Reading through Bobbi’s recent posts got me thinking about what exactly those words mean for me; to tell the truth, I’m still not sure. It’s probably easier to start here by talking about homesickness, which is something I get asked about a lot.

Honestly, I really don’t feel homesick. I don’t spend my time wondering what’s going on in the US and wishing I were there (and anyhow, friends and family are only a facebook chat or skype call away these days). My take on the issue is, I have a plane ticket booked for July. I’m going home then without question, and truly I’m more worried about not having the time to fully enjoy my time in South America than about what’s going on there. Though I can’t define it very well, homesick is not what I feel.

Culture shock, however, strikes me as a much more nebulous question. It’s another thing I get asked about a lot,* and I generally have a lot of trouble answering. There are a number of ways to approach the issue. For one, most extranjeros I know are equally struck by the fact that people and personalities are a lot more individually variable, and a lot more constant across cultures and nationalities, than any overriding “national” characteristics.

*and unfortunately, the question usually comes couched in unflattering, self-deprecating terms: “So, what are your impressions of Chile/South America/el tercer mundo? Underdeveloped?” (The Spanish term is subdesarrollado, which somehow strikes me as much more pejorative than the English.) This is a pretty uncomfortable discussion to get into, as is trying to explain that we don’t use terms like Third World anymore: “less developed countries” and the even more recent “Global South” are the post-Cold War euphemisms of choice — which in any event doesn’t change the political and economic reality we’re talking about.

On the other hand, I could run through a litany of little differences and quirks of life I’ve run into here, like the fact that all the food that comes in jars or bottles or cans in the US (e.g. jams and jellies, mayonnaise and all other condiments, olives, spices, sauces (especially tomato), hot sauce, salt, cheap hand soap and shampoos, etc) comes in little plastic bags here, which tends to be inconvenient, messy, space-saving and far less wasteful.
– Or the fact that there are no trash cans on the streets in my neighborhood.
– Or that students aren’t allowed into the stacks of the university’s libraries, but have to ask at the desk for the specific books they need.
– Or that on nutrition labels, listing sugar content doesn’t seem to be mandatory, but artificial sweeteners must be listed in bold print with an accompanying table showing sweetener content per portion alongside the RDA per kilo of body weight (an interesting reversal of national preoccupations?).
– Or that everyone smokes, even indoors.
– Or that all football (i.e. soccer) matches require careful pat-down and bag searches to enter the stadium, heavy police presence (complete with bulletproof shields!), and razor wire and electrified fences between the fans of opposing teams. All that said, football games are really fun; there’s a lot of active participation, the singing and chanting of the fans never stops, and the players are very theatrical on the field. For lack of a better word, it’s almost like a… game for them.
– Or that public restrooms are hard to find, often require payment and don’t necessarily promise toilet paper, toilet seats, or hand soap.
– Or that USACH only has a few wi-fi hotspots so far — which means that students spend a lot less time on their computers and more time talking to each other.
– Or that produce and bread are sold by the kilo (well, go figure) so what looks comparable to US prices is actually much cheaper, a pleasant surprise.
– Or that almost nobody places their phones on silent/vibrate. My tentative theory is that an audibly ringing phone makes the necessity for the person to extract him- or herself from a conversation clear and immediate to both parties, and thus more excusable. Which is more polite, in a counter-intuitive sort of way.
– Or that the Chileans I’ve run into who speak English have tended to speak British English, which seems noteworthy to me only because of my lazy preconceptions about the ubiquity of American English, I know.

I could go on, but these are, like I said, little things. I didn’t stop short, close my eyes and start whispering “There’s no place like home” upon encountering any of them, or even the sum of them. There are only a few things on that list that really bother me, and overall (and this is maybe the most salient point of the discussion when talking to Latin Americans) my standard of living in this country is just not markedly different from home. But the point is that I didn’t come here expecting just another American city (though the richer neighborhoods of Santiago can definitely feel that way) — I came here to experience these differences.

So what is culture shock, then? Maybe I can answer this way: the only thing that I’ve had real, significant trouble adjusting to here is my lack of Spanish comprehension, both in class and in conversation. I wrote the following up a few weeks ago, and though things have been rapidly improving since then (my reading comprehension in particular is getting exponentially better), this still describes my day-to-day experience, more or less:

Instead of hearing and instantly understanding (in terms of deciphering the accent and knowing what the words mean) and being able to hold several paragraphs of a professor’s lecture or even just a text in my head at once, being able to assimilate it into whatever pre-existing knowledge I had about the subject and think about possible ramifications of/applications of/problems with or counter-arguments to/further questions about/possible biases in/extensions of the information presented and being able to formulate a clear and coherent response to it in less than thirty seconds or so, I’m struggling with just the first two; even holding contiguous paragraphs of a lecture in my mind to give context to whatever stream of words is coming at me next is a challenge sometimes.

I hate it. It’s so difficult just to pay attention; there’s no such thing as passive listening for me in Spanish yet, because if I sit back and try to just absorb and understand a few paragraphs before writing it down, I usually end up with vague impressions, fleeting images or “feelings” about what I just heard, and few if any concrete, repeatable (or write down-able) and explainable facts, and then suddenly I’m missing what he says next. It’s almost like the process of remembering a dream. Probably the most difficult thing to do is to write something down while simultaneously listening to whatever is coming next (though it’s easier to write in English and listen in Spanish sometimes, presumably because I’m legitimately comprehending the content of at least one activity).

And so I’m stuck in class, taking copious notes, trying to cope with questions suddenly thrown at me, both in terms of understanding what the professor is asking me and then forming a coherent, Spanish-language response within an acceptable amount of time, and all of the real understanding comes from going back, recopying notes and starting to make sense of the words I’d earlier taken down like a dictation machine.

I don’t know whether this counts as “culture” shock per se, but it has definitely characterised my experience in Chile so far. More than anything, it’s shown me how easy it is to take something as simple as a conversation for granted. Point being, I think that being here is teaching me, if nothing else, a lot about empathy.


2 Responses to “Thoughts on homesickness and culture shock:”

  1. Bobbi on May 9th, 2010 11:56 pm

    Helen! I’m really enjoying your blog. Your writing is really great, and I completely agree with many of your thoughts. Hopefully we can catch up once we’re both back in the US!

  2. Bobbi on May 10th, 2010 10:14 am

    I think completely “relate” to many of your thoughts might be a better way to say it!!

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