21 February 2007

Culture Shock, Finally

I have gone underground for the past two weeks and several days. But now I’m back.

For more than a month now I have been feeling melancholy, but right before I went to Beirut a heavy sadness and confusion moved into my body. I didn't understand it until I left Amman for a few days, and then it finally kicked in. Culture Shock. Finally. I didn't realize it would be so depressing.

Three things triggered this. The night before I went to Lebanon a very religions friend told me what the future of her daughter should be like, and it sickened and offended me. In fact, it pushed me to tears, which I explained away by making a plea to the emotional status of women. The plea was accepted. Then I went to Lebanon and I spent time with men and women who are socialized with each other, rather than in isolation. Women worked at restaurants and newsstands, and men did not stare and giggle. No one even noticed me; I have forgotten what that feels like. Then, I came home to Amman and A chastised me for shaking his hand even after he did not refuse. Perhaps Culture Shock is a time and space where one feels she belongs nowhere and understands no one. I can’t remember the Anthro 1 definition of Culture Shock right now, but I do know that this is an awkward depression that sucks, and it was brought on by interacting with people I care for who behaved so inexplicably one day that I feel as though I don’t know them at all, and this has made me turn all my question inward.

Part of the problem with questioning myself is that I don’t need to do that since every single person I have talked to in the last 5 and a half months has done that for me. Living here has been like living with 5 million copes of my mother-in-law all the time. They mean well, but their questions are often unnerving to me. Not because they are unnerving people, but because our conceptions of Private or Family or Justice is quite different. Implicit in questions about my decision not to have kids, or to live abroad without K, is that I’m doing something out of the norm. Not just out of the norm, but at times threatening to those around me. I must explain myself because my internal logic is so unobvious to everyone here that it prompts very personal questions from near-strangers. But I also assume that there is a basic curiosity about foreigners, and Jordanians are so friendly that I know many of these questions are part of basic social conversation.

I have also conditioned those around me to talk more than listen. Being passive is how I absorb information from people. In essence, I have taught my friends here, through my silence, to believe that I will always share their values and worldview. But, I don’t. I have allowed some friends to believe that I am more religious than I am in order to keep from offending their religious beliefs. I don’t know how else to do this. I am so different than most of the people here, and I can’t see any reason to disclose to the people here how different we are. What good would that do? We are so different that I assume revealing the gaping chasm between our worlds would only serve to hurt or shock them. Perhaps I don’t give them enough credit. Or, perhaps I’m putting on them what is actually my burden: my views are extreme in the States, and they must be off the charts in Jordan. I am often reticent to disclose what I actually think about religion or governance. In my defense, I think my strategy relies more on appealing to our similarities than our differences. So, when someone says or does something that I find offensive I have left myself no bag of tricks to negotiate this, and I often let things pass unremarked. I believe this is mistaken by others as acquiescence or agreement.

Because I’m so “agreeable” people have now taken to answering questions about me that I work hard not to answer. Why don’t I have kids? Well, because my parents divorced when I was young, and I can’t get over this. Why don’t I go to church? Well, I know that the Bible is not the True Book like the Koran is. Why am I in Jordan? I’m looking to fill something in my heart that is missing because I’m not a Sunni Muslim. (Oh, yeah, and to do something for school, but I’m not sure what that is.) This makes me mad. Their constant effort to write over me is done, I’m sure, because I impart so little information willingly. And this is the exhausting price I pay for my silence.

So, the fact that I have allowed people to write over me for only five and a half months, and the fact that I have become accustomed to questioning myself so much has made me feel erased. I’m disappointed in myself. Aren’t I stronger than this? I also know that I can spend my time here in virtual-America; I can go to the Blue Fig everyday and speak English and feel like I’m in California. I reject that. I didn’t move to Jordan to live in Los Angeles. I know that most of my expat friends here gravitate to those places, but I don’t care for that scene in LA or in Amman.

I really don’t want to be like so many of the other foreigners here. One woman in my building told me I should just wear my hair down if I want to (Read: fuck their values). Another woman takes every opportunity to complain to any who will listen how she can’t stand seeing trash on the streets here. She says things to the new residents like, “I think it’s too late for this developing country; their children are fully acculturated to throw their trash on the street.” As if this Kingdom doesn’t have more pressing issues. Yeah, they need to set up recycling centers at all the high schools, just like in the States, so that they will seem more Developed. Another laments that they drive crazy here; “They don’t care about the lanes!” Can they imagine Jordanians who come to the States and lament, “They use the lanes, as if they are frightened to drive their cars. What an inefficient use of the road!” I’m better than that. I got your cultural relativity right here.

I feel like I inhabit several worlds in Amman that don’t overlap or meet at all. Anywhere. I spend a lot of time in East Amman talking to people who are very poor, and who designate themselves as Real Muslims. The people I have spent time with there are the most generous people I have ever met. They have almost nothing, yet they invite me into their homes and feed me until I beg for mercy. They give me so much of their time for my basic and endless questions. They are really funny and loud, and I feel like I’m with my own family who is also funny and loud. I feel at home with them. But it really didn’t occur to me how many different and isolated worlds exist in Amman until I ordered coffee one day at a coffee shop in West Amman. You see, I’d been spending time with East Ammanis and listening to their Arabic. East Amman is like the world of Gahwa, but I was standing in West Amman, the world of Ahweh and I asked for Gahwa. The young man behind the counter laughed and asked me where I’m from. I even knew what I was saying; I knew there was a difference, which I’d consciously rejected since my best friends here are not from the world of Ahweh. I thought that since I’m a foreigner I would be immune to linguistic politics. I was wrong. So, I even have to account to the 19-year-old at a coffee shop regarding my choice of friends here.

This means that I can’t just be a passive witness for 12 months; I have to weigh in even when I don’t want to. Even if I’m just ordering coffee. This means that there seems to be no anonymity here at all. I mean, none. This is very difficult to me. Interestingly, I’ve found that I’m less and less inclined to speak Arabic with people now. I find it really unnerving when I speak with people and they stop me early in the conversation and say something like, “Whose been teaching you Arabic? You’ve been spending time with Palestinians, haven’t you?” English allows more anonymity for me as a foreigner than Arabic does. I mean, if I speak English, no one knows who my friends in Jordan are. I prefer this because then I don’t have to listen to one group degrade another.

So I have made some decisions about what I’m willing to silently witness and what I will object to. I had my feet put to the fire after I shook A’s hand, and he subsequently told me I did something bad. When I saw him next I did apologize for making him uncomfortable, but I saddled a lot of the responsibility with him because he did not refuse. I once watched a foreign woman here offer her hand to a man when we were all meeting each other, and he said, “Oh, I don’t shake hands.” Fine. Got it. But A didn’t say that to me. I know him well enough now to know that the most important rule in his house is this: the man makes the rules. I also know him well enough that I said all of this to him, and he sat still for a while, an eternity I think, and then said, “You’re right. Bidek gahwa?” And we went for coffee, and everything is fine.

What are the parts of a new culture that we are willing to accept, and what will we reject? And, how do we negotiate this process? I’m in this weird liminal state because I still reject more of my own culture than I do of Arab culture. But I’m also (and finally) learning to negotiate my stake in this culture with the people who are the most important to me. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Every time I see a young woman at Jordan University who is wearing a hijab along with tight jeans and a tight blouse I assume she is having a similar existential crisis. Who do I want to be here? And, How do I go about being that person in a way that is the least offensive to the most people?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you should try doing what makes you happy and comfortable, sure its important not offend people but there is a limit after which one becomes self-effacing. As long as your intentions are good then people will be able to see that and should accept that even if one offends unintentionally. Last but not least its culture shock, it happens to everyone at some point when they are away from home, it will pass soon and you will find that through a process of trial and error that there are habits, people places you will stick to and others you will discard, and still others that you will get used to and learn to appreciate.

8:39 PM  
Anonymous Martha in Michigan said...

I’m sure there is some research that would explicate the stages of engaging with another culture full-time, although I have not seen it. Some of what you describe is familiar to me from my three years in the Philippines in the early 1970s. Experiencing another culture firsthand reveals your own much better than a sociology class could. Stage 1 might be delight in differences coupled with disgust for the shortcomings of your own culture. For example, I was so impressed with the relative friendliness and generosity of people—once I got over my American suspicion of it. No, they weren’t “after” anything, they were just welcoming in a way I had never before experienced. Seeing Ugly Americans all about me, who literally complained about the locals “doing it wrong” because they did inconsequential things differently, made me ashamed of how arrogant Americans can be in the world. And the few “common people” I interacted with regularly seemed so open and curious, rather than judgmental, about differences.

After this honeymoon period, Stage 2 might be a new appreciation for the good parts of your own culture. After I railed about the Watergate-related abuses of Nixon, a local friend asked whether I would speak so freely, in public, like that at home. He, living under martial law, could not conceive of such freedom to complain about one’s government. There is also a freedom to escape “class” in America that is inconceivable in much of the world. We really can be self-made to an unusual degree.

Stage 3, when I finally knew I was ready to come home, was when I could clearly see the cultural shortcomings of this other country. The thing that aggravated me, as a plain-spoken American, was the whole Oriental concept of “face” and how one was expected to couch things delicately. Around this time, the Manila papers were full of a scandal: a European hotel manager had chewed out an employee in front of others. He was literally declared “persona non grata” and hustled out of the country. I wanted to scream, “Grow up, already!” Some aspects of this good and gentle people appeared childish to me, because we are so used to a high level of personal independence and responsibility.

I did not stay long enough to reach the Stage 4 that I imagine exists, something like the “acceptance” phase of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. I think you might be able to reach an accommodation with another culture, but I doubt you could do it alone. What I mean is that you have no oasis of “normalcy” in your home, where you can rant a bit, let down your hair, and feel comfortable in the company of the like-minded.

I have no doubt that you are learning and growing in a way unimaginable had you stayed at home. But growth is often a response to dissonance or discomfort, and your prods have been of heroic proportions. Hope you can stick it out without feeling too lonely and depressed. Keep in mind that you are planting seeds, causing dissonance in the lives of those you encounter. The ones you are closest to, such as A, will be growing, too, whether they like it or not. Once you have known an individual, it is much harder to stereotype a group. Your seeds will be subliminally bothering them forever.

9:28 PM  
Blogger kinzi said...

Frances, I can so relate to what you are saying. I've been weaving in and out of four worlds (East & West Amman, Southern California and the rural MidWest) for years now, and the dichotomy and cyclical nature of culture shock at all levels never ceases.

But, we are VERY rich to have experienced it.

11:34 AM  
Blogger Weeping Sore said...

You went to Jordan thinking you were going to study their culture. You went as a professional anthropologist, with your fancy book learning and all. You expected them to explain themselves to you, yet you’re surprised at having to explain yourself to them. You admit that you knew this was going to happen. It’s hard to tell if you’re madder at having to understand and explain yourself; or for letting this process catch you by surprise.

There’s a legal term for the payment of one party in a contract to the other party who provides the goods and/or the service - consideration. Were you really so inconsiderate upon encountering a culture that understands that part of the bargain?

Not that that isn’t a perceptive and essential lesson learned. But I think there’s an undercurrent in your post that goes farther. You finally realize that understanding yourself is a prerequisite to explaining yourself to others, especially Others.

The next lesson is to learn that explaining the reason for anything breeds doubts about it.

Martha says living inside another culture is the best way to learn about ourselves and where we fit into our own culture. Your post uses images of being overwritten, erased. As an American apart from your ubiquitous, hegemonic giant eraser of other cultures, your identity begins to fade.

It’s good that you are making choices about what you are willing to witness silently and what you want to object to. Just think how much wisdom your brain can acquire, without the baggage of the stereotypical judgmental American. Your hosts seem to already understand this, and are eager to proceed. Once they teach you that lesson, you’ll enjoy being more authentic and true to yourself.

Finally, remember that just because everything seems different, doesn’t mean that anything has changed.

10:33 PM  
Blogger Miss Carousel said...

i was going to post something smarmy like, "now come home and visit so i can shake your hand AND smack your ass!" but decided against it, not wanting to seem to belittle what's going on with you....

perhaps this is why so many anthros don't want to do direct fieldwork? you've said yourself that many choose to stay in americanized encampments, far away from the madd'ing crowd, right? they want to be able to write theories and speculate about causes for turmoil and erasure without having to encounter the discomfort that comes from 1. being terribly out of place and 2. made keenly aware of one's own subjectivity and how easily that can be erased or altered (identity is, after all, totally malleable) as much as the erasure and alteration of O/others' identities, which is the subject often of their studies. In other words, they don't seem to want to deal with the possibility of their own malleability.

So, it becomes interesting how they are willing to inscribe meaning to other's lives, to write their histories and cultures, and yet are so unwilling to risk that happening to their own (as, really, an inevitable part of the "contact" process of cultural mixing.

that said, i am really really proud of you for being willing to chance your own subjectivity, even and especially as you write about others'.

(i totally a had to stand up your husband last night! you can beat me when you return)

4:13 AM  
Blogger Herman said...

Frances: K told me to read this entry -- I have been behind. Wow! Fidning the balance for such is what its all about -- I guess. No words of wisdom from Melville -- though I need to think through TYPEE in light if your comments.

Best I can do is feed you in the next week or so -- looking forward to see you soon


4:52 AM  

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