Africa, Travel Stories

Culture Shock

I haven’t done laundry in over a week. Considering the layers of sweat and dust I accumulate on a daily basis and my limited wardrobe, this is actually becoming quite disgusting. It’s just that the last time I had to do my laundry I almost cried and I don’t want to risk that again. It’s not that I don’t need to cry, but I’m afraid once I start it will be hard to stop. You see, I have to wash all of my laundry by hand, a process that takes muscles I haven’t quite developed and usually leaves me drenched in a mixture of perspiration and dirty suds water.
Ghana, Africa

I don’t mind washing my clothes by hand, it’s just that lately I have been missing the sound of my sister’s voice and the taste of real, creamy ice cream on a hot afternoon. I’ve been missing French bakeries and kisses and internet that works on a consistent basis. I’ve been looking at pictures of falling leaves and craving cold weather and pumpkin spiced lattes.
My hometown is lovely in the Fall!
Kansas City, Missouri

Most days none of these things really matter, but sometimes they catch up to me all at once and suddenly I find myself tearing up over something as silly as doing laundry.

I think I’m experiencing culture shock. I’ve been in Ghana for over six weeks now, and while I love the work I’m doing and feel more content than I have in a long time, the thought of having to eat one more fried egg makes me want to hurl and cry simultaneously. I’m fed up.

I shouldn’t be surprised. The 6-8 week mark is usually when I start feeling this way. Everything becomes intolerable and annoying. The novelty of a new adventure starts wearing off and I begin grumbling under my breath about the food and the weather, stomping my feet and rolling my eyes like a first class toddler. It’s not a pretty sight. 

The truth is, I’m experiencing shock and withdrawal at the same time. I’m adjusting to a new culture while still craving a place I barely settled into before leaving. I’m homesick but I’m not sure which home or life I want to return to. I miss Mexican food and Spanish slang and European sunsets. I miss friends I said goodbye to three countries ago, I miss hearing a language I still can’t speak.
Barcelona, Spain

“It’s not that I don’t like my new normal,” I tell my sister. “It’s just that sometimes I remember that I used to have a different normal, and I miss that one too.” 

It’s strange how easily I can forget the lingering promises I’ve made and the routines that once made up my daily life, now long gone and replaced with new ones. I keep searching for a common thread that will tie everything together and knot the loose ends, but it’s getting harder to reconcile all of my past lives into one. I’ve fragmented myself into pieces, doling out the important bits to different people, offering small reflections of the person I once was, hoping they won’t mind the brokenness.

Sometimes, I catch a glimpse of an old reflection and feel a familiar pang of nostalgia. I’ve learned with time not to worry too much about collecting these fragments, their edges are often sharp and pain inducing. Forgetting is a coping mechanism I need to deal with the losses, shock is my body’s way of protecting me from feeling the intensity of each hello and goodbye.
Essaouira, Morocco

But lately it’s been harder to forget. I’ve finally stayed in one place long enough for the memories and emotions from all of my experiences to catch up to me. Past lives are vying for my attention, demanding I pay them their due respect and asking me when I’m going to come back. The numbness has started to wear off and a roller coaster of sensations has taken its place. 

I’m not good at navigating this phase of shock. It’s easier to maintain the pace of constant movement before reaching acceptance and adaptation. Detached wonder takes up less space and doesn’t require much effort. It’s not necessary to do an honest inventory if you know you won’t be staying long. I can coax myself into putting up with almost anything for a few weeks, but when those weeks turn into months, the task becomes more difficult. Eventually, the adrenaline fades and I’m left with a slower heartbeat and a new reality.
Teiman, Ghana

I have to admit, I like the way adrenaline feels. It carries me through difficult circumstances and pushes me forward. But I’m tired of moving, and detached wonder doesn’t seem so great anymore. I’m tired of experiencing the same stage of shock over and over. I’m ready to feel more, even if it’s painful at first. It’s time to slow down, time to grieve, and time to start the process of healing.

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