This goes out to every traveler who has paused and tried to start a life somewhere far and foreign, made a valiant effort to integrate themself, and struggled with the customs, the food, the people, or anything else in their new environment. I’m not talking about those people who move somewhere and nestle up comfortably with the exPat community. No, I am talking about those people who have traded in their flannel for a loincloth, hurled themselves into the language learning process, or studied the local history in an effort to understand the sociocultural nuances. This is for those strong crusaders who don’t give up in their battle for understanding.
This week I ate one jar of extremely expensive imported peanut butter, one sleeve of Ritz crackers, two boxes of Craft Mac-n-Cheese, one bacon and peanut butter sandwich, one Chinese lunch combo, three salads (that actually came with lettuce), and a Burger King chicken sandwich. I treated myself to a Bruce Willis marathon after cooking myself a pancake breakfast. I did yoga on my kitchen floor. I blasted blue grass and danced around my room like a crazy person. I spent several hours on Facebook chat and Skype with friends back home talking about people and politics.
I know what you are thinking, this girl lives where?
I live in Peru, though I am from the east coast of The USA.
I have been here since August 2012. I have done my absolute best to integrate and adapt to my new surroundings though you’d probably never guess it from my introduction. But it’s true. I really have.
I’ve rented an apartment. I have a local boyfriend who I love dearly and treats me like a queen. I worked locally and continue to do the odd local job on the side of my writing. I take Spanish classes. I have even learned to cook a couple local dishes. At this point, I have one western friend who I see maybe twice a month. I’ve gone to Catholic mass a couple of times, and next month I have an appointment to see a local witch to seek council for my gallbladder.
Yeah, for a while there, I had just about everyone fooled-myself included!
The bottom line is, it isn’t that easy, is it?
Starting Out In Foreign Country
When I first got here, I’d say about three months in, I thought that I had a two week plague of culture shock. I laughed and said, “Man, that was easy!” and I went right on with loving my new habitat. But then, about a month later, it hit me head on with full force.
I don’t know what I thought culture shock entailed. I thought it was some sign of weakness, something that I would never experience. I thought that I was above it. I thought that with valiant effort adaptation could be achieved quickly, with nothing more than a strong will and an open mind.I was naive. I didn’t understand the complicity, the deeply rooted psychological aspect, of this issue.I feel that many people assign culture shock a very broad definition. They call it something like a “difficulty that one experiences when adapting to a new culture”. That over simplifies it for me.
Culture shock isn’t just trouble adjusting to something new, it’s the longing for something of your past environment, your natural habitat, if you will, and that has now become comforting in your extended absence. It’s the longing for something familiar that buds out of the frustration for something new. It’s that pain of isolation that one experiences the farther away that their new environment tears them from their cultural self.
It’s this feeling that drives me to Burger King cravings, a phenomenon only explained by a hangover in the states. It’s this longing for something familiar that wills me to blast blue grass. I am far from a bluegrass enthusiast in the states, but the sound of the mountains of Virginia has begun to offer me something harmoniously comforting that I cling to in my distance. It’s that same thing that pushes me to mac-n-cheese. Yet in the states any form of mac-n-cheese became so associated with poverty that just the sight of it would make my stomach churn.
I have tried to consider this whole emotionally draining thing as a bump, one that can be passed over with time. I think I may have been mistaken in that as well. I have begun to think of it more as a plain; long and flat with no foreseeable end, the finish line blinded out by the setting sun on the horizon. The longer I walk, the more exhausted that I get, but the beauty of the sunset at the other end of the plain pushes me on.
Perhaps what I find myself craving the most is just someone who understands. Someone who feels my pain and can empathize. Like I said, I have a major shortage of local western friends these days. It’s begun to drive me mad, the feeling of isolation that I experience when I try to express what I am feeling to my friends. I have tried to lean on my boyfriend, but that is unfair to him, as he doesn’t understand either.
I have a friend from Boston who is located 12 hours away by bus. We talk a lot online when I should be writing. She has been here on and off for over a year. She has been an incredible inspiration to me, a light at the end of a very dark and disheartening tunnel. She provides me with hope, but she confessed to me that she still has those days in bed curled up with a box of Oreos and watching shitty reruns of some irrelevant American television series.Several weeks ago, exasperated by my ongoing struggle, I exclaimed, “What do I do with all of this?!”
My friend sighed and said, “Well, if it gets better, you stay. If it one day it doesn’t, and it just becomes too much, you leave.”
Tina Stelling Freelance Writer Tina is an American writer based out of Arequipa, Peru. As a globetrotter she enjoys traveling, dancing, trying new foods, studying languages, and writing about her experiences. She writes for various publications around the globe. She has recently relocated to South America where she is working as a fulltime freelancer. Her Website is www.tinastelling.com I welcome you all to check it out.