I am not married, so I have never been on a honeymoon. I imagine it feels something like the first few months after moving to a new country. When I arrived in Barranquilla and was shown my new life, especially my apartment, I felt like I was in an episode of Extreme Home Makeover. The excitement of moving to a new place combined with starting a new job was extraordinary. I was in heaven. As the maintenance people showed me around my apartment, I couldn’t help but notice their uneasy looks, biting their nails and watching me impatiently. “Te gusta?” they asked, do you like it? Did I like it? The apartment was more than I could have expected. I had spent the last four years living on campus at my college, and it was nice to finally have a place of my own. After assuring them that I did indeed like my apartment, and my bed was not, in fact, too short, they left me to bask in the euphoria of pondering what lay ahead in my Colombian life.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later, when I ran into a veteran teacher on my school’s campus, that I started to wonder when the “shock” would hit. This teacher asked me how I was faring so far in Colombia. I felt upbeat and happy, still running on the “honeymoon” adrenaline. To my dismay, she told me that, without a doubt, I would become depressed in a few weeks. She was very blunt and sure about it. “Just wait, you will get depressed,” she said, matter-of-factly.
Before moving to Colombia I had traveled for months at a time, and I had never really experienced any serious culture shock, at least nothing that negatively affected my psyche. Everybody denies the gravity of culture shock until it actually happens. I was no exception. I thought I was invincible to culture shock, and after awhile I stopped believing that it would ever come.
During the first months, everything was new and fresh. I was elated to buy a bottle of beer for only $1,500 pesos (the equivalent of less than one US dollar). I was pleased with the convenience of public transportation, as I lived on a major bus line. I was looking forward to never having to wear a jacket since the weather was usually 80 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny. There would be no more seasonal affective disorder (or Minnesota-winters-are-too-long disorder)!
After a year in Colombia, I confirmed that the form that culture shock takes is unique to each individual. It may come after the first weeks, months or even years. I don’t think I am the first to say that although I know I have experienced culture shock, I can’t pinpoint when it started. It comes and goes. It’s sometimes confused with our normal state of mind (often unrelated to our surroundings). This is why culture shock is so difficult to diagnose and to cure. There are too many variables affecting our state of mind.
I know that I have unrightfully blamed my cynicism on culture when I should have been blaming my misfortunes on life in general, but I also know that I have had low moments that I attributed to other causes even though they could have been directly the result of being immersed in an unfamiliar culture.
For instance, an expatriate sometimes feels tired and can’t figure out why. But I think 99% of all people have felt tired without knowing why at some point in their lives. An expatriate might also feel anxious or uncomfortable at a party, recognizing an inability to fit in, but who hasn’t ever felt that way in one’s own culture? Furthermore, expats may find it too difficult or taxing to be social and, therefore, decide to become hermits, afraid to leave the safety and privacy of their own abode. But, guess what, so do introverts!
Culture shock is a sneaky little bandit, breaking into our minds when we least expect it, and stealing valued possessions without us even realizing. If we are not ready for it, we may misunderstand it. We may attribute culture shock symptoms to other things, perhaps leading us into a downward spiral of cynicism and depression. My stand-offs with culture shock were interspersed throughout my four years. The stories included in these cross-cultural memoirs will share personal feelings, and I often won’t be able to specify what is attributed to culture and what is simply due to life’s natural course of events. I can only present the stories of a Minnesotan living in Colombia, and I can guarantee they will be different from the tales of those who stayed home.