It seems to me that "culture shock" is an expression that many people use far too casually without understanding what it actually means. I used to be one of them.
Earlier this evening I was a dramatic and alarming picture of culture shock. When my husband found me, I was sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor beside a voltage transformer (our big one that I never bother to lift onto the counter when I need to use it because it weighs about forty pounds). I had my American-made electric beater plugged into it; the cord is too short to reach up onto the counter without coming unplugged from the transformer on the floor, which was why I was sitting on the floor. My left hand held the electric beater, on high, in the middle of a pot of fudge that I had just finished cooking that was sitting on the floor in front of me. My right my hand covered my eyes, supporting the full weight of my head as my elbow rested on my knee. The steady whir of the electric beater nearly drowned out the sobs that shook my body. I say "nearly drowned out" because George must have heard something to make him come to the kitchen at just that moment.
I was aware of his presence but was too distraught to respond. He knelt awkwardly on the other side of the pot of fudge and took the beater from me. I just cried harder. I needed to scream, but as a rational adult, I kept telling myself that was out of the question. But my mind felt as if it was about to shatter if I didn't do something quickly, so I shrieked. George jumped, but he managed to hold the beater, still on high, steady in the pot of fudge. I continued to cry, now with the pathetic, gasping breaths that afflict small children when they can't get control of themselves. I felt the need to vomit from the force of my sobs, and the rational part of my mind interrupted again to suggest that if I didn't get a hold of myself quickly, I would start to hyperventilate. That did the trick, and I gradually forced myself to regain control. Within a few minutes, I was frosting a tray of freshly baked brownies with the fudge frosting I had just made.
An outburst of this nature could only have been provoked by something earth shattering like the sudden death of a young child, a rape, or a murdered husband. Right? Not if you're a woman suffering from chronic culture shock and something jarring happens to you at the wrong time of the month.
What happened to me? Not much.
Earlier today I went grocery shopping. I started to enter the store, but then I realized that I needed a shopping cart, which I could only get outside of the store. So I turned on my heel to walk out and grab a cart from the row sitting conveniently about three feet from the entrance. Before I could get out, however, a security guard, who had been standing there watching me, blocked my path and said, "Nilzya!" a Russian obscenity that literally means you can't. (It's not actually an obscenity, but I've come to perceive it as such, because 85% of the time, the tone and spirit in which it is used makes you feel as if you're being cussed out.)
Baffled by his incomprehension, I pointed at the row of shopping carts and stuttered in Ukrainian, "But I need … I need …" Since shopping cart doesn't frequently come up in conversational speech, I didn't actually know the Ukrainian word for it, so I stumbled to a halt, frustrated and helpless.
"Go around through the cash register line," he told me, still in Russian.
I know what going through the cash register line is like, because once I had the misfortune to enter this same store looking for one item only. When I failed to find it, I had to choose between waiting ten minutes in line behind customers who were checking out or forcing my way past them. I chose the latter. The cash register aisles are very narrow, and if I carried a few more inches on my hips, it would have been physically impossible for me to squeeze past a loaded shopping cart. Other customers were paranoid that I might be trying to cut in front of them, because cutting in line is as natural as breathing for about 25% of the population. On top of all this, the cashier was suspicious that I might be trying to sneak out with stolen goods. All this flashed through my mind as I faced off with the surly security guard. But what could I do? I briefly contemplated either speaking a mixture of Ukrainian and French, trying to reason with him in English, or shoving him as hard as I could so I could get to one of the carts that were within arm's reach.
In the end, I simply growled at him, an inarticulate, animal noise, and spun around to find the closest cash register line . . . and then I came home and shrieked while making fudge frosting.
This sort of drama is not an everyday part of life in Ukraine for me. In fact, in nearly three years of living here, this is only the fourth such incident. The other three were prompted by minor slights like the one that set me off today. But culture shock is like a succession of time bombs. The steady ticking that colors all the seconds and minutes of your days sounds innocuous enough, but it's propelled forward by an unending series of small shocks until the inevitable, but unexpected, explosion occurs. And then the process begins all over again.
Today was the worst explosion yet. Hours later, my mind still feels brittle. I shan't go mad, at least not tonight. I'm sure of that. In fact, I'm reasonably sure that I will survive the interminable culture shock stage with my sanity intact. But at what cost? In order to survive, must I become an insensitive, unfeeling brute like the people who keep pushing me over the edge? I refuse.
As George gently pointed out after my second explosion after moving here, the reason we've chosen to live in this country is to make a positive difference. We want to see the love of Jesus transform lives and change the society. And one of the ways to pursue our goal is to display this love in all our actions. How should I have responded to the security guard today? I honestly don't know, but I'm sure that growling at him was not the best thing I could have done. So I take a deep breath, say a prayer of repentance, and ask God to help me do better next time.
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