Sunday, June 27, 2010

Second Wave Culture Shock

When you first arrive in a new country, the culture shock is almost literally a shock. It's overwhelming and makes the simplest tasks taxing. Grocery shopping makes you feel like you are from another planet. Is this an entire aisle of paté? You question how people could possibly live like this. I am supposed to take a shower... sitting down? And, of course, adjusting to a new language is never easy. That word is seven letters long without a single vowel, is there a synonym for that?

But eventually, you settle in. You develop some sort of normalcy in your life. If you spend a lot of time with expats, you begin to create a new culture combining elements of your native and adopted cultures. After a while, you can carry on a basic conversation and start to eat bread as a meal without thinking anything of it. You are no longer simply trying to survive in this strange place but have the new desire to somehow integrate yourself in it. This happened to me around my seventh or eighth month here. And that was when I found myself with a whole new host of anxieties about living here.

Socially, I felt I was doing fine. I knew the big things. Never just start eating without saying "dobrou chut!" Always bring wine to a gathering. Take off your shoes unless told to keep them on. Look everyone in the eyes when you cheers. Don't use the word "love" casually. Got it.

But it was the way I lived my daily life that started to make me wonder how much I could ever fit in. I just don't dress Czech. I don't know how I would dress to look more Czech, it's an inexplicable Czech-i-ness that I just don't have.

I find myself constantly looking at the forearms of other women. I am always trying to determine if it is true that most women shave or wax their arms--so far, I feel like the numbers are probably 50%, 50%, but they are not blessed with the coarse, dark Mediterranean hair I inherited from my paternal grandmother.

I grew up on the beach and was raised to believe that wearing socks with sandals was a crime against humanity. Meanwhile, I learned that skinny-dipping is thrilling and dangerous, not a way to avoid tan lines. A student of mine went to Florida recently and came back with stories about how in America, you can't swim naked or the police will take your baby. Part of me wanted to tell her that in America, you can't wear those shoes with socks or the police will take your baby.

I will never consider a hair-free lady region to be a matter of hygiene. And that is that.

I feel like in America, I know equal numbers of women who wear some amount of make-up daily and who don't. I know very few who think of it as any kind of necessity.

I accept, albeit grudgingly, my ever-increasing number of grey hairs. I may be salt and peppered by 30, but I'll live. Dying my hair was a rebellious youth kind of thing for me and I cannot imagine being respected as an adult with cheetah print hair. Hair color, again, is so far from a matter of hygiene to me.

All these little things start to add up, especially around election time when no one can properly explain to me, in any language, how Czech elections work nor why Czech youth is so right-wing. Add in a tiring amount of institutionalized racism and it amounts to some serious doubt about my ability to live here long-term. But this is just the second wave of culture shock, when one starts to actually become a part of the culture. And like my distaste for pork, this too shall pass.

1 comment:

  1. I got on pretty well over there. Although one thing that I recall about Prague and to me was strange is how no one bothers to pay for their tram fares and consider scaming the public transport system to be a God given right. Which interestingly is not very right wing. Another thing is how gorgeous people are. I don´t mean to sound superficial but how could the beauty index be so high in one specific city? It is like South Brazil with paprika.
    Perhaps it is true that life is kind to the beautiful because getting along with the Czechs was a breeze. What would normally be consider slightly annoying I would file under quirky and all was fine.
    I guess the lesson here is that during waves of culture shock hang out with the hot.
    Pivu helps as well.