Thursday, May 03, 2012

Pressing the Reset Button

Reverse culture shock. It's a thing.

When I moved from Mmametlhake to Johannesburg, I went through a big culture shock--much bigger than my initial shock moving from the US to rural South Africa.

Moving into the rural areas, I was consistently with 24 other Americans for the first two months, making the adjustment much easier. We had each other to lean on and spout off to when things got a bit too stressful. But the move to Johannesburg was made alone, and it was a bit of a blow to my system.

During my Peace Corps experience, I spent loads of time in Pretoria at the Peace Corps offices, and was fairly used to moving from a rural setting to a bustling, modern, urban setting.

In Pretoria, you could walk to the mall, catch a movie, eat at a restaurant, use a proper toilet and generally escape to modernity for a bit. So theoretically Jo'burg shouldn't have been such a shock, but the consistent availability of all that modernity was overwhelming. I started having panic attacks, immobilized by how large everything was and the amount of access I had to both the basics and the extras.

In the village, going to the grocery store meant a two hour round trip in a minibus taxi on a dirt road to my "shopping town." In Jo'burg, I had two different grocery stores within walking distance of my home. Mmametlhake had no movie theaters, no restaurants beyond the local taverns and shebeens (not the place for the only white woman in the village to hang out), no entertainment venues of any kind. In Jo'burg, they were all over the place.

On one memorable occasion walking through a mall, I passed by a book store and thought, I should plan on coming back there and hanging out. The thought was so "normal," so connected to my life in the US, so everyday, that it set off a panic attack, and I had to race out of the mall in order to calm myself and start breathing again.

The transition from Johannesburg to Lubbock has not been quite so dramatic. If anything the amount of access and availability is less than what it was in Jo'burg. But the little cultural nuances are tripping me up.

For instance, chatting with my mom last night, I said "like if they were retrenched." And then I had to back up and think, Wait, that's not right? What's the word in American?" It took me a minute to think of "laid off."

Or if I'm typing the word programme or favourite or honour, the British spellings commonly used in South Africa just fly out of my fingers and I have to stretch my pinkie up to the backspace button and try again.

Or if I use the popular South African phrase "oh, shame" or "shame" (for South Africans, it's like saying "oh my goodness" or "oh my" but is used on a much more frequent basis in common everyday speech), I get weird looks from my conversation buddy like I'm having a much too intense response to their mundane story.

I know I'm driving my family crazy with pointing out the differences and the things Lubbock lacks in comparison to South Africa. My runs are boring because every house looks the same and there are no hills to climb. There's no mangoes or papayas or guavas. Everyone drinks soda and no one has fresh squeezed juice available. Blah, blah-blah, blah, blah. I'm sure I'm starting to sound like the adults on the Peanuts cartoons.

I'm hoping soon when I pull out of the driveway, I won't have to pause and think, Now which side of the road? (Thankfully this confusion only lasts seconds, and I'm fine once the car starts moving.) I'm hoping soon when I'm in an interview, I won't have to throw out a bunch of extra "um"s while I search my brain for the American word. I'm hoping soon I won't look at a standard letter-sized piece of paper and think Gee, this is funny shaped. (But really US, isn't it time we adopt the metric system and get on the same system as the rest of the world?)

So yes, reverse culture shock, it's a thing. And while I'm thankful my case has been pretty mild so far (with a few notable incidents), I am looking forward to my brain becoming fully Americanized again--or at least American enough, I don't want to lose all of my South African-isms.

So if you catch any weird, quirky things in my writing or when you stop and say hi, please just nod and smile and think to yourself, Poor Amanda, her brain's still resetting.

We thank you for your patience.

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