culture shock

Earl’s family room was where it all went down. Hers was the happening-est house in our town as far as I was concerned. It was the house where you always entered through the side door—never the front—and the side door was always unlocked, just in case some kids from the neighborhood wanted to drop in and watch a little TV and eat some snacks right out of the seemingly communal fridge. Earl’s mom liked it that way, and she made it obvious. Everyone was always welcome. I felt welcome most days. More importantly, I dropped by often because I wanted to feel welcome.

So Earl’s family room was the first place I went at age 16 when I came home from my first trip abroad: a week in France. None of our other friends had been abroad yet, so I expected all the attention. I welcomed it. I wanted it. I thought everyone would ask me questions outside of “How was it?” I thought I’d talk about my experience and everyone would listen intently and understand it all. I didn’t get that they wouldn’t be able to relate, that they couldn’t fathom the texture of a fresh pain au chocolat or the smell of the snow-capped Alps because those things remained outside of their realm of imagination. And in my shock, I curled into the turtle shell (which I’d wanted so badly to shed) and did a poor job of explaining. My body slowly turned rigid, and my beaming smile slipped from my face. It seemed we flipped through the photos I’d brought in three minutes, and our little gaggle of friends looked, took what impressions they would, then turned away to talk about the latest fads or shows we were into that then seemed so trivial to me after the recent expansion of my horizons. A sadness and confusion welled up in me that I could not place, for I had never before felt the deep disappointment and isolation of reverse culture shock. They belonged and I was the outsider because I had stepped out and seen something new and exciting that I could not express to ears that could not hear and eyes that could not see. How did they not notice that I had changed? And why did it have to come as such a rude awakening to me that I had?

I detested that fish-out-of-water feeling, and thirty years later, I find myself mired in the muck of it again. Whereas at Earl’s house that day it took me just hours to realize that I was the one out of place, this time it’s taken half a year because this time, the journey has been entirely internal.

The past six months have seen me with very little in-person contact, yet I’ve spent what feels like hundreds of hours opening my mind to the events of the day, grappling and wrestling with the history of this country, only to be increasingly frustrated by its repeating patterns. Trump echoes Nixon echoes Wallace. Portland echoes L.A. echoes Detroit echoes Montgomery echoes Tulsa. And so on, all the way back to the birth in United States law of the concept of whiteness.

Suffice it to say, when I exercise my brain, I binge on information like a druggie high on anything and everything she can get her hands on. I saturate my thinking with the chosen topic, enveloped in a focus which is only broken every 3.5 hours for bodily nourishment. I absorb and I absorb and I absorb till I can barely absorb any more within the time constraint, and one day, I wake up, and it’s the day I have to go back to work. And I once again meet the people who I’ve seen for183 days a year for 13 years only to realize that I’ve gone as far away as a person could and snapped right back. To their eyes, maybe I’ve lost a pound or five or ten. Maybe my eyes are more sunken in with gravity of both kinds. But they can’t see the bridge between us. It’s invisible to them. Not only has no one come along on my journey down internal cultural shift lane, but extremely few can relate in the way that would make me feel understood and connected. And I feel the potential of the moment. And I trust my knowledge and experience and instincts. But my outer confidence lags because I haven’t yet tried out my new sea legs. The conversations and learning I have done have happened all within a zoom screen or within the confines of my head. And I know there’s a way to apply it all. And I want to do it right now, in one fell swoop. But that won’t help me to be understood. It’ll have to seep out in molasses drips. I have to remain patient and keep the faucet open.

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