The Meh Month: 6 inconvenient truths about culture shock
This post was originally published in October 2016. Notes from my 2019 self are in blue.
I'm coming to the end of my first month in Tangier and it's been pretty... meh, reminding me that culture shock, as I experience it, is synonymous with crazy highs and lows, emotional exhaustion, and continual, inescapable frustration.
Months like this make me more and more sure that culture shock (and big life transitions) are kind of like depression, and of course, Hyperbole and a Half gives me the best visual language to comprehend and communicate what's going on inside:
Here are 6 inconvenient truths about culture shock taken straight out of my life this month.
#1. Holidays are not as fun as you might expect.
We had Eid Kbir (aka Eid Al-Adha aka the sheep-slaughtering holiday) a couple weeks ago (September 13) and I had the whole week off school. Generally, one is supposed to feel excited about such vacations, even when you spend them at home, because you're supposed to spend the time hanging out with friends and going out and doing fun things. Except I haven't really made a lot of friends yet and most of the ones I have were traveling to be with family, and I still had work, so I couldn't really travel, and didn't think of that option until too late. Plus, leaving the house and doing things on my own is pretty stressful (see #2 and #3).
Future Me: Now that I have friends, I enjoy holidays more. Hang in there, Eid 2017 will be really fun.
#2. Everything takes more energy.
I know this is real, but it constantly surprises and frustrates me. After 2 hours of work and 2 hours of class (and 2 taxi rides) I feel like I shouldn't want to spend the rest of the day in bed, but I do. This is where the worshipper of productivity in me starts resenting and hating the lonely, sad, scared, and tired part of me. Again, Hyperbole and a Half:
I have large blocks of time where I feel frustrated, lackluster, exhausted, uninspired, lazy, overwhelmed: I want to leave the house but I have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no one to do it with. I'm frustrated that I'm not being more productive, but when I think of activities that Competent Me deems productive, my heart kind of sinks and I watch another episode of Friends instead.
As as a result I experience all these identity issues. Who am I when I'm not All-Competent, Getting-It-Done Anna? How do I love myself when most (all?) of my self-love comes from admiring my perceived successes? Am I really worth of love when I am doing nothing? (Hint: Yes.)
This means I have to learn once again the tricky lesson of extending grace to myself, for example by setting more realistic goals. Like maybe, instead of not being happy with myself because I can't work 5 hours, go to class, and then study for another hour and go out that evening and make a bunch of friends and speak with them in fluent Moroccan Arabic, maybe I should be content with just doing some work, going to class and making it home, all the while breathing like a MF champion.
In fact, realizing how weak I am makes me more understanding of other people. I tend to be pretty tyrannical with myself: Come on, Anna! You must always do the hardest thing!
But I'm realizing that I've also been unnecessarily tyrannical and judgmental towards others, for example other Americans I've known while living abroad. (Why do they insist on speaking English in public? Why don't they just suck it up and speak the host language? Why do they insist in putting their kids to bed at American bedtime? &c.) I realize now that maybe their minds are aching with exhaustion and they're just doing what they can to survive.
Public Service Announcement: If you have friends who are new to your country, be patient with them. Invite them to do fun things, especially low-energy things, like movie nights or hanging out - there's this part of me that wants to leave the house but it's too hard to go it alone.
3. Easy things become frustrating
This is a corollary to #2. Because everything takes more energy, and because you're still learning to navigate everyday life, things that were mostly effortless at home become overwhelming, almost Sisyphean tasks in another setting. Where do I go to the store? the pharmacy? to buy cosmetics? paper? ...how do I even say paper?
For example, with language. I feel like I'm right at the cusp of things with Moroccan darija: it's a really frustrating stage where I can understand like 30-50% of what's going on in an average conversation, but the other 50-70% I have no clue about; I can almost sustain conversations with people, but not really at natural speed or about everything.
Note: This is *not* a typical or realistic language level for the first month after you move to a new place. Before moving to Tangier, I had studied about 3 years of Arabic (mostly standard, and then some Moroccan Darija).
For example, I ran an errand for work the other day, and, well, I did get it done, but in the worst Arabic imaginable. I thought the guy behind the desk at the bank would just know where I worked and what I wanted but I forgot that it was the manager who would know and that I should have asked for him, except he was in a meeting, so I dropped off the document but he asked me if I was my boss's sister and I tried to answer but it just didn't come out with the right words, e.g. "No. Friends. How her sister - uh - his sister" (The goal was to say "like his sister." Fail.)
Honestly, sometimes I feel like I'm 2 years old again. But I got the errand done. People had the opportunity to be magnanimous and kind and have pity on me, and they were gentle and they did bear with me. I keep learning humility, against my will.
4. You get these insane glimmers of hope and joy.
This is why living abroad is so addictive. When you're not curled up in bed trying to forget you left your home country, or banging your head against the wall in frustration, you're really happy. Everything is new and beautiful - your city, your job, the new language you're learning. When you do something successfully, like buying a new pair of shoes, you feel elated, invincible (at least, I do). You find places you like to be in and people you like to be with and glimpses of what life could look like.
5. Communicating with people at home is unsatisfying.
Right now, homesickness is starting to hit hard. I'm learning that I can't be a part of my home world (America) in the same way, but I'm not yet a part of my host world (Morocco).
For me, social media is a constant, grating reminder that I'm not back in America with my friends, getting to visit my siblings and parents on the weekends or go to homecoming at my college, or participate in conferences and events and play an active role in shaping American society, at least my piece of it. (#StayWoke)
I try to remind myself that I came here because I want to participate in this culture, and have friends here and do fun things here and get mad about all the injustice here and rejoice in all the beautiful things here and promote cross-cultural understanding, for people here and people at home in America. But I am not really a part of things yet.
Public Service Announcement: If you have a friend who's depressed, they might not announce it on social media.
Sometimes I feel a twinge of guilt that I only post pictures online of the beautiful parts of my life, the things that are awesome and I really enjoy, or that make me come across as clever and glamorous (hopefully) and then I write a blog post like this.
The truth is that, as an introvert, when I'm tired or upset or overwhelmed I don't want to interact with other people, even virtually; when I'm happy, I'm more likely to chronicle things and casually share them.
So maybe it's jarring to just see the smiling pictures and fun happenings on insta and facebook and then to read my blog and realize Oh, this person is also kind of sad and having a hard time... but that's the nature of the beast.
6. Ask for help.
I'm putting this here to remind myself that asking for help is something adults do, and that makes life much easier. Find people who care about you, or who are starting to care about you, or who you just met but seem to know what they're doing and have a moment to talk to you, and ask them for advice, or to help you do some of those monumental labors discussed in #3 (for me right now, this includes everything to do with finding an apartment). I'm always surprised by how easy it is to ask for help — even for those things that don't seem like a big deal, or that I want or wish I was capable of doing myself — and how willing other people are to help when they know what I need.