Culture shock goes both ways. I wrote about some of the negative things I experienced in another post, but I would like to reflect on some of the pleasant surprises that came through living in the U.S.
In my public school years, I made friends with two people who have changed my outlook on life (I have changed their names out of respect for their privacy, and disclaimer, as a hardcore Gryffindor, whenever I substitute names, it will be in reference to a Harry Potter character): Grindelwald and Slughorn. Grindelwald was the first friend that I ever had who was openly out of the closet. I suppose my junior self knew that gay people existed, but it was so not a big deal to me that it didn’t matter then and it doesn’t now. By that I mean I have always viewed people as humans, and I love them regardless of who they love, what they believe in, what color their skin is, etc. Grindelwald introduced me to gay rights. I don’t think he realizes the impact that he had, but having a friend who loved himself and put forth nothing but kindness and good humor in the face of North Carolina’s conservative mentality was bravery that you don’t typically expect of a seventeen-year-old. Slughorn was my best friend, and we were and remain opposites in many ways. I believe it was our differences that empowered our friendship. He was a football-playing band geek and excellent in STEM. He was chill, composed and calm. I was loud and passionate, with a knack for writing and social studies, with little understanding of how football works (because I moved from Indonesia, where rugby was revered, to America, where football is its own religion). He is a Christian and devoted to living his life in a specific way. He lost his dad in the early years of high school, and instead of diving off the deep end into all things terrible for you, he turned further into his faith and focused on being a good person, excellent student, and wonderful friend. I believe it was his influence that kept me balanced at a time when I felt so unstable. Our friendship was built on growing and learning from one another. We viewed entertainment, relationships and liberties differently, but nonetheless, participated in each other’s lives. I attended church with him several times as an observer, there to hear the message regardless of difference in faith, and he ended up spending one New Year’s Eve with me and my crazy, amazing college friends. We talked about religion often, disagreeing on concepts and dismantling areas in which we clashed so that we could understand where the other came from. I cannot stress how important it is to make friends with people who are completely unlike you. If you build trust and understanding, and have patience, you will learn, and you will grow.
In university, I had the privilege of being among leaders. The positive culture shock came in the form of dedicated students who took on the challenges of a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) and fought for representation, their rights, recognition, etc. I was fueled by their passion, kindness, courage and dedication. #PositiveCultureShock was spearheading diversity initiatives, planning and hosting cultural events, attending probates for the NPHCs on campus, becoming friends with dancers who were from all walks of life and sexual orientations, being part of a community that supported love without limits – gay rights, marriage equality, pronoun identifiers, transgender folk, etc. I could not have asked for a more immersive, brilliant college experience.
Then, there was the military exposure. Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base is 45 miles from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. I befriended enlisted marines and am friends with a handful of them today, along with soldiers, airmen, naval seamen, and also proud to say that my cousin was the only Bengali-American Muslim soldier to graduate from Basic Training two years ago. College was full of learning experiences, and this was perhaps my biggest: being friends with those who serve will expose you to a different reality. Military guys live in a machismo culture. I watched my friends struggle with expressing emotion, and often it turned into physical expression, over-drinking or downright suppression. I think for those of us who hope for gender equality, our definition forgets to take into account those who are often left out of discussion, such as our service members. There is a very particular stress and pressure that comes with military service, and we have to accept that unless we ourselves are or have been in the military, we may not understand. And so applying a sense of respect outside of your comfort zone is uncomfortably necessary because these are the people who ultimately protect us, and allow for America to be the greatest fighting force and military power in the world. Which means, regardless of your political standpoint, we are lucky enough to have our freedom. And because of their sacrifice and the hardships that they put up with, please remember to be grateful, patient, kind and honor them fairly. My neutrality was challenged with certain service members whose political views differed from mine, but once I learned how to communicate at their level, I realized that being respectful doesn’t take away from upholding your own values. You have to build a bridge to communication that is purposeful for both sides, and communicate in a way that the other person can understand and benefit from.
In America, where there is racism, sexism, xenophobia and ignorance, there is also an impassioned fight towards social justice, equality, fair immigration and profound understanding. It just took until getting to college to meet people who were motivated to face these challenges with educated discourse and peaceful protest.