Culture Shock

I remember her vividly, she was an incredible athlete, our star soccer player, but with the worst negative attitude you can imagine. Of course, we didn’t care, we all tried to talk her through it every day. She had her moments where she let down her guard when she relaxed and you could see she was enjoying herself, then, she would turn.

Charlotte and I had moved to Caracas, Venezuela at the same time. She was American, and of course I was Canadian. We both left a great group of friends, and a home we loved, well, that isn’t all true. Charlotte left a great group of friends, so did I, but I chose this posting with my parents. I wanted to move again. Charlotte on the other hand, was not open to this new experience. By new, I don’t think she had ever seen a poor neighbourhood even in the U.S. In Caracas, the barrios surrounded us, you could turn a corner, and there was someone who was way worse off than anyone you had ever seen homeless in North America. Charlotte was negative, scared, and in paralysis the moment I met her. She had blinders on, every great thing that she could experience in Venezuela, was always topped by something greater that she was either missing out on, or could do back in the U.S.

In one of my many bathroom breaks to either cry, or sort through my own culture shock. I found her curled up on the floor, crying softly, rocking herself. I knew she had to have hit rock bottom, she was sitting on a floor o a bathroom that hadn’t been cleaned in years (not all international schools are created equally), it was beyond disgusting, it was coated with years of filth from sheer neglect. It was an odd sight, she rarely showed any kind of vulnerability. At that point, I barely knew anything about her, only that she was an incredible soccer player, and was American. I sat down on the sticky floor, and put my arm around her, and just sat with her while she cried. I knew she didn’t need to talk, she just needed to let out all her anxiety, and frustration. We sat on the floor for an hour, our teachers had checked up on us, but like all International Schools, they knew there were few places to find us in the gated complex. I never found out what set her off that day, we never spoke about it again, but I knew, her pain must have run pretty deep. She never got off her negative cycle. She just kept pushing everyone away, and not knowing what to do with herself in the new environment.

Charlotte and I weren’t really friends, I never found out what happened to her after that year. All I knew, was she was the perfect example of things spiraling out of control when you let Culture Shock take over, and become a permanent state of mind. Most people will be happy to point out that Culture Shock is a temporary state, it is, but not always. I have known people to never snap out of culture shock for a whole posting, that is 3 years not enjoying any aspect of the environment around you, missing out on incredible experiences, all because you are terrified to let go.

This is what most parents need to know. Culture shock is something you have to help guide your kids through. Kids are not resilient, I still hate that saying. Kids have just as big feelings as adults, but they haven’t yet learned any tools to help guide themselves through those feelings. Charlotte was 15, she had complex feelings and anxieties, but she never got the guidance to navigate through all of the complex feelings she had going through what I suspected was her first face to face with Culture Shock. She was most probably resentful of her parents for forcing her to move.

No. 1 lesson, don’t ever put down your kids feelings about moving!

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Slammed into Reverse Culture Shock

I am not exactly sure when I became aware of my skin colour, my identity, my accent, my Father’s unique job or even my birth country and how obviously out of place it all was to my surroundings. One move seemed to blend into another. The only thing I seemed to know, was how to navigate new schools, and airports.

I was sitting in my new classroom, we had just moved back to Canada from the Philippines, I unable to comprehend what was going on around me, it all seemed foreign. Our teacher, a New Zealander who was doing a teacher exchange for a year, had asked us all to tell the class what we had done over the summer. Everyone talked about their camping trips, their cottages, and road trips. One girl decided to tell everyone about her trip to the Edmonton Mall, which I remembered vividly, and was slightly jealous of hanging out in a mall. It was my turn, and I began to tell everyone my trip to Banaue the Rice Terraces before moving back to Canada. My teacher cut me off, and said “That is enough”.

I went quiet, the class fell to a dead silence. The teacher gruffly told me it was inappropriate to upstage my classmates. At that moment, I wanted to cry.

I kept it together, and stopped talking. I felt small, and felt more like an outsider than I had ever felt. At that moment, I had never felt reverse culture shock hit me harder.

For a month, I refused to look at the teacher. I had stopped sleeping again, my insomnia became intense. Parent teacher night arrived, and my Mother went off to meet my teachers. She came home and told a story about me upstaging my classmates about what we had done over the summer, the exact moment that I had been silenced for telling my story, but the version had been drastically altered. My Mother looked at me crossly, and said that I had apparently cut off the classmate and grandstanded in class. I was completely heartbroken. My Mother wasn’t in any mood to listen to my side of the story, as usual, she believed the teacher before even asking me what happened. My Mother repeatedly told me that discussing what we have done as diplomats is completely inappropriate to discuss outside of the house. So basically, my life, my history, the friends I had made, were not to be discussed outside of the house.

Instead of arguing, I walked away from my Mother and went to my room.  It was the first time I was completely aware that my life, my travels, my experiences, were not to be shared, not to be discussed. I had to become Canadian, and thats that, being diplomatic, being international, being a third culture kid was no longer a choice outside of the house.

Years after this experience, my Mother still claims I grandstanded, I never did, I simply answered a question. What I learned when I began working at Foreign Affairs, was just how much the outside world thinks of the diplomatic life, is one of privilege. That teacher, thought of me as wealthy, and privileged, and had thought of the feelings of the other kids, that maybe they didn’t have the money to travel, and my story was grandstanding. He never thought about my feelings or how hard it was to move back to a country I didn’t know, or that my experience in Banaue was life altering and profound, he hadn’t thought that maybe, me telling the class about my life abroad could help educate my classmates as to just how different my life was, and that it was o.k it was different. Instead, I was silenced by both my Mother and teacher, leaving me with a sense of embarrassment of  a life, I didn’t even choose, nor did I think of it as a privilege considering all the dangers I had faced. From that moment in 8th grade, I learned to never discuss my past, and I was forever silenced into embarrassment that my life of travel was not something to discuss, share, or be proud of. That is, until I started this blog!

The moral of the story, never feel embarrassed or silenced about your life, it is your life, and everyone has a story it is what makes us individuals and unique in every way!

Dip Kid