Saturday, February 11, 2012

In The Doldrums, or My Exciting Adventures In Culture Shock

I haven’t given an update on our day-today life here in Tanzania in a few weeks, and I’m committed to giving you the good and the bad, so here’s a very real and honest post for you. Things are going well, but this last week has been a hard one for me.

Now, let it be noted that I am VERY happy with my decision to move to Tanzania and have no plans to pack up and come home anytime soon. However, a move like this is not without it’s emotional toll, and that’s what I am talking about today. A very common theme that popped up in our trainings in New York was the cycle of culture shock and the transition and adjustment to a very different environment. Everyone who has made a move like ours talked about the periods when you’ll be down in the dumps and sort of casting about for normalcy. And that’s where I’ve been this last week. I’ve had a few moments of vague sadness hit me now and then, but it came up on me full-force this week, culminating in a mini-breakdown yesterday. There are five of us new folks here, and while there’s no one in the group that stands out as a candidate for hitting the culture shock wall first, I am surprised it was me.

My little freakout has been slowly creeping up on me over the last week or two. Lots of various things have been manifesting in a recipe for an emotional crash. First, the weather here is like a warm spring/early summer day everyday. Sunny, cool breezes, 80 degrees give or take a few. It’s great. It’s also the “season” that gives me terrible allergies, so I’ve been sneezing and coughing with watery eyes, runny nose, an itchy throat for weeks now. I’m used to allergies, so I’ll live. BUT, the way people dispose of all trash here is to burn it, so there is constantly smoke in the air. Now, I like a good fire and have spent many an hour around a bonfire, but when there’s NO break from the smoky air, my allergies and my asthma really get going. So I haven’t felt very well for the last few weeks.

Also, Kiswahili is hard to learn! Everyone who speaks it say “it’s easy!” but it’s not. Certainly not the hardest language to learn, but it is another language with very different rules, and it is hard. I’ve been doing pretty well at it, but this week we hit some new grammar rules that are just beyond me right now. I’m sure I’ll get it, but sitting in class for hours a day and not understanding a lot of what is being discussed will wear you down. I think I’ve been overly hard on myself, setting unrealistic expectations for where I should be at this point in time, so I have been beating myself up a bit. So now I’m in a bad mood and I don’t feel good. More ingredients added to mix…

I’ve also noticed a few bad habits forming, all centering around “avoidance.” I was wasting time I could have been studying, and instead procrastinating and playing Connect Four online. I’ve been reading a lot, but at the expense of other things I should have been doing. I need to be out practicing my Swahili but instead I found I was holing up on campus, avoiding going out and having to speak to anyone beyond the gates of the school. Pretty much avoiding the “African” part of my African experience, seeking out familiar.

Three nights ago, we tried to load up more credits to access the internet and we did something wrong and we couldn’t get online that night. No big deal, but boy I freaked out. I thought everyone was blaming me for the mistake and I got really defensive and threw a little tantrum. I talked about how I guess it was dumb for me to freak out over such a stupid little mistake because “Africa itself was nothing but a long line of stupid mistakes” that we’ll have to deal with, but that I didn’t feel good and “people should just leave me alone!” Katie and I had a fight, and I fully admit I was acting like an ass. The overly critical attack on “Africa itself” is also a classic symptom of culture shock.

We’ve been pretty rootless the last 6 months, jumping from place to place, and I think that has been wearing on me, too. I want a routine, and I want to be doing something.” So yesterday afternoon, I’m sitting in our language lab after a particularly frustrating day of classes and a rough week in general, and I am suddenly overwhelmed with homesickness. Now, I mentioned a few weeks back that I don’t really get homesick, but this was without a doubt full-blown homesickness. And not a general feeling of missing the United States, but a very specific pang of missing Columbia and my old life. I didn’t want to be in Musoma, Tanzania anymore. I missed my house. I missed my cats. I missed the Horseshoe in the middle of USC’s campus. I missed Pizza Man. And I wanted desperately to ride our bikes up to the Yoghut on the corner of Blossom and Main Streets and eat frozen yoghurt and sit outside at sundown and watch the students mill about campus. It hit me hard, and I immediately just packed up and walked back to my room, lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling. And then I cried a little.

And that, my friends, is culture shock!

Now, I feel much better today. After my little breakdown, I holed up in my room and just zoned out online. Then I exercised, had dinner, watched some TV, and read a book. I didn’t look at Swahili at all. And that night, the students here all gathered in the community room to watch an episode of The #1 Ladies Detective Agency. Now, reading the series of books on which the TV show is based was one of the first things that piqued my interest in Africa a decade ago, and I’ve read all 12 of the books. Seeing all my favorite characters on screen, with the great music, and shots of the beautiful people of Africa, and images of the true beauty that exists in Africa reminded me why I’ve wanted to live here and why I’ve worked so hard to get here for all these years. Something about watching that show was the just the salve my soul needed.

So I had a bad week, and I’ll have bad times again. It’s part and parcel of the experience, and I am sure the good times will vastly outweigh the bad. So I'll just chalk my culture shock up to one of the requisite experiences of my move to Tanzania, and I’ll pick myself up, say a prayer, and take stroll outside those front gates and see what’s out there waiting for me.


Ali said...

The other side is the culture shock you experience when you get "home." I am always sooo excited to get home and do all of the things Ive been missing and looking forward to. BUut of course it never quite turns out like that. You start to feel like you can never be totally happy any where! Or... you can be pretty happy in most places! (Your description made me miss Columbia too and I havent thought about USC in forever!)

Good Luck with the language! I second not being too hard on yourself. I remember that at like 5 months of 100% immersion in Mexico that I was understanding and communicating, but even after four years in Colombia language learning is like a never ending process!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing Chris! Remember we love you and and Katie, and are keeping you two and your mission in our prayers back here!


Jean Bean said...

Chris, such a good post. I love honesty like that, and you described the experience of moving and "being rootless" very well. I feel for you, but I don't worry about you either. I have 100% confidence in the person you are - quite amazing! Keep on feeling and you'll keep on doing what you do best - helping.

Jordan said...

the culture shock sounds rough - i remember a time on my mission having a similar creeping up of home sickness that hit me hard (after thinking it would never happen to me - and i was only in texas).

great honest post and i'm glad you're feeling better

p.s. connect four online sounds pretty awesome right now.

Matt Cazessus said...

Amazing stories here, Chris. Thanks for sharing your thoughts so genuinely. If it is alright with you, I'd like to share these experiences with members of my SOC101 class - we've just discussed culture shock during this last week.

Don't forget we should have a Skype conversation sometime too.

wagsandpurrs said...

I so hope you are better. It makes my heart hurt that you are hurting. I had a little freak out on my own, about not seeing you for so long. But I am trying to keep busy, deal with my neck, and watch television!! A worthy cause, right???? I will say an extra prayer tonight.

Anonymous said...

If it is at all comforting. Been there done that. I think it hit me about the third week in Language school. What am I really doing? With the love of friends up there and the support of Michele I made it to the next day and then the next. I don't know or really care what folks say kiswahili is not easy. Love ya. George