I’ve been thinking a lot about culture shock of late. A good chunk of my upcoming memoir is about overcoming the culture shock of being immersed in a Chinese family. Most of the experiences I write about happened ten years ago when I relocated from Hawaii to Hong Kong for a year, so when I moved to Hong Kong this year, I considered culture shock a thing of my past. For the most part that has been true, but I still have moments when it pops up and surprises me. Push me into a Park’n’Shop on a Saturday when the aisles are impassible and they are loop-playing that robotic song I hate or put me out in the heat and humidity for a few hours in a crowded street market and crank up the volume on the hawkers’ microphones. Leave me too long at a gathering where all the English speakers have either gone home or gotten tired of translating. My eventual meltdown won’t be pretty, and I won’t be proud.
I am proud, however, that I can now muster a strange inner calm as I weave through Shatin Mall on a weekend when it is packed with shoppers. I used to flinch and step aside when the diagonal walkers cut me off or people strolled directly toward me. I bobbed about like I was stepping over hot coals or preparing to take a punch in a ring—side-stepping and dodging. I complained that I was under assault by aunties and shopping bags. My Chinese husband pointed out that I was trying to walk in a straight line and needed to learn to weave. I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Occasionally I plow forward, playing chicken against oblivious walkers glued to mobile phones. The rest of the time we all move nimbly like agitated atoms inside a balloon, glancing apart before we collide. I concentrate on the footwork and the destination to keep panic at bay.
If culture is the stuff we swim in, then culture shock is the discomfort we get when we enter strange waters. If you are a freshwater fish, salt water is going to do a number on your system and either send you back to your lake or stream or, if you are determined, expand your swimming territory. If you are a tourist, you get to keep your head above water. You can survey the views and return to the safe harbor of your bus, your hotel, your restaurant with the translated menu. If you are a transplant, on the other hand, you get dropped in headfirst and need to come up swimming. Getting acclimated takes a while or maybe longer, depending on your constitution. For me, an introvert raised with trees and space and silence, the din and density of Hong Kong was a jolt and an extended series of challenges. If you see me smiling on the MTR during rush hour, I am probably congratulating myself. If not, I am consciously tamping my claustrophobia.
There are a number of memoirs and blogs out there by footloose millennials who quit their jobs to travel the world. I’m impressed and intimidated. These vagabonds and travelers seem to either be immune to culture shock or to experience it like a hearty case of the flu—quick and dirty and soon over. I wish I had whatever it is that insulates them. I know they have a sense of adventure that will take them places I might never work up the nerve to go. And yet I also know that for those of us who weather culture shock slowly, one discomfort at a time, there are the inner rewards of mastering our fears and transcending our limitations. Plus the obvious outer rewards of growing admiration for customs and aesthetics that once made us want to run and hide. To me, that is well worth getting out of my comfort zone–although I might need an occasional reminder.