I actually did believe the people at Oxy’s International Programs Office when they talked about the phases of culture shock, but I didn’t think I would react in exactly the ways they described. In my American life, I’m a lot more likely to get sad and mopey than irritable and hostile, but here I am in what I’m really hoping is a fully-fledged Phase Two: Irritability and Hostility.
It completely snuck up on me. For about two days it was sort of a fun mind game to think about what I was doing right then, and then think of what that would mean at home or at school, like “doing laundry” or “walking home from school in the rain” or “using the bathroom” or “going to the grocery store.” It’s interesting to think about, and it gives me this happy feeling of American-ness that I’ve never had before, and still can’t really pin down. I’ll talk about that more later. Right now I’m too irritable and hostile.
Phase Two took hold today at around eleven in the morning. I went to the Mercado Central with my host mom, Gracilene. It’s actually a really amazing place that I’ll have to tell you about later when I’m feeling less hostile. Also accompanying us were her friend, her sister, and her sister’s two friends, which in case you weren’t paying attention makes six people in a five-person, two-door car. That actually wasn’t irritating, though. It was nice, in a car-full-of-middle-aged-women-speaking-a-language-you-barely-understand kind of way. My major irritation was what I’m now starting to be able to identify as overprotectiveness. On the one hand, I am more or less a grown person and am therefore fairly unlikely to wander off and get lost in the crowd, so I probably don’t actually need to be grasped firmly by the arm while we walk around. On the other, though, every single place we go is new to me, I’m still not entirely sure what the cultural norms are that I’m supposed to be following and I’m operating under the impression that we could get robbed at any moment – this is probably an overstatement, but the realization that I’m basically unable to identify working to middle-class Brazilian neighborhoods as good or bad combined with Gracilene’s shepherding me around has encouraged this feeling. It’s like being a teenager all over again – I need you, but I don’t want to need you.
My other significant irritation is my own frustration with the language. One of our party was a rather elderly woman who had some problems with one of her legs, apparently, and Gracilene told me frequently to take her arm as we were walking. Being accustomed to the concept of an elderly person needing help moving around, I find this a reasonable request. It did come off as a little bossy to me, but honestly, direct commands are probably the most effective way to communicate with me at this point. Also, truth be told, most of the time when she asks me to do something I don’t actually understand most of the words. Instead it’s clear through context, and I just get the basic meaning of “open the door,” “answer the phone,” or “unplug that thing.” So, okay. That’s fine. The irritating thing about it was that there were really a lot of people in the Mercado Central, so there wasn’t really room to walk two or three abreast, and I kept getting run into things. So, okay, I could just say, “there’s not room for me to walk on this side” or “could you move over” or something like that. But wait. I barely speak Portuguese. It takes me an incredible amount of effort to come up with the words to express an idea, and it’s extremely unlikely that what I say is going to actually make sense. Combine that with the noisy environment and the fact that I’m walking behind the person I’m trying to talk to, and it doesn’t honestly matter enough for me to go through this whole process.
As a side note to the actual culture shock, getting to know people in our SIT group feels like a minor kind of culture shock. (I guess some of you might be reading this – hi, if you are!) It’s kind of like the beginning of college again, where you have this pool of people who you know you’re going to eventually be close friends with, but you don’t know anyone well enough to really know what to expect yet. I haven’t actually gone out with anyone from the group yet, besides lunch, which I really want to do – so far it’s been communication mishaps, weather, or pre-existing plans with my host family that have stopped me.
Anyway, I’m hoping that as the group gets closer, our collective culture shock will become easier to handle. I’m sure it’ll be up and down – but hopefully mostly up!