The Lesser known Stages of Culture Shock

I thought I was through with the culture shock.  I mean, heck, I’ve whined and blogged about it several times now.  I realized the other day that it had been a while since I’d had a conversation that wasn’t with a 5-year-old or in another language and it bummed me out, and previously that would have excited me.  I began to think I may not been as fully culturally assimilated as I imagined myself. My husband says I think too much, but I’m fairly certain I’m in yet another, different stage of cultural adjustment.  These are the most recent cultural questions I’ve been pondering and my current hang-ups with living the ex-pat life.

Question #1 –  ‘What is wrong with this country?’ – For a while I was in the forgiving zone of cultural adaptation where I was willing to excuse the trash on the ground or people doing their business on the side of the road, as simply part of a ‘developing’ country.  We had dinner not long ago with some, recently arrived ex-pats, one bluntly stated that the horribly polluted and trashed out Bagamati river was the most disgusting body of water he had ever seen.  I was a little shocked.  I mean are you supposed to say there is something you don’t like about your host country?  I’d been so long in the habit of not criticizing, but he is right.  The Bagamati is just awful, made worse by the fact that it is the only water source in the Kathmandu Valley. No wonder that the most common cause of child mortality is diarrhea. Come on people! Is too much to ask, not to pee in the river?  Pheww, there, I’ve said it, and I feel better.  Except…. I can’t entirely point fingers at the Nepalis for the pollution and lack of sanitation, because by coming here we’ve made it our problem too.  We we came because we didn’t just want to see malnourished kids on commercials, and we came because we didn’t just want to watch the human trafficking documentaries.  We came to share that we can have abundant life and to help do something about it all.

Question #2 – Why are we so boring in such an exciting place?  – We’ve been in here for 8 months now, and we’ve developed an ordinary and routine rhythm to daily life.  In this incredibly exciting, exotic country of towering mountains, plunging valleys, diverse cultures, we are incredibly boring.  We see and greet the same people each day, we shop at the same shops, we water our house plants and we listen to ‘Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me’ podcasts on Saturday mornings.  This is not the check things off the bucket list, exciting, must-see stuff, of international travel, it is just life.  I was trying to express this to a friend the other day and she said, ‘Yeah but you’re in Nepal!’  Right, I’m in Nepal.  I remember that each time I stop at a shop to by some vegetables and the shop keeper tells me I speak really good Nepali.  I smile, thank him and take the ego boost, but what I don’t tell him  is that is pretty much all I can say in Nepali and I’ve had 8 months of practice shopping for vegetables.

I have no answers to these questions as of yet.  And I find myself floating somewhere in sojourner-land between traveler and ex-pat.  As a traveler, I’d see the ex-pats and envy them their cool demeanor, reading books in cafes as they order in the native language, it was as if their terribly exciting lives were so extraordinarily mundane.   I’d also always wondered what the ex-pats thought of travelers, did they resent us for the ever-present cameras around our necks and our Chaco sandals and zip-off trekking pants? Or did they just not notice, not care.   So now I’m an expat and the cool demeanor is because the terribly exciting ex-pat life really is mundane at times.  And travelers seem to be part of some other existence, like pigeons on the side of the river, they are there one minute, hurrying around, eating, and covering as much territory as they can and then flying away.  I envy them in a sense for being back in the ‘check it off the bucket list’ stage of cultural experience where even buying vegetables is exciting.  And I envy that they get to go home and tuck their Chacos and zip-off pants into a closet, an actual closet.

Anyway, I don’t think this is a fatal stages of cultural adjustment, I’m not going to jump on the next plane back or anything.  I know I will work my way out of it soon and maybe come up with some pseudo answers to my cultural questions.  In the mean time, I will write cathartic blog posts about it, dig a little deeper to find out something new and exciting about the culture I live in, and I will work up the courage to tell someone in Nepali not to pee in the river.