Friday, January 4, 2013

Culture Shock

Sometimes I just can't believe I'm in India.

the local shops around the corner
Okay so you guys have been asking for more about life here.

It's hard to write about.

I have been having culture shock. Not the first two weeks, those I thought of as being in "adventurous vacationer" mode. It was fun, exciting, and yes overwhelming but in a good way. I think on the third night I was here I had a dream about navigating through crowded, brightly colored streets and when I woke up the thought in my mind was, "I live in India now."

Until then I think it had been too much to process. I mean, of course I knew it intellectually, but emotionally it took a while to penetrate. You got to understand, I definitely decided to learn to swim by jumping in the deep end, so to speak. Before November I'd never been out of the USA. Not once. Not Mexico, not Canada, not the Bahamas, nada. Now I had been to twenty or so states... but the vast majority on the eastern seaboard. I took a three week trip to California when I was fifteen to visit my aunts. That was my first time outside the EST timezone. In 2009 I roadtripped with my friend Lydia to Missouri, then stayed with another aunt and uncle for two weeks in Kansas City (where I crossed the Kansas border to say I'd been there.) I'm pretty sure that was my second, and last time out of the EST timezone until now.

{At this point I started detailing the process I took to get ready for India... and then realized I was totally off topic and copy-pasted that into a different draft for another blog post. But I guess it makes sense I start that way, because my brain is trying to make sense of India by drawing from what it knew before...}

The third week I was here I got culture shock. The first episode I didn't even realize was culture shock until I was telling the story to my father and stopped and said, "huh, I guess that was culture shock" and he said, "Yep," in that laid back manner of his...

I was in the kitchen and I was going to have a bowl of cereal. You can totally get most American cereals here, and in this case it was some variety of corn flakes. I poured the cereal in the bowl. I was hungry. I opened the fridge to find it was dark. Not unusual in India, we lose "current" several times a day, in increasing volume as winter progresses and people start using heaters. I reach in to grab the pot of milk...

See, milk not only comes in packets here, but because it comes in packets people don't trust the little word "pasteurized" on it. So they cut the packets open, put them in a pot and boil it on the stove. Then they put it in the fridge (sometimes. Or they just leave it out so it doesn't cool down until you want to use it. Grr.) to cool down.

Only since the fridge hadn't had power for a while and it was several packets that had boiled at once (the more of a hot liquid there is in one place, the longer it will take to cool down) it was warm.

And it had this disgusting film over the top. It's actually cream, and probably if whipped with sugar I'd like it, but it's got a texture that if I get it on my hands or in my mouth makes me go "ugh" without thinking about it. You can hold the cream back and pour it, but sometimes it falls in globs.

And so I realized that I can't have cereal (I'm too much of a princess to use warm milk in cereal, I'd rather wait for it to cool down) and I burst into tears.

Then, I angrily try to pour my bowl of corn flakes back into the box... and some of it inevitably falls on the floor. Instantly, Ryan is there saying, "Baby, you have to be more careful!" (which he says to me like five times a day) and I fly into a rage.

Sigh. Ryan was pretty upset with me, but after I realized it was culture shock and explained that to him, he calmed down.

That was my first culture shock story. There's been more like it. It's not all the time. Over all, I'm happy. But it's often. And it's pervasive.

The biggest thing is there's really two cultures I'm adjusting too, simultaneously and overlapping. One is Ryan's family culture, and the other is Indian society. Some of what Ryan's family does is because their Indian, some because they're just them. And Indian society... well a lot Ryan and his family and friends can explain to me, but a lot they don't even know how to explain or think to say it because it's so normal to them.

They say culture shock comes in waves, and I'm finding that true. It'll make me miserable, and then it will retreat and I'll be totally happy. Then it comes again. I think there's been two waves, the one that started with that milk episode, escalated the weekend prior to Christmas, and then disappeared in time for Christmas day... then the second one which started the weekend before New Year's Eve and is retreating now, I think...

And I've been finding it hard because I don't know who to talk to... I can't really publish everything here, because of the nature of a blog. You know, it's public. And it's not that I want to lack authenticity (which is why I'm blogging about it now) but the truth is I'm trying to find my place in a new society and I don't want to damage that with some words on the internet... especially when I honestly don't have my bearing well enough to make real opinions. A lot of what is going on is irrational. Like crying over cereal. I know it's irrational, but that doesn't make it less real.

And I got through the first wave talking to people back home... but what I found is that created an ache in me of homesickness. And I don't want to foster that. It's not that I'm severing ties to back home, it's just that if my support system is there, and I'm here, then well, that's just not good.

So I'm trying to talk to Ryan, but the truth is, I'm putting him in a horrible position because he's in love with me and wants to make me happy. And some of what is driving me crazy is his parents (who I have come to love, so don't get me wrong) and some of it is him!

I talk to the Lord, and that's helping. However, the Lord created us for community and I have the hardest time with the stuff in between small talk and deep talk. Friends back home, think about it. I'm either talking about something really deep... or something pretty light. I suck at the in between, testing the waters and get to know you phase.

And of course a lot of it is all these rules that I just don't know about Indian society. Or worse and more troubling, ones I just don't agree with. There is so much hierarchy and as both an American and as a Christian it just rankles me. But I have to respect their culture first, strive to understand it, before I dare try to change anything. Swooping in and fixing that which offends me is the mistake the colonial people made, and I don't agree with that.

And there's poverty. I know we can't help everyone, but I was in the car watching a man carry his son to the little bonfire, meeting with his wife and teenage daughter and just realizing how cold they'll be (it's been getting to about forty degrees farenheit here.) There was something so poignant about it and I turned to Ryan and his family thinking I'd see a look of "I wish I could do more" but instead they were playing with their phones and talking about dinner because they're just so used to it they really don't see it. I don't blame them, but my eyes are wide open.

And then there is the stupid stuff. Like apparently lighter black hair with a hint of brown hair in it is considered brown hair and I have blonde hair.


My hair is NOT blonde.

And I object and they're like, "we're not calling you dumb."

Which offends me for my blonde friends. No, I wasn't objecting because I assumed blonde and dumb are synonymous. I'm objecting because... because... because I am NOT blonde.

Huh. Why does that offend me so much? I have no idea. I should be able to laugh it off, but somehow that goes against my sense of identity and just bugs the crap out of me. I have nothing against blonde hair. I simply don't have it.

The thing about having culture shock both about Ryan's family culture and Indian society is it feels like no where is safe. I can't be myself at the apartment. I can't be myself out in public. And I can't even go out alone.. I've done so twice and the second time due to a misunderstanding Ryan's parents panicked and came and picked me up and Ryan is terrified about letting me out again soon. (I was perfectly safe.)

Thursday morning I was supposed to go to the newcomer's meeting for the local expat group. I was so excited. And it was working out perfect. Ryan had a friend who wanted to talk to him and that friend had a car (there's only one family vehicle here, and his parents take it to work) and was going to pick Ryan up. They could drop me off, hang out, and pick me up!

Truthfully, I'm lonely. I've been turning to the Lord and that's good, and He helps, but I need a friend. I haven't really made a friend outside of Ryan. I mean, his friends have become my friends in a way, but no one really deeply. There's been a spark with a few girls, but nothing has happened yet. I'm a really socially awkward person. A fact I'd forgotten for the most part, because I've learned to cope really well in the US. But the truth is there were... five years of my childhood where I didn't have a single friend. Not for more than a month. And I got out of that in adulthood, but now in this weird Indian environment I'm feeling like a fish out of water again. I'm flopping on the shore, gills panicking, desperate to find my way back to sea...

So maybe the expat group is the answer. They can at least relate to my culture shock, probably, right?

But Ryan's friend was coming late. He was going to come 9am-9:30am (somewhere in there) and the meeting started at 10am, so yeah... and he said he was going to come at 10:30am.

a small section of a medium sized mall
And Ryan cancelled because to him it didn't make sense to start that late, and I'd miss most of the meeting anyway. (It takes at least 15 minutes together... plus in India saying he'd be here at 10:30 probably means 10:45 at least.)

But it went on until noon... and this meeting only comes once a month!! And so Ryan wanted to spend time with me, since we weren't going, and I sent him away because I was upset and went back to bed and slept until like 4:30pm. And I still feel like crying.

Oh gosh. Now I'm telling you all this and you're all going to be so worried about me. Grr. I hate that. I feel like I can't really be real with people back home because they'll assume I'm miserable.

But I'm not. It's just culture shock. It's completely normal. And I will get through it. Tomorrow I'll probably be great, or at least okay. Did you know Saturday makes two and a half years of Ryan and I? It's our first anniversary type deal in person, and our last before we get married. I'm hoping it's romantic.

But the reason I'm not typing so much is I'm finding it hard to write. And the reason there aren't more pictures is two fold. Partially, I don't go that many places. His family and especially Ryan are terrified about me going anywhere alone, and they all work so I'm feeling trapped most days.

Secondly, I don't want to be constantly taking photos everywhere I go. I already feel like an outsider. I don't really want to carry as sign saying "tourist"... but I have snapped some and I will take more.

I feel like I've just totally depressed you all. I'm sorry. And I'll be better.

And I'm on my period. It doesn't help.


  1. Hi Pamela,

    It all sounds rather familiar. The initial "honeymoon" period, where all is great and interesting. The subsequent, "oh, dear, I actually live here" with occasional bursts of culture shock. I think you are actually doing really well, navigating your way in a completely new environment. Thinking about it, I could probably hardly come up with two more extreme cultures than Indian and American.

    In regard to your support system in India I think this will take some time. Whenever I moved countries with my husband (and we did a lot of that over a relatively short period of time), I felt lost in the beginning, despite being part of a couple. The first few months were the hardest. There were lots of new faces, some people I clicked with but obviously no real friendships yet as it takes time for that to develop. After a year or so I felt I had established a strong network and had made a "best" friend. I think it is great that you are in the process of joining an expat network. Since this is very important to you (and I agree that it should) I would probably let your finance know that it is crucial to you that you make it to the meetings. Also I am wondering whether you can meet some of the women individually in case the next meeting is still some time off? (Many expats feel the same and are very happy to meet a stranger from back home.)

    Every time I travel to lesser developed countries, the poverty of the less fortunate members of that society really upset me, too. So I am wondering, whether there would be any opportunities for you to volunteer (maybe through church) in an orphanage, teaching English, teaching kids to read, etc.? This would give you the opportunity to do good whilst creating a network of friends.

    I understand that your new family is concerned about their safety, whilst you feel perfectly safe walking the streets on your own. It's yet again probably part of different cultural viewpoints. I feel that in such situations it is important to talk to each other a lot and maybe find out why they are concerned for you (your honour as a woman? fear of getting lost?, etc.). This may help you to find a consensus.

    I am so with you regarding not broadcasting one's life in all sparkling detail on the internet. Whilst there are a great many of us who mean well, there are others who do not. What I do occasionally, is to delete my more candid posts a few days after publication. This enables you to get it off your chest and hopefully get some good feedback, yet it won't be there to potentially haunt you a few years down the line.

    I am sending you a virtual hug.

  2. It was the same way for me when I moved to India 6 years ago. The culture shock is pretty intense. But if you can find someone who isn't Ryan to talk to, it'll help. I hated having to go to my husband for everything that bothered, annoyed or saddened me about my new surroundings, and it weighed on him, too. I hope you can meet new people and especially other women who are expats-it helps to have someone who is going through a similar transition. All the best for a good week!

  3. Culture shock is so hard to handle at times. We all go through it. I wish I could tell you it gets easier, but I've been here for three years, and I still have it. Bottom line, you probably always will, though it comes and goes, and hopefully, with the, the "coming" doesn't happen as often and the "going" sticks around for longer periods of time.

    And don't worry about irrational crying, it happens to the best of us. When we lived in Japan, I had a breakdown in the middle of a grocery store because I couldn't read the food labels to tell what was in a package. Oh, and the fish had heads. That too. So, there was clearly nothing left for me to do but to start bawling. In the middle of a grocery store. Sigh. It happens, so just try to embrace the feelings of despaire and wallow in it for a bit, then pick yourself up and dust yourself off, and move on with it.

    Hang in will get easier as time goes on. Don't cut yourself off from friends back home...even though your support system is in India, you still have a support system back home as well...being an ocean away doesn't mean they can't support you. Good luck, and keep up the blogging...talking about your experiences here will help so much!

  4. Thank you all SO much seriously. From the bottom of my heart.

  5. Thank you all SO much seriously. From the bottom of my heart.

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  7. Hey darling girl do not worry about upsetting those at home. We love you and want to k.ow,what you are really going through.


Thanks so much for comments, they delight me! Please keep your comments civil and while I read every comment, I reserve the right to delete ones that are especially negative. Thanks!


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