Of Culture Shock and Carrying On

When I was ten and traded continents, Culture Shock was a term I heard a lot. Relatives would inquire about how we coped with it. My parents would blame it for silly mistakes or unusual irritability. To me, it was a lack of Dairy Milk, confusion at new words for things, and the awkwardness of being asked to “say something” by strangers on the street who overheard my accent. Minor irritations, cast against the agreeable backdrop of swaying palm trees and white sand beaches.

The phrase cropped up again around a year ago when, five months into a new life in the beautiful city of Prague, I tearfully typed “expat depression” and hit search. Culture shock, the white screen reassured me. The familiar phrase was instant relief, explaining away everything from the headaches and insomnia to the crippling insecurity and the overwhelming desire to punch strangers speaking their guttural tongue. I wasn’t just being ungrateful or sociopathic. This was all just part of the process. And it would end.

The funny thing is, I can’t put my finger on when it did end. I know that somewhere I learned to stand on bridges and gaze at the castle hill without feeling betrayed by it. Somewhere I gave up on being a ‘good expat’ and got back to being myself. Most importantly, I cleared my head enough to cherish every moment with the man who is my reason for making this insane leap of faith. It was less of an epiphany, more a slow trickle of mountain water into a cracked riverbed.

Sometimes I wonder how much of it truly was culture shock, and how much of it was just growing up. To go from the sheltered joys and dramas of student life to that one winter’s morning on which I exchanged everything familiar for Real Life in all its bewildering fullness. We had both assumed that once we were in the same house, in the same city, happiness would be easy. When things were difficult, we blamed the house. We blamed the city.

In retrospect it would have been an impossible six months no matter where we started. Long-distance love had been a fight, and once we won, we weren’t sure who we were without it. Stepping, blinking, into sudden light, the weight of a clean slate would still have bewildered us closer to home. Add four part-time jobs, a freelancer’s wage, the language barrier and a continent cutting off family and friends, and healing is hard to find time for.

Nowadays we meet outside my office and find a place for lunch – a picnic in the rose garden if the sun is out, Thai soup if it’s not. We hold hands across the table and place our orders in just-comprehensible Czech, sipping light beer while we recount morning meetings and plan weekend adventures. If you didn’t know us better you’d say we were all grown up. You’d be wrong, of course, but whatever we are – it’s pretty shock resistant.

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