Monday, August 2, 2010

Eclectic Shock

The CIL training manual doesn't lie.

Culture shock really does happen.

I found this out one morning as I walked to work (it takes me about 40 minutes, and would take me the same amount of time if I took the bus) totally pissed-off at everyone around me. They didn't do anything hurtful to me in particular – they just were entirely incomprehensible and their very being made me feel like an outsider. So many people stare at me as they drive by, I'm surprised that I haven't caused a traffic accident by now. The catcalls of the xe ôm drivers assault my ears. People who cannot enunciate due to the absence of a full set of teeth or due to laziness speak to me in Vietnamese at roughly a million miles an hour (how the hell do locals understand each other?) and seem insulted when I don't understand. The smell of shit and garbage mixed together will violently assault my nostrils without warning. When I walk from one block to another, people on their motorbikes will cut me off by turning in front of me – throughout the entire turn, their eyes do not move one bit (I have observed). I have been woken at midnight by a cockroach climbing through my hair. The heat and moisture have allowed bacteria or fungi to constantly give me itches on my skin. I was touched on the chest by the dirty, dirty, two-inch-long fingernail of a xe ôm driver (this guy's mind was also filthy). And when I was at my most angry, I suffered being accosted by a local who wanted to practice his English, being watched while I ate breakfast and having to entertain his conversation.

The above are all small annoyances, when taken separately. I should, if I could be absolutely proportional in my feelings, be in an uninterrupted state of slight perturbation. But I was (and probably still am) angry and wanting to leave (due to the small annoyances mentioned above and to larger annoyances that, for various reasons, will not be mentioned on this blog. Since you have doubtless memorised this blog's disclaimer word-for-word by now, you know what I am talking about.). Most of my anger is not at any one annoyance. I am angry that I am an outsider and have to deal with other people viewing me as an outsider, whether they express that view by patronising me, staring at me with cold, dead eyes or laughing at me. I did not expect that I would escape culture shock, but I was fooled by the culture-shock into thinking that it would be a gradual descent. Culture shock is like finding an adult cockroach in your bathroom. You don't expect it, it's ugly, it startles you when it appears and when you spray it with insecticide it smells bad and poisons you.

So now the mental countdown has begun in earnest. The mental countdown is BAD: it prevents those who do it from having fun. Of course, I miss home, and would be a cruel person if I didn't. But there are great things and great people here, and my work will eventually be fulfilling and excellent. I prefer to look forward to those things instead of thinking to myself "Only eight months before you go back home!". I cannot let myself be pissed-off for eight months. I would probably die before the eight months finish if I were to be pissed-off for all eight of them. So I have resolved to forget about the amount of time left, and to replace anxiety with the seeking of fun. I like fun more than I like anxiety.

My feelings and the CIL training have confirmed a suspicion that I have had for years: multiculturalism is a sham. When non-Europeans migrate to Canada, they do not force their cultures upon anyone. Culture is not weird dance, weird food and funny talk. Culture is the totality of what a group of people values, and what they do in the service of those values. It is true that Canada allows people of any culture to live within its borders. But Canada very much has one culture – Western culture. Westerners' attachment to reason (economic benefit?) and disgust at parochialism allow Westerners to coexist with people of other cultures without confronting the value differences between Western culture and said other cultures. Those who are raised in urban Canada and who stay in their particular urban agglomeration (I acknowledge that there are cultural differences between provinces, cities, etc.) do not experience culture shock because of immigrants. I might be a connoisseur of bún (yes, Vietnamese people eat more than just phở) but be unable to stomach Vietnamese norms about personal space (or lack thereof) or about friendship.

I can't think of a smooth way to end this post, so I have put a clumsy way to end it instead.

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