Renata and I were living in Fez, Morocco for a few months, taking an intensive course in Moroccan Arabic at the American Language Center, living in the servants’ quarters on the rooftop of a villa at the edge of town. One day, as we made our way to the central post office in the blazing sun, we were approached by a young European man, looking worn and desperate. In English he told us he needed to leave town immediately, but was two hundred dollars short of what he needed to secure his airline ticket. Would we be able to help him?
We recognized the Dutch accent right away and, seeing as we had just spent two years in the Netherlands, switched into Dutch for him. The relief flooded his face and in great gushes he explained his predicament: He was an Arabist, studying Arabic at a university in Holland, and had come to Morocco to get some first-hand experience. This was his first ever trip to the Arab world.
He couldn’t stand it. After a week he was going through such severe culture shock he just wanted to leave – immediately. But his return flight was in two weeks time and buying a last minute seat was more than he could afford with what he had on him. He had no credit card, could not get through to his parents, didn’t want to stay a moment longer….
We listened to his story, had compassion for him, and told him to come with us to the post office. There we cashed a cheque and gave him the money he needed, along with a piece of paper with our bank account number back in Holland. We waved him off in a taxi on his way the airport, and never saw him again. About six weeks later we received our bank statement and there, among the various debits and credits, was the reimbursement for our loan, with a short word of thanks.
Culture shock is an odd thing. It comes in a variety of ways and at unexpected times. Naturally, like this young man, the “tourist” phase is to be expected, though it’s intensity can catch some off guard. I remember another young man whom I encountered here in Amsterdam. He was from a large American city, and so – you would think – quite capable of making the transition to Amsterdam: modern, western, urban. Furthermore, most people here will speak English if you need them to. But after just a week, this young man was “freak’n out” (his own words) on account of the “foreign language, weird money, terrible food, and all those friggen trams and bicycles!”. He was literally in a panic.
And yet, I have to smile when I hear people talk of this level of culture shock as if that’s the extent of it. Believe me, it gets much, much more intense. Behavioral customs are only the outer edge of cultures, reasonably easy to discern and adapt to. But what underpins them is a hidden network of values and beliefs (what is “good”; what is “true”), and these pose a far greater challenge. I still go through spasms of this type of cultural adjustment, even after so many years of making my home here.
Learning that other people’s food can be good, though different than what I’m accustomed to, is one thing. Learning that another’s values and beliefs are just as valid as my own, even when at odds with how I learned to understand the world, well, that’s where culture shock really begins. “Going native” they used to call it, and it was always a negative sentiment. It’s the reason embassies shuffle their staff so often; heaven forbid we end up with someone thinking like the locals think.
Some are unable or unwilling to make the adjustment. They expect their new world to bend around them. The longer they stay in their new environment, the more entrenched they become, loudly demanding that their way is the one true way and everyone around them is wrong.
Those who have been enriched by learning to see the world from a new vantage point look on and smile. As one successful cross-cultural Christian worker once said, “One is not far from the Kingdom when one can smile inwardly at stupid things.”