February 2, 2019 § Leave a comment
Have you ever wanted to show, not just tell, people what culture stress is like? Have you ever wanted them to experience it a bit without them having to travel overseas?
Have you ever heard about Barnga?
Barnga is a simulation game created by Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan in 1980, while working for USAID in Gbarnga, Liberia. . . .
August 13, 2018 § Leave a comment
Traveling to far-away places and coping with new surroundings brings about lots of adjustments—adjustments in thought patterns and in ways of doing even mundane tasks. Few know this as dramatically as those who have lived aboard the International Space Station. But you don’t need to venture into outer space to be able to relate to their stories of exploration and adaptation.
National Geographic’s One Strange Rock looks at our planet through the eyes of eight astronauts. The final episode of this, the first season, is titled “Home.” (Watch it here.)
In it, host Will Smith asks,
Where is home? Is it where you were born, where you were raised, or where you are now? Is it somewhere you lived, somewhere you left, somewhere that shaped you? If you really want to know you need to leave them all behind.
One of those who’s left it all behind is Peggy Whitson, who, over three missions, spent a total of 665 days in space—a record for NASA astronauts and more than any other woman in the world. She’s come a long way from where she she lived as a child, a farm near Beaconsfield, Iowa, current population “elevenish.”
As I’ve grown up and gone to college and gone to graduate school, home has expanded from Iowa to Texas to the United States, and since being in space, home is actually planet earth.
Astronaut Chris Hadfield:
One of the biggest changes I noticed within myself as the result of flying in space was that the difference between us and them disappeared. Somehow going around the world in 92 minutes, not just once, but over and over and over again, turned the entire world into one shared place. I think it’s a perspective that seeps into astronauts. I think it’s a perspective that’s kind of good for everybody.
Astronaut Leland Melvin adds,
I truly believe that if more people could have the opportunity to see the planet from space, looking at the rich colors, looking at the fact that there are no borders separating us, we could see that we are truly all connected as human beings
Back to Smith, on reentry:
Ever been on a trip and seen something new, something incredibly beautiful, or something that changed the way you think about things? Now imagine that trip was to space. You’ve seen something that only a very few people have ever seen.
Astronauts need to tell someone, anyone, everyone. Soon they’re ready to go back down, but it’s actually bittersweet. They’re going back to the place that made them, but leaving the place that shaped them.
About her return, Whitson shares, “It was hard to leave because I knew I wouldn’t be coming back.” She starts to choke up and then blurts out, “Jeepers!” and laughs. “But I was all excited about being back home and being back on earth, having, you know, wind, and smelling the air and just being on earth.”
“But coming home isn’t easy,” says Smith. “Mother earth doesn’t exactly welcome you back with open arms.”
Repatriation from space, returning through the earth’s atmosphere, is actually the hardest part of the trip, and setting down on the solid ground of Kazakstan isn’t the softest of landings.
Whitson says, “Most people compare it to a car crash. I would compare it to maybe two car crashes.”
And then there’s the transition from weightlessness to . . . weight. “Wow, space was good,” Whitson says and adds with a smile, “Gravity sucks.”
Though he’s not part of the One Strange Rock crew, Scott Kelly has this to say about the reverse culture stress brought about by gravity:
Back to Melvin, in the National Geographic production:
When I got home from space after getting out of my suit, then to have a meal without the food floating away from you, and being able to pet your dog and talk to your parents fact to face, it made me feel so much more connected to the planet.
Another astronaut, Nicole Scott:
I couldn’t wait to feel what a breeze would be like again, you know, what the smell of grass was going to, you know, smell like again.
It’s the smells of earth, the smell of home, the smells of the natural world, it’s overpowering. It’s kind of overwhelming.
Just because you physically leave the surface of the earth does not mean you leave the earth, because the earth is part of you.
I’m not sure whether I feel more like an earthling or a space woman. I think being a space woman’s a lot more fun.
Blast off . . . G forces . . . wonder . . . homesickness . . . rootlessness . . . reentry . . . landing . . . longing—sounds like crossing cultures.
So what is day-to-day life really like in the culture of space? Here are a few glimpses into how the ordinary becomes anything but:
There’s learning to cook without the comforts of your kitchen or a microwave . . . or plates.
What happens when the food doesn’t want to stay down?
You thought squatty potties were a challenge.
Then you have no-shower showering.
And, oh yeah, when you look out the window, there’s the view.
Don’t forget the view.
(“Home,” One Strange Rock, National Geographic, May 28, 2018)
January 15, 2018 § Leave a comment
Have you every heard of “travel syndrome”? Me neither, until I saw a video circulated recently by Newsfare showing a distraught traveler in Qingdao, China. The man rushed off his train, which was stopped at a station, and tried to throw himself over a guardrail to the underpass below. He was spared injury when a policeman and two passengers caught him. The story accompanying the video says that the man had spent 40 hours on the train and was suffering from “travel syndrome,” defined as “a short-time psychotic disorder.” The man reportedly became calm after ten minutes.
I’m still not sure if travel syndrome is a real thing. Maybe there’s something going on with the translation. And maybe there was more to the man’s situation than just a long train ride. A more detailed video and story at CCTV+ doesn’t mention a syndrome but rather says that medical workers think that the man “might have had a hallucination which caused his physical disorders.”
(China.Recorder, “Police Grabs Man Jumping off Guardrails at Train Station,” January 1, 2018; “Police Officer Stops Hallucinated Passenger from Jumping off Railway Platform,” CCTV+, January 1, 2018)
But regardless of the accuracy, or lack thereof, of this gentleman’s diagnosis, there are such things as syndromes associated with travel. And I’m talking not just about made-up maladies, like “rude-tourist syndrome” or “lost-luggage syndrome.” No, these syndromes are real enough to garner serious discussion.
“Economy-class syndrome,” “second-class-travel syndrome,” and “cheap-airfare syndrome” are all names for deep vein thrombosis, or the formation of blood clots, in the legs, caused by lack of movement by passengers during long flights. Deep vein thrombosis is a real concern, especially if a clot detaches and gets lodged in the lungs (pulmonary embolism), a potentially fatal condition. But in an article at WebMD, the American College of Chest Physicians says that the risks are low for healthy travelers and that sitting in coach does not make the risks higher. Rather, it’s long stretches of immobility that cause the most problems, regardless of where your seat is located—though being trapped in a window seat can limit opportunities to move around.
(Salynn Boyles, “New Guidelines Debunk ‘Economy Class Syndrome,'” WebMD, February 7, 2012)
A brochure published by the Port Health Travel Centre of Hong Kong’s Department of Health says that high-altitude syndrome is caused by ascending to altitudes above 8,000 feet more rapidly than your body can acclimate. Symptoms begin with a mild headache and can progress to Acute Mountain Sickness—including a headache “similar to a bad hangover” plus nausea, fatigue, dizziness, or difficulty sleeping—High Altitude Cerebral Edema (fluid accumulating in the brain), and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (fluid accumulating in the lungs). Without treatment, these last two conditions can result in death.
(“High Altitude Syndrome,” Port health Travel Centre, Department of Health, Hong Kong, 2005)
You probably know what culture shock is, but adding syndrome after it sounds much more significant, especially with this definition from the Handbook of Psychiatric Education and Faculty Development:
a protean psychodynamic manifestation including mourning of the lost culture, severe anxiety in adapting to the new and consequent identity disturbances.
(Jerald Kay, et al., Handbook of Psychiatric Education and Faculty Development, American Psychiatric, 1999)
Likewise, jet lag has its own “syndrome” name, too. And here’s how time-zone-change (jet-lag) syndrome is described in the International Classification of Sleep Disorders: Diagnostic and Coding Manual:
varying degrees of difficulties in initiating or maintaining sleep, excessive sleepiness, decrements in subjective daytime alertness and performance, and somatic symptoms (largely related to gastrointestinal function) following rapid travel across multiple time zones.
(American Academy of Sleep Medicine, International Classification of Sleep Disorders, Revised: Diagnostic and Coding Manual, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 2001)
So with “gastrointestinal function” as a segue. . . . Not a few people complain of adverse physical reactions after eating food with monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is often used as a flavor enhancer in Chinese cuisine. I don’t think the label “Chinese-restaurant syndrome” is fair, not because I don’t believe in the negative effects of MSG (I’m not going to enter that debate), but rather because Chinese cuisine is far from the only food containing the additive. First introduced in Japan in 1908, MSG has since spread across Asia. But you don’t need to go overseas or even to an Asian restaurant to get your fill. MSG is found naturally in foods such as tomatoes and parmesan cheese; it’s added for flavor to products such as Doritos and Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup; and it’s in the recipes at KFC and Chick-fil-A.
“Toxic-airline syndrome” and “aerotoxic syndrome” are names given to symptoms that some believe are caused by breathing airliner cabin air that is contaminated with engine lubricants or noxious fumes. There is disagreement as to the potential dangers:. On the one hand is the UK’s Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT), which states that a valid explanation for the illnesses is that they are manifested in people who perceive cabin air to be hazardous. This is called the “nocebo effect,” as opposed to the “placebo effect.” But on the other hand are those who believe long exposure, such as by flight crew or frequent fliers, has led even to the deaths of their loved ones. Regardless, most agree that the issue is serious enough to warrant further investigation.
(Kate Leahy, “‘There Are Hundreds of Sick Crew’: Is Toxic Air on Planes Making Frequent Flyers Ill?” The Guardian, August 19, 2017; “Position Paper on Cabin Air,” Committee on Toxicity, 2013)
A 1982 issue of The BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal), contains a short article on “airport-assault syndrome.” Those were simpler times, and the assault referenced there isn’t concerning terrorism. Instead it’s the “plague” of luggage trolleys running into the Achilles tendons of innocent passersby. The authors suggest developing shorter, more easily maneuverable trolleys or pulling, rather than pushing, them as ways to “prevent many travelers from grievous bodily harm at the hands of unsuspecting charioteers.”
(Michael Heim, et al., “The Airport Assault Syndrome on the Increase,” The BMJ, December 23, 1989)
Sometimes the syndromes are not a result of travel, but traveling, or attempting to travel, is a manifestation of previous disorders. “Airport syndrome,” as referenced in the BJPsych Bulletin, is characterized by “airport wandering,” when “travel to the airport [is] in some way a product of [psychotic] illness.”
Jet-set Munchausen syndrome
The same BJPsych Bulletin article also cites a case of Munchausen syndrome that took place on a plane, causing the flight to be diverted. Munchausen syndrome is a mental disorder in which a person repeatedly pretends to be sick even though the illness is not real. In this “jet-set” case, it happened to occur on a plane.
(Harvey Gordon, et al., “Air Travel by Passengers with Mental Disorder,” BJPsych Bulletin, July 30, 2004)
Florence Syndrome, et al.
And then there is a small atlas of syndromes named after travel destinations that overwhelm visitors, with symptoms including anxiety, disorientation, dizziness, fainting, and even convulsions and hallucinations—sometimes leading to hospitalization.
Florence syndrome is also called Stendhal syndrome—after the French author who reported his reaction to visiting Florence in 1817—and can apply to visiting any destination with cultural and artistic significance.
Paris syndrome, most often experienced by Japanese tourists, comes about when the reality of Paris does not meet the romanticized expectations of the visitors. Jerusalem syndrome involves religious delusions or obsessions caused by travel to the city. And India syndrome is a set of psychotic symptoms experienced by outsiders coming to the country on spiritual journeys.
In his book A Death on Diamond Mountain, Scott Carney includes a simple cure for India syndrome, given by Kalyan Sachdev, the medical director of New Delhi’s Privat Hospital: a trip home. “[Y]ou put them on the plane,” Sachdev says, “and they are completely all right.”
(Scott Carney, A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment, Penguin, 2015)
But is going home the answer to travel woes? Though it’s not officially recognized, I’ll include “post-travel syndrome” here because so many people talk about it and claim to experience it. Also called “post-travel depression,” it’s the emotional low one gets after returning from a trip. But as Dr. Sebastian Filep of the University of Otago’s Department of Tourism tells NBC News, “The idea of post-travel depression is largely a myth.” In the same report, Jeroen Nawijn, of the Centre for Sustainable Tourism and Transport, who has studied vacationing’s effect on mood, says he’s “found no proof of post-travel depression,” and labels it “not a legitimate mental health issue.”
And yet it can feel so real.
(Dana McMahan, “Do Well-needed Vacations Actually Bum Us Out?” NBC News, May 9, 2013)
So, in light of all this, should we just stay home and never venture beyond the confines of our immediate locales? I guess that’s one solution, but be warned. That would mean giving up on all that can be gained from seeing the world and expanding our horizons. And if you let your concerns about travel consume you, you run the risk of suffering the incapacitating effects of treksyndraphobia syndrome—the fear-of-travel-syndromes syndrome.
Yeah, I made that one up.
(Mike Robinson and David Picard, eds., Emotion in Motion: Tourism, Affect and Transformation, Routledge, 2012)
August 20, 2017 § Leave a comment
Dépaysement. It’s a French word that means something like “culture shock,” but it’s for those times when culture shock isn’t enough to capture what you’re feeling.
I could give you my definition, but it would just be a reworking of what I’ve found others saying. Instead, I’d rather let those others speak for themselves:
- (sentiment dérangeant)disorientation
- (sentiment agréable)change of scenery
(“English Translation of ‘Dépaysement,'” Collins)
It’s hard to put your finger on the feeling. You’re away from home, in a foreign land, surrounded by foreign faces. You’re apprehensive, but excited. You’re nervous, but alive.
Every synapse feels like it’s firing when you first set foot in a strange place, when you have to figure out the lay of the land, try to decide if you’re safe or in danger, if you should be elated or afraid. Every part of you is in overdrive.
What do you call that? “Culture shock” doesn’t cut it. “Excitement” doesn’t do it justice either, given that undercurrent of fear. We don’t have a single term that sums all those feelings up.
But the French do.
(Ben Groundwater, “Why ‘Depaysement’ Is the One Foreign Word Every Traveller Should Know,” Stuff, May 4, 2017)
In France, the feeling of being an outsider is known as dépaysement (literally: decountrification). Sometimes it is frustrating, leaving us feeling unsettled and out of place. And then, just sometimes, it swirls us up into a kind of giddiness, only ever felt when far away from home. When the unlikeliest of adventures seem possible. And the world becomes new again.
(Tiffany Watt Smith, Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty—154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel, Little Brown, 2016)
People do some out-of-character things in foreign countries. They strike up conversations with strangers in bars, even if they would never do the same back home. They wear unflattering hats. There’s something about being a stranger in a strange land that’s equal parts exhilarating and disorienting, and this messy mix of feelings is what the French word depaysement . . . means to capture.
(Melissa Dahl, “10 Extremely Precise Words for Emotions You Didn’t Even Know You Had,” Science of Us, New York, June 15, 2016)
The gray and quotidian machinations of metropolitan life must be “deciphered” in order to discover another reality lurking just beneath the surface, the “sous-reality” of the historical marvelous. In surrealist wanderings through old neighborhoods, parks, cafés and restaurants, the city itself is text—the hidden mysteries like the markings on the Rosetta Stone. This mode of archaeological “reading” is linked to a phenomenological position which Jean Pierre Cauvin has identified as “dépaysement”: “the sense of being out of one’s element, of being disoriented in the presence of the uncanny, or disconcerted by the unfamiliarity of a situation experienced for the first time”. Literally, we might interpret “dépaysement” as “out of country”, or “displaced from one’s homeland.” Within the surrealist context, it refers to a cool disassociation from the mores of twentieth-century Parisian culture so that everyday material objects are freed from their ideological trappings and all of Paris opens itself up as a strange civilization to be “read” for the first time.
(Sasha Colby, Stratified Modernism: The Poetics of Excavation from Gautier to Olson, Peter Lang, 2009)
More than a statement of “homesickness,” depaysement implies a sense that you cannot go home again, that you may be forever disconnected from your old world (Smith 2006). Depaysement is reminiscent of a kind of ritualistic “becoming,” but does not imply being caught in the middle, as in Turner’s (1964) “betwixt and between,” because depaysement is not qualitatively transitional. A rite of passage implies a new social role or place in a social structure. Depaysement implies a sense of being stripped of that social structure altogether. It implies a new permanence in one’s experience in the worlds.
And then there are these musicians from Japan who call themselves The Depaysement (no, not “The Basement” or “The Debasement”). Watch their video. I’m sure they’d appreciate your views.
May 14, 2017 § Leave a comment
In May of 2004, explorer Ben Saunders completed a solo, unsupported trek to the North Pole—on foot. He set out on his trip from the Russian side on March 5, reached the Pole on May 11, and was picked up by plane on the Canadian side on May 14. So here’s a repost, in honor of the thirteenth anniversary of his return.
Also, today is notable because it’s Mother’s Day, and point #9 below is a shout-out to moms, including a very emotional and very long-distance telephone call. Have you called your mum today?
In 2004, 26-year-old Briton Ben Saunders became only the third person, and the youngest ever, to ski unaccompanied to the North Pole. As it turns out, there are a lot of ways that making a solo trek to the North Pole is a like moving to another country. Here are 11 things that the two adventures have in common, all taken from Saunder’s February 2005 TED Talk, “Why Did I Ski to the North Pole?”
- Luggage is a drag
Saunders describes his specialty as “dragging heavy things around cold places.” He says, for his trip to the North Pole, “I was dragging all the food I needed, the supplies, the equipment, sleeping bag, one change of underwear—everything I needed for nearly three months.” That sounds like trying to put every necessary item in your carry-on bag, just in case your checked luggage gets lost. (If you think your bags are heavy, Saunder’s supply of food and fuel weighed 400 pounds.) Sometimes your destination has harsh conditions. And sometimes it doesn’t have chocolate chips. How many bags of those should you bring? Can’t be too prepared.
- It can be lonely out there
One of the challenges of Saunder’s voyage was that he had to make it alone. Very alone. When he arrived at the northern-most point on the globe, he was the only “human being in an area one-and-a-half times the size of America, five-and-a-half thousand square miles.” Most of us don’t go to such remote places, but even if you’re in the biggest city, surrounded by millions of other souls, you can easily feel all by yourself.
- No, Virginia, there isn’t a Santa Claus
When Saunders got to the top of the world, he didn’t find Santa. No Santa’s workshop. No elves. In fact, he says, “There isn’t even a pole at the Pole. There’s nothing there, purely because it’s sea ice.” When you go to another country, expect the unexpected. Don’t be surprised when what you find doesn’t match the photos in the magazine article. “I’d read lots of books,” says Saunders. “I studied maps and charts. But I realized on the morning of day one that I had no idea exactly what I’d let myself in for.” Photoshopped and cropped pics don’t do us any favors. If GPS and street signs say we’re in the right place, don’t waste time—or emotions—trying to find something that doesn’t exist.
- Sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back
According to NASA, during the year of Saunders journey, the ice conditions were the worst on record. Ninety percent of the time he was skiing into headwinds and the drifting ice pulled him backwards. “My record,” he says, “was minus 2.5 miles. I got up in the morning, took the tent down, skied north for seven-and-a-half hours, put the tent up, and I was two and a half miles further back than when I’d started. I literally couldn’t keep up with the drift of the ice.” When you’re in a new place, learning the language and culture, get used to those backward drifts. But always keep your compass set on your true north.
- The only constant is change
Because the ice is constantly drifting over the North Pole, Saunders says that if he’d planted a flag there, it wouldn’t be long before it would be heading toward Canada or Greenland. Like Saunders, don’t be surprised when the emotional flags you plant aren’t permanent. The ground may not move under your feet (earthquakes not withstanding), but other kinds of landscapes certainly will. Find a special restaurant that serves your favorite dishes? Wake up the next day and it’s become a plumber’s shop. Make friends with some other expats? You may soon have to say goodbye. But, repeat after me, “Change can be good. Change can be good. Change can be good.” Maybe, just maybe, that plumber’s shop will end up being exactly what you need.
- Culture stress can be a bear
Literally. On his first try at the North Pole, Saunders went with a partner, but they failed to reach their goal. Saunders says that from the outset “almost everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. We were attacked by a polar bear on day two. I had frostbite in my left big toe. We started running very low on food. We were both pretty hungry, losing lots of weight.” Yup. Sounds like culture stress to me.
- Coming back can feel like the bear wins
When his first attempt fell short, Saunders says he “was physically exhausted, mentally an absolute wreck, considered myself a failure, in a huge amount of debt personally to this expedition, and lying on my mum’s sofa, day in day out, watching daytime TV.” His brother texted him an encouraging quotation from Homer Simpson: “You tried your hardest and failed miserably. The lesson is: don’t even try.” Repatriation can feel that way. Maybe all the people who’d said you shouldn’t go were right. But Saunders didn’t let his failure define him. Instead, three years later he made history.
- People aren’t sitting around waiting to hear your stories
When Saunders reached the North Pole, he got out his satellite phone. After warming up the battery in his armpit, he made three calls: “I dialed my mum. I dialed my girlfriend. I dialed the CEO of my sponsor. And I got three voicemails.” OK, that’s unfair to say they didn’t want to hear what he’d done. They were just busy at the time, that’s all. But . . .
- Some people really do want to listen
“I finally got through to my mum,” says Saunders. “She was at the queue of the supermarket. She started crying. She asked me to call her back.” There are special people who will make time to listen—when they can focus on your story without distractions. Thanks, Mum.
- Don’t let others draw boundaries on your map
When Saunders was 13, he got a school report that said, “Ben lacks sufficient impetus to achieve anything worthwhile.” Saunder’s response—”I think if I’ve learned anything, it’s this: that no one else is the authority on your potential. You’re the only person that decides how far you go and what you’re capable of.”
- One of the three most important questions will always be “Where is the bathroom?”
Saunders gave his TED Talk to answer three questions:
(1 ) Why?
(2) How do you go to the loo at minus 40?
(3) What’s next?
That second question is very important at the North Pole, because it seems that “at minus 40, exposed skin becomes frostbitten in less than a minute.” Your question number two will be more like “Where’s the bathroom?” or just “Bathroom? Bathroom?” Then, once you see the facilities, you may ask yourself, “How?”
As for the answers to those question, in short, Saunder’s responses go something like this:
(1) “For me,” says Saunders, “this is about exploring human limits, about exploring the limits of physiology, of psychology, and of technology. They’re the things that excite me. And it’s also about potential, on a personal level. This, for me, is a chance to explore the limits—really push the limits of my own potential, see how far they stretch.”
(2) That’s a trade secret, no answer here.
(3) Antarctica. Saunders and Tarka L’Herpiniere are currently on the first leg of their trek from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again—1,800 miles in all—unsupported and on foot. You can follow Saunder’s daily blog posts here. Why the South Pole? See answer number one above. Somebody’s got a severe case of wanderlust. [Saunders and L’Herpiniere completed their expedition on February 7, 2014.]
January 23, 2017 § Leave a comment
Empathy has taken somewhat of a beating lately, as Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion has made the rounds. I’ve not read the book, so what I know of it comes from third-party reactions, not enough for me to make any intelligent critique or defense. After all is said and done, though, I would guess that most of us would champion empathy, even if we agree that it can have a negative impact when misguided.
Christopher O’Shaughnessy is author of the book Arrivals, Departures and the Adventures In-Between. He’s also, per his website, an “international speaker and globetrotting adventurer” and, per the video below—an excerpt from his keynote address at last year’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference—an empathy advocate. In fact, the video begins with him saying,
I want to tell you a story that emphasizes for me when I first sort of imprinted how important empathy was.
His story takes place after he entered a new school as an eighth grader and met an Eastern European girl who had just made her first international move. O’Shaugnessy, who was born in England to US military parents and spent chunks of his growing-up years on alternating sides of “the pond,” understood what she was going through and befriended her while others made her the object of their bullying.
His first story ends with a second story that takes place years later, in a bank, with a suspicious character, a note passed to a teller, annoying hope, and leaping tears.
It’s worth a listen.
This video is posted at Youtube in the Culturs.guru channel, which says that “CULTURS is a global multicultural philanthropic brand that brings lifestyle content to liminal identities.” I wasn’t familiar with the word liminal, but quick Google search told me that it means “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.” I like that. There’s plenty of room for empathy in that place.
April 22, 2016 § Leave a comment
Head over to A Life Overseas to read my complete post.
When most people open up their closets in the morning, they usually ignore the out-of-style shirts on the edge, the wrong-color sweaters, the too-tight pants. Instead, as much as they can, they grab something that looks right, something that fits right, something that feels right.
When you transition between countries, your cultural closets get switched. Your choices become limited, and you often have to put on things you’d rather not wear. You’ve given up comfort for other purposes. Some of this discomfort is just an annoyance, like a scratchy tag inside the collar of your shirt. But some can seem unworkable, like that same shirt two sizes too small.
It’s the Water and the Dirt
When I and my family moved overseas, we weren’t surprised by culture stress. We may not have been fully prepared, but we weren’t surprised. What did surprise us, though, was that we couldn’t always identify the causes of our irritation and pain.
For many stressors, you know just what hook to hang them on. Singing at church feels a little off? It’s because everybody’s clapping on a different beat than you are. Can’t sleep? That’s because of the all-night traffic outside your window. Nagging cough? Pollution.
Being able to name a problem helps us sort things out. It gives us vocabulary for talking about it with others. It helps us better understand our new home and ourselves. It helps us find solutions. It helps us cope.
But sometimes, there is no hook, at least not an obvious one.
A few months after we landed in Taipei, my wife developed a “cold,” a cold that lasted on and off for over a year. Our doctor couldn’t find a solution and none of his remedies helped (one medicine caused her heart to race). Finally, he diagnosed her with shui tu bu fu, which can be translated as “not acclimated to the water and soil.” That’s odd, because we didn’t drink the water, and with all the concrete, and we rarely saw the soil. . . .