Culture shock

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In my last article I promised to philosophize about my culture shock. Luckily, this side-effect of any proper abroad experience hit me just in time to share it with you.

Initially, I hoped to skip feeling shocked and get right on with feeling whole and happy about my new Canadian life. After all, I spent my junior high school year in the United States and thanks to my university program, I am confident and fluent in English, that’s got to count for something, or does it?

Sadly, you can’t not experience culture shock. Suddenly, from one second to the next, it hits you in the face and feeling homesick comes crashing down. Let me give you some examples of my triggers. You lock yourself in the house because you don’t understand the porch door’s mechanism; you can’t walk to the grocery store because there’s no sidewalk; you are extremely embarrassed because you have to ask the lady in the cafeteria for help with those funny coins; you can’t flush the toilet because you don’t know where to find the button; pizza doesn’t taste the same; pasta doesn’t taste the same (for goodness sake, these are Italian dishes, you’d expect them to be the same, right?); bread is not the same, not even McDonald’s cheeseburgers are exactly the same, because Canadian ketchup is sweeter than ours (wow, look how easy the us-them-thing suddenly becomes) and I could go on. Ok, that ketchup-thing was my personal trigger. I cried over a cheeseburger, craving something, just anything, that tastes familiar.

People who discuss their abroad experiences usually end up talking about food as it is obviously a central issue in our lives. Yet, I also think it serves as a brilliant metaphor for something much harder to express. When you’re away from home, eventually you start craving familiar tastes, not only in a literal way. What you miss the most is the feeling of belonging.

Did you know, for instance, that it takes forever to pick up another language’s humor? I might find something funny that I want to talk about, but I can’t because I’d have to take the time to explain everything. In Germany, I’d just crack a joke. Likewise, sometimes Canadians have casual conversations and laugh their heads off but I just don’t get it. Being fluent hasn’t helped me at all.

The question is: what do you get in return to make the abroad time worth this struggle? Personally, I don’t rely on this experience to be best time of my life. It might be, and it might not be, I will find out. In any case, it makes me rethink my home country, what I believe in and what I take for granted. I can begin to appreciate what a person who dares to start from scratch in a foreign and strange environment must suffer through if they decide to make their chosen country their home.