zambian culture.

The cultural differences between my students and I are not nearly that large, but no one sees that they are there.  Many of my students have barely been outside their neighborhoods in any significant kind of way, and often have no concept that there might be more than one way to live one’s life, and that just because I don’t do things their way doesn’t mean that the way I do them is wrong.

As I child, I was taught that you measure water and rice, bring the water to a boil, add the rice, stir, and then cover it for twenty minutes.  (You can also do it in the oven, if you have lots of time, or some people use a rice cooker, but we’re not fancy like that.)  But you MUST NOT stir the rice after that first time, or even lift the lid, or you’ll ruin the rice.  I didn’t really understand what that entailed, but it would be RUINED.

And yet, in Spain, my host mother stirred rice the whole time she was cooking it.  (And made really good rice.)  Her idea of plain white rice was rice cooked in chicken broth (and stirred the whole time); she could not conceive of something more plain than that.  In Zambia, no one measures; you just put rice and water in a pan and stir it sometimes, and if you run out of water, you add more.

Maybe I’m a rice Philistine, but I have to admit that I can’t really tell the difference (though both the oven rice and the chicken broth rice taste better).  It was pretty shocking to me to realize that you COULD stir rice while it was cooking without the kitchen exploding or something, but Pepi clearly knew what she was doing, so I kept my mouth shut and learned.  I’ve become pretty blase about cooking rice, and these days I mostly just dump rice and water into a pan and measure Chinese-style, with my finger.

While I was in Puerto Rico with my students, I tried to cook rice — and was immediately shouted down for not putting oil in with the rice and water.  (Apparently you CAN’T cook rice without oil.  Who knew?  Certainly not me, or the Spaniards, or the Zambians.)  And rice isn’t the only place I see it, although food is where it comes up most: there is One Right Way to Cook X, and generally I’m doing it wrong.  We bumped into that a lot on that trip: the bacon was cooked wrong; we didn’t put Sazón with the chicken; the students can’t eat x without y . . .

“Why did you dump the pan scrapings on the eggs?”  (Clearly implied: I had RUINED them; they were now unfit to eat.)

“Well, some people like them,” I floundered.  “Take from this side, where there aren’t any.”  It wasn’t until hours later that I realized that it wasn’t about liking or disliking; it’s a habit learned from my mother, learned from her parents who grew up during the Great Depression: I don’t waste food.

It even comes up when talking about my lunches: something that I consider as normal as veggies with peanut sauce is a foreign concept to my students, and probably not edible.  Forget tatsoi or quinoa or goat cheese anything with a name in a language other than English.

I think the amount of judgement from is part of what makes it difficult.  In other countries, I am strange, yes, but I’m a strange foreigner, which gives me a certain amount of license to be strange, and means that most of the people involved expect that I will be experiencing culture shock.  Most of my students see me as unreasonably strange, existing in some sort of weird incomprehensible lifestyle that maybe isn’t even possible.  It’s an odd thing, to interact daily with people who view you as an impossibility.


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