Most often, people believe that culture shock happens when one travels from their western, “civilized” culture to a less-developed nation. Culture shock is different for everyone. For me, it was the other way around: the biggest culture shock(s) I experienced were in the U.S. Before moving back here, I had never really acknowledged my Americanness. My being American was merely associated with that navy blue passport. Everything about America, besides my nationality, was foreign to me. The America I had visualized was a melting pot – a country forged on advocating for human rights and progression, a happy place where everyone had equal opportunity to succeed. When I moved back to the United States, I found that it actually wasn’t so united.
In America, I first realized the color of my skin was, well, a color. And that it apparently mattered. The acknowledgement of one’s race is a peculiar thing. In many countries, race matters, but in America, race and history are bound to politics, legislation and the overall functioning of society.
When we moved back to the U.S., I cried every day for eight months. I was in boarding school in New York for the first six months of my family’s transition to the U.S. I thought this would have been an opportunity to slowly settle into America, because the boarding school was seemingly diverse. I try not to remember too much about my time there, but what I do recall is lonely nights spent trying to fit into a culture that I would never be welcomed into. The day students were from unbelievably wealthy families and essentially ignored or were rude to people who were not in their cliques (although this kind of behavior is common for teenagers, no matter where you are in the world). The boarding students were made up of sweet Korean, Chinese and Japanese girls who were always kind to me, and religiously-devoted girls who were either alarmingly naïve, or regarded themselves virgins despite having anal sex in the hallway of our dormitory, claiming that their hymens were still intact so, “it doesn’t count!” It’s horribly funny. Truly, it is. Sex was a taboo, so was kissing or any kind of physical contact with the opposite gender, as was drinking or partying or enjoying anything other than PG-rated fun. Needless to say, this was not my cup of tea, and I was glad to leave such an undesirable, suffocating place.
The things I mentioned above may seem like they should be off-limits for teens, but I had just come from a culture that was open-minded around teenagers. Expat culture, in my experience, has been that of relaxed openness, which is how I would like to parent one day. Drinking was introduced at dinner so that you learned how to handle yourself, partying was a norm so that you learned your limit but were still able to have fun – similarly to what growing up in modern Europe would be like. Teens were taught carefully about how to drink and be careful while enjoying themselves. I distinctly remember that at my international school, we had a speaker from an Australian company that gave seminars on how to prepare yourself for a night out. He told us that he was here to help us be safe, not to ban the things we were going to do anyway. He taught us that eating a fistful of food one hour before drinking was essential, how to check for the signs of alcohol poisoning and how to help someone who may unfortunately have drank too much; he armed us with the tools necessary to be smart partiers. The idea was better safe than sorry. I wish that schools in America would be open like my previous school was, because too often we hear about tragedies such as drunk-driving. Cringingly, I learned that here, kids were just barely taught about mental illness, and I watched them suffer because they didn’t know how to navigate the pains of adolescence and overwhelming burdens of anxiety, depression, mood swings, potential bipolar disorder, eating disorders, etc. Collaborative, open-minded conversation is essential to uplifting individuals. It blows my mind that we still live in a culture that strives for discretion.
Some of the things people have asked or said to me that resulted in my being culture shocked:
“Bangladesh…that’s in Asia right?”
“Never heard of it.”
“All the Muslims are in the Middle East…everybody knows that.”
“You lived abroad? You must have been like really rich.”
“So like…did you have WiFi?”
“Did you live in a hut?”
Yes. For real. That last one was asked by a curious freshman when I was in a World History class, and a junior in high school at the time. I laughed because I thought she was joking; she wasn’t.
These questions were posed to me when I attended a prestigious public school in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was shocked at the lack of diversity in education. Imagine my surprise when, in an Advanced Placement U.S. History class, the impact of colonization on Native Americans was only one section of a chapter, and slavery perhaps three chapters of a massive textbook. America is the pinnacle that less-developed nations look up to (or, before this past election, used to) and I was expecting the education here to be challenging, accurate, productive and fair. Even if you reside in an area where high taxes pay for your public schools, that is not the case. Education is extremely different here. It is based on statistics and data rather than in knowledge and exposed learning. But it is because of those barriers that I and many of my peers pushed their mental capabilities to meet their academic needs, and were ultimately successful.
North Carolina was perhaps the most interesting place I have lived in. It is generally regarded a purple state, politically, but I will say this: it is mostly a red state with blips of blue scattered around it. For the first time, I became involved in political conversation. I realized that there was in me a desire to understand the complexities of human decision-making around peoples’ values and reasoning behind political decisions. I enjoyed challenging, uncomfortable conversations with people who didn’t think like me whatsoever. I met people who thought Muslims = terrorists, or that Spanish-speaking folk were illegal or Mexican (which again, why is that a negative thing? Mexico is a spectacular country with rich history and glorious culture, not to mention, America functions on Mexican culture, food and workers…but that’s a discussion for another time), or that Southern Baptists are the only ones who go to Heaven, or that the United Nations was a conspiracy and as such, did not exist. I can look back now with a rueful smile, but during the time we were settling into Charlotte, I was perplexed and constantly irritated. My high school in North Carolina was quite diverse for an American public school in the South. But in my perspective, cliques seemed to be mostly split up into racial or ethnic groups. I even remember being excluded during one lunch for being Bengali rather than Indian. My good friends at the time who were Indian came to my defense over such a ridiculous reason for discrimination, and although I greatly appreciated them standing up for me, I wish they didn’t have to in the first place.
The things that shocked me about North Carolina, and therefore, America, were centered around social justice. And thus began my journey into discovering the roots of racism, legislation and impact. And I am happy to say that in college, I became a student leader in diversity awareness and advocacy. College is a whole other blog post where culture shock is concerned. What I wrote about here may seem extensive, but again, these were just a few examples of the encounters I experienced. You will hear more about some of the horribly hilarious things that were said to me, and the blatant, physical forms of discrimination I was unfortunately subjected to, in the coming months.
I would never take back any of the experiences I had, because I would not be who I am today. Trust me when I say all culture shock comes to fruition. It may motivate you in ways you didn’t even know you had in you in the first place.