Whenever people ask me if I am worried about culture shock, I usually joke that it’s the reverse culture shock – coming back to America – that gets me more. I admit to being nervous about the unexpected and unknown. I don’t deny that it will be hard. But I’m flexible. I can adapt. Being abroad is easy.
Living in a community 100% foreign from what I know is exciting, it is challenging, and it is a much wanted adventure. But it is not easy.
I challenge you now to take out a pen and paper. Put the pen in your non-dominant hand, and sign. Did it feel impossible? Keep trying. Could this signature pass on your bank statements? Would it excuse your daughter from school for feeling sick? Is it more or less legible than your last prescription?
Maybe you felt a little slow or awkward. Or worse, crippled and uncomfortable. At a very basic level you may even feel childish. This is the best way I can describe culture shock. It is not about the groan you make every time you forget to bring TP in to the squatty toilet with you. Nor is it about the slap in the face you feel you deserve when you invite your new friend somewhere during Friday prayers. Instead it is a constant state of being. It’s about feeling handicapped in your daily life.
I am slow because of this incessant heat. I am awkward whenever I meet a new Malaysian man and cannot shake his hand. I am even more awkward when I’m taken by surprise that someone will shake my hand. I feel childish because there are so many things I need someone else to show me how to do: where is the post office to pay our bills? Who do we call when our kitchen is flooding…again? If I cannot have boys in my house where am I supposed to let my friends pee?
Things that I would never do at home have become a comfort. McDonalds is the only place for half descent, affordable coffee. And I embrace it.
Things that I thrive on at home I would never even dream of doing here. A nice big salad? Relax by going on a bike ride? Hash out all these cultural frustrations over a beer? Forget it.
I have never identified more as an American than I do now. Apparently I really like timeliness and planning ahead. I have given up trying to explain to my teachers why we don’t comment on people’s weight on a daily basis. I yearn for the freedom to walk somewhere, anywhere, alone. I know that these short interactions will not introduce my new friends to American culture, but it can at least expose individuals to something different.
Day-to-day life sits just outside my comfort zone. My porcelain skin is a sight to behold every time I step outside my gate. I am prepared with my rote conversation at any gas station, bank, or 7-11: “From America. Teacher. Yes I’m happy here.” And yet, it’s fun talking with new strangers about my time as a teacher here. I love being surprised by their boldness and English proficiency. I become hopeful that my students too will one day be confident enough to ask a foreigner their story.
As much as I have found the silver lining in these moments, culture shock permeates in to daily interactions. A common question when living overseas is what you miss most from home. The easy answer is a product of comfort: your family, sitting in bed with your pet, or a favorite meal. What I miss the most is anonymity.
This weekend I went to a football match in a big group of other ETAs. Cheers erupted all around us. At first we thought Kelantan had scored. But as we walked the cheers kept coming. It quickly dawned on me that the 5 white people among us were more interesting to the hundreds of Malaysians at the match than the match itself was. We were being cheered. I did not feel unsafe or crippled. But certainly awkward and incredibly aware of just how different I am perceived to be. The next day at school I was asked by countless students and teachers if I had been at the football match. Someone had seen us, which meant that everyone knew we were there.
While this is an extreme, similar interactions are a constant reminder that I am, and always will be, a foreigner. But, the culture shock my students experienced when I first showed up on their stage has worn off. More and more, I am able to create pockets of quiet at my school. I am less and less a fear instilling object of fascination. Some of my higher performing students will reach out to have a conversation about more than their activities for the day. One of my form 4 girls told me how sad she was feeling after her boyfriend of 3 years broke up with her. As the cultural barriers patiently wear down, I can begin to navigate the sometimes harder line of teacher and friend.
And yet, even here, a place where I exist every day, I can still be an anomaly. This weekend I hosted my first English camp at school. 125 children came to school clad in their new matching t-shirts having promised me that they would try to speak more English and that they would be silly. After hours and hours of running, playing, singing, dancing and simply making a fool out of myself the students asked me for selfies and signatures. Some brilliant student started the trend of having ETAs sign their shirts. And one sweet girl has my autograph now permanently on the back of her phone.
Things like this make me laugh. There will always be something to make me feel awkward. I will continue to fumble and make a cultural mistakes up until the moment I leave. Shocks will certainly continue to come, but they are all part of the acculturation process.