The cultural differences that we know about going into travel or living abroad are relatively easy to get used to. These are differences that we expect, differences that are Big and Prevalent – the ones we see hear eat every day – and therefore the ones that perhaps we think of first and research before our adventure. These things can generate culture shock, but it’s a skin deep shock for the most part. We can get used to eating different foods or cook what we want at home. We can enjoy the different holidays and cultural celebrations. We can learn to enjoy the music – or at least avoid it some of the time because at home or in headphones, we get to choose what we hear.
What causes the deeper culture shock, the shock that seeps into the bones and grates at the nerves the most?
The cultural differences that are Little and Hidden.
The most relatable example I can provide is the culture of cleaning. For travelers, this might not even be something that they consider too much beyond their laundry situation. But even people who have lived with other people outside of their family can understand this to an extent. We tend to clean the way that we are taught in our homes, but for some reason, even if we were raised in the same state, that way isn’t going to be exactly the same. Perhaps you rinse the dishes before they go in the dishwasher and your roommate/partner doesn’t. Perhaps you disagree on the best way/tools to use to clean the bathroom floor.
Taking that same example, here floors are cleaned by dumping water on the floor and pushing it out of the house with a broom. Mops are generally for cleaning up messes. We never had mops in my house growing up, so I clean up messes with towels. Every time I go to grab a towel to wipe up the spilled juice here, I get scolded. Being scolded for doing something I have done for 30 years is annoying at best.
A more personal Little (well, not-so-little) and Hidden cultural difference I have dealt with recently surrounds mourning and dealing with sadness. A friend passed away, and it devastated me. In terms of what was going on in my host family, it was bad timing. I was sad and despondent and not talking to anyone really at the same time that my host sister was packing her bags and spending her last nights in the house before moving to the complete opposite side of the country for a year.
I had witnessed my host mom in mourning during the last year. A friend of hers from work passed away from cancer. My host mom was sad and shed tears as she explained to me what had happened, but after the day it happened, I never really saw those blue emotions again. A week later, I was doing zumba in my living room with my host sister, and my host mom asked that we do it quietly with the doors and windows shut because she didn’t want the neighbors to think she was behaving inappropriately, dancing and enjoying life while she’s supposed to be in mourning.
The last night my host sister was in town, I bugged her on the couch for a little bit, trying to keep my mood light for her, but eventually just went to bed early. She sent me a message that said, “The life and death of a person is incomprehensible for their loved ones, but the best way for them to be in peace is to remember them at their best. I hope you’re not sad anymore.” While I don’t disagree with the sentiment of that first statement, it just isn’t a part of my culture to not go through the grieving and mourning process and just move on like nothing bad ever happened. It’s not a part of my being to not wallow and cry and feel sad for the life lost and for the impact that life lost has on the other people I love.
Let’s be real: what do I know. Maybe my so-called cultural observations are all wrong. After all, these are my personal observations based on my own circumstances. I have some different ways of doing things than other people from my own country, and my host family probably differs from other host country nationals in these things too; we may just be polar opposites on these two things and it’s created some grated nerves that are probably running through my blood now like those little coffee grounds that get through the filter and make the drink a little bitter towards the end.