Reading Culture Shock
Blogger: Daisy Zhang
"He felt like cheering privately because people often wanted to start their lives all over again in tough times and not many of them actually got to do it." - David Chen, Claim the Earth
7 classes with 2 labs and a class at Caltech (with Everest!), plus 3 on-campus jobs as a grader, international student liaison and language table coordinator. Here is my third semester at Oxy at a glance. Going to bed at 4:00 am and getting up at 8:00 am has become a norm to me, and I am liking it!
It's been a year since I first arrived at the Los Angeles International Airport from it's Beijing's counterpart, and the past 400-ish days have been the best time of my life. Last year, before leaving for college, I spent weeks reading a "practical guide" titled "Slang Rules!". From this "practical guide", I learnt the standard response to "what's up?" is "nothing much!" and people in Los Angeles use the Spanish word "que pasa" more often. However, the very first slangs that I learnt upon arrival was "get wasted"the difference between "shit!" and "the shit."
No one has ever said "que pasa!" to me so far, and I am still too afraid to use the word "shit"…
At first, I kept denying the idea that I was experiencing some sort of culture shock…I fooled myself into believing that it was only a "language shock" and worked really hard to recover from it. Of course I experienced a bad language shock, probably much worse than what Helen Gao, a Yale graduate from Beijing, China, describes in her article "For a Chinese Student of English, Learning to Forswear Perfection":
"Meeting my American friends for the first time, I wanted to describe to them, say, the delicious jianbing sold in the alley next to my childhood apartment. After groping in vain for the right vocabulary, I shook my head and asked, instead, if they had been to my hometown, Beijing."
For me, I even worried that people would have a hard time understanding my English due to my Chinese accent. Constantly, I had nightmares where people in my dreams kept asking, "What did you say? Say that again? What's up?"
On the other hand, my friends back home who have never been aboard consider me as an "expert" on everything about the United States. Many of them have asked me questions such as "What is America like?" Over time, I developed the following response: "I have only been there for a year, and spent 90% of my time on a college campus…I don't really know what AMERICA is like. But as far as I can tell, my life in Los Angeles is just like my life in Beijing, only with a different language practiced.
It's such a globalized world: we all watch the Big Bang Theory and Jon Stewart's Daily Show, dress the same, and use stuffs that is made in China (and designed in California)…"
Later, I read Monaghan and Just's book on Social and Cultural Anthropology, and started questioning my standard response.
"…we must regard the idea of the emergence of a single, homogenized global culture with considerable skepticism. The student of a colleague once observed. 'Hey, they wear blue jeans and we eat salsa. It's all the same isn't it?' In fact it seems to us that these superficial similarities often mask profound cultural differences, differences that may operate at a deep structural level. " - Monaghan and Just, Social and Cultural Anthropology
My hard-to-articulate experience might be a result of language shock, but, at the same time, there could be some other reasons…
During the summer, I dug into the academia to better understand my experience abroad, and found the following passage:
"Chinese students’ coping experiences are likely to be more difﬁcult, compared to that of students from European countries, or even those students from other Asian countries, since China and the United States have been identiﬁed as having a maximum cultural distance" (Samovar and Porter 1991)
I shared this article with my Chinese friends studying abroad, and many felt the same … Even though it was published more than two decades ago.
"When feeling down, humor, rationalization and sublimation are useful tools for ego defense. In particular, joking about one's experience, reading other people's witty memoirs, and learning about theories of cultural acclimation are especially useful.” Yida, a candidate of Master of Social Work (MSW) at Smith College school for social work, told me so in response.
I find reading articles about other people's experience abroad, especially those that focus on Asian students' experience in Western countries, particularly enjoyable and reassuring. In fact, knowing that I am not the only person going through language and culture shocks heartens me to share my experience in this article.
Last year, during the international student orientation, International Programs Director Robin Craggs asked us to "be an anthropologist" - to observe and participate in American life, while reserving our own values in mind. "Be an anthropologist" is definitely easier said than done. The Innocent Anthropologist, written by Barley, is one of my favorite personal account on conducting anthropology field study. When I first read the book, before starting my life in the US, every witty account of obstacles Barley faced in Cameroon got me to laugh out loud. However, during the past summer vacation, when I opened the book again, a blend of complicated feelings swelled up inside me, even as I was still laughing out loud at the funny anecdotes.
(Here goes a mild culture shock- If I were writing this article in Chinese, I could have written about my favorite Chinese author Shi Tiesheng's Earth Temple and Me, which I would feel more comfortable to discuss… nevertheless, explaining the background information of Shi Tiesheng's work might take another 500 words...)
Anyway, to cut a long story short, let me sum up my thought with the following quote:
Overtime, with all the challenges, "contrary to many tales of nostalgia in the new world, I am happy -- happy like a baby just freshly getting out of the womb. 'That must have been how I learned Chinese culture and language before, once upon a time. . .' I feel like cheering privately because people often wanted to start their lives all over again in tough times and not many of them actually got to do it."
--Adapted from Claim the Earth (I have been listening to this podcasts for 4 years. It’s a story of a first generation immigrant from China.)
College has changed me (in a good way). This last picture is of me in college, high school and grade school.