My husband sat at the breakfast table in his boxer shorts, reading about David and Goliath to the kids while the bathtub slowly filled for his daily soak (he’s a slightly high-maintenance guy). I stood at the end of our table, serving food. It was a Saturday morning in our dreary city. Most people without small children were still sound asleep.
All of a sudden the table around which we were gathered began hopping across the floor. The sound of rattling filled the house and my husband and I looked at each other with wild eyes.
“Earthquake!” I shouted. “Run!”
We ran. Out the door and down the stairs, seven flights to the ground, where people were already gathering in droves. Some of the younger women were crying. The older people had broken off into stooped pairs, calmly reminiscing about past quakes. They’d seen it all before.
As for we foreigners, we made a scene all our own. Bed-head, ugly PJs…and my husband in his boxer shorts! One guy thought to grab his coffee carafe and some Dixie cups and was passing out hot samples of brew. The kids thought it was a holiday, and they squealed with delight as they ran about carefree in their nightgowns.
When it seemed the danger had passed, my husband remembered to go up and turn off his bath water, hoping it hadn’t already flooded the house. While he was up there, he put on some more clothes. But it was a good hour before we dared take our kids back into our homes. There is just nothing quite so unsettling as the earth moving beneath you.
Shockwaves from an earthquake felt much like another kind of shock: culture shock. When we moved abroad in August of 2008, the very ground beneath our feet seemed to be moving. I had a similar response to culture shock that I had to the earthquake five years later. “Run!”
But there was nowhere to run when it came to culture shock. It was everywhere I went, and defined everything I did. When I had to go the bathroom in public, I didn’t know how to hover over the floor-toilets (How do you drop your drawers without resting the hem on pee-flooded ceramic? How do you not splash your ankles?) When we needed food, I didn’t know where to buy butter or even salt. The stove fires would whiff out if I tried to keep them on low, and so I simmered our soup on medium and it burned. The power to the apartment would come and off, the gas too, and the solar panel water heater on the roof only worked when the sun shone. Cloudy weather meant cold showers.
Yes, culture shock was like one long earthquake for us. And I do mean long. My husband’s was even more severe than mine, which we attributed to his total immersion in the culture day after day. I, on the other hand, had the advantage of our home and our kids into which I could bury myself and live in relative denial.
Another thing earthquakes and culture shocks have in common is that they never really stop. We still live near a fault line. And we still live in a foreign culture. Aftershocks. They happen. More frequently at first and then they taper off, but every now and then a quiver is felt. The lampshade wiggles. The hanging clothes swing. I scowl at someone in the street for spitting his guts out two inches from my shoe.
In the weeks following the quake, we kept a half-empty bottle of liquid Benadryl on the top of the dish hutch. If we felt something and wondered if it were an aftershock (often it wasn’t and we were just being paranoid), all we had to do was look up at the bottle of Benadryl to see if the red fluid inside was sloshing. It kept us calm. It was a reliable gauge that allowed us to go about our lives without fear of a quake.
We need a Benadryl bottle for culture aftershocks, too. We need a gauge to help us see whether or not we’re ok under the stress of living in another culture. I have several gauges, one of which is sleep. When I’m overly tired, dragging, and can’t get through a day without a nap, it means I’m tapped out culturally. What do I do about it? Well, it helps just being aware of it. Just seeing the red liquid sloshing in the bottle helps me know for sure what I’m dealing with.
But then I do take action. Or rather I avoid action. I stay at home for a few days. I splurge and order pizza delivery for our dinner. I rest. Then, when I’ve recovered from the aftershock, I can go out into the culture with much steadier feet.
Where are you in culture shock? In the initial shockwaves or feeling the slight tremors of aftershocks? What have you used as “Benadryl bottles” for your aftershock?