I was gonna write a different blog post today, likely something trite about how much time and have left in Argentina (answer: not that much eeek), and how I should be consistently conscientious (stuff I referenced a bit in THIS post) while I am here to get the most out of my abroad experience. It would’ve been straightforward, mildly (psh, more like SUPER) interesting, and safe.
But I don’t want to write about that today. I’d rather write about what’s been actually perturbing me lately, much more than my efforts to be a well-behaved cultural traveler. What’s been perturbing me lately has been culture shock. Culture shock, aka the buzz-word of every study abroad program story ever, is defined by our friend the Webster Dictionary as, “the feeling of confusion, doubt, or nervousness caused by being in a place (such as a foreign country) that is very different from what you are used to.” However, Noah Webster also never left the United States, and while he was a brilliant revolutionary thinker (and also certainly never contributed the phrase “Culture Shock” to the lexicon that now bears his name), he had no experience with this sensation first hand. So, for his posthumous (RIP Noah) information, and for yours, I would like to explain what culture shock means, at least to me.
First, let me start with the word, “Shock.” In my case, it’s a misnomer. It wasn’t as if one day, out of nowhere, all of my doubts and fears and petty annoyances about living in Argentina came crashing down like a lightning bolt from the heavens; and as I lay smote between the calles, the denizens of the Whitman Off-Campus Studies office cackled at my dismay between cries of “I told you so!” No no, nothing like that. It’s more of a Cultural Boil, really. This feeling is subtle: tough to quantify, and can sometimes take a while to kick in; but by the end of it you’re in hot water and you’re not really sure how you got there (even if the signs were all there). One day, it’s the feeling of inadequacy as I fumble through a foreign language while trying to do something as simple as tell the bus driver my destination. The next day it’s stepping in the dog shit that laces the streets of downtown Buenos Aires. Today, it was getting sandwiched between two smelly people on the bus while yet another politically-charged protest spilled into the streets of my route, hopelessly clogging traffic and thus causing my commute to turn to a standstill. I was en route to change money on calle Florida so that I could pay for an excursion onto a glacier in Patagonia (my weekend destination, because my life here is still unreal), and despite having had a pretty good day up until that point (see the preceding parenthetical statement), I all of a sudden felt overwhelmed by everything. I almost wept, just because it was all just so damn different and so damn obnoxious. WHY did the people had to protest about every little thing in this country?! All of these grassroots political parties want the same stuff, and it’s not like rioting in front of the Casa Rosada every freaking week is going to make the president see you in a better light. And WHY was I crammed into this crowded bus to go get swindled by a sleazy merchant and then go wait in line so that I could pay something that I could do by credit card if I were at home!? WHY don’t the people walk faster in this country, HOW should I be expected to get to class on time if the commute is always this chaotic, WHAT do I need to say so that the people here don’t look at my foreign self as though I were a beetle, and WHERE can I find a decent cup of coffee (most of the coffee here is rubbish)?! WAAHHHH!!
ahem. Pardon me. Give me a second to collect my aching mind.
Alright, we’re good.
After my deluge of feels subsided, that’s when I realized I had been well and truly culturally boiled. It wasn’t fun, but I think it was actually a super necessary part of my abroad experience, especially since I wasn’t really expecting it. Despite a childhood in which I was unable to leave on a week-long backpacking trip without crying myself to sleep every night because I missed home (this was at age 14, mind you), I’ve recently become a person who embraces new experiences, thrives on change, and is comfortable with pursuing multiple different passions. To me, studying abroad was a natural extension of my curiosity, and I couldn’t imagine how people could ever get fed up with the experience (especially someone who is lucky enough (as I am) to live in a house with a family and hot food and running water and internet). I had read many of my friends’ blogs about culture shock (shoutout to my pal Rachael Barton’s post, especially), and while I had enjoyed learning of their insights, I never really took it much to heart. “That sort of doubt and annoyance is for other, less adventurous people” quoth I, “and I’m never going to feel anything like that. Besides, Argentina is too fun!” And I was right, to an extent, but I also had no idea really what to expect.
See, culture shock is different for everybody and for every situation. I absolutely adore Argentina, pretty much every day here is fantastic, and because I was so happy here I assumed that culture shock (a presumed “sad thing”) would never catch me. But cultural shock isn’t happy, nor is it sad. It’s a realization, a state of mind that caught me in the middle of an everyday discomfort that made me realize how (despite my high level of comfort in this city) unfamiliar every damn thing was. However, it is a necessary realization, and one that I am honestly grateful for, because so many people live their whole lives without realizing the unbelievably vast amount of culture that exists on this planet. Therefore, today was a learning experience for me, and while I definitely wanted to Skype my family and hug my fat cat again today, I also took a step towards realizing the beauty that lies within the innumerable bits and pieces of culture that separate the Argentines from me.
Gosh, it feels good to write this out.
Yes, I still hate how misogynistic the men here can be. Yes, the commutes can absolutely suck. Yes, I sometimes just miss having the familiar twang of English wash over me as compared to the constant rush of oft-indecipherable Castellano. And yes, today these differences all got to me in a pretty emotive way. But I wouldn’t trade these feelings for blissful happiness, or really anything else, because without these realizations, I would never have realized how many new things I am absorbing during my time here. After all, sometimes it takes a shock to get the heart beating again.