Friday, July 25, 2008

Thoughts On Culture Shock: Part 2

The real complex culture shock really didn’t hit me until about week after landing in Oakland. It was all a strange adventure until it became home and then the strangeness became stronger and the adventure lessened quickly.

I had already experienced the strangeness of driving while in Fairbanks and Juneau and now it just seemed that there was no real definition between 45 mph and 70 mph, it was all just unworldly fast and felt like a dream.

The intensity of sounds, however, really didn’t hit me till I was living in Oakland. Up North I had become accustomed to the different sounds - there weren’t a lot of them and they weren’t layered very thick. If I didn’t know a new sound it was cause for curiosity and/or concern. Here in the city however, sounds were different. There were a ton of them and there were lots of layers. I couldn’t identify many of them and some that I could identify seemed alarming.

I’d walk down the street to the lake in downtown Oakland and hear the sounds of traffic on the freeway ¼ mile away, the sounds of cars on my street, the sounds of busses two streets over, then layered on that I’d hear a bird or two, someone’s music and then someone else’s music, several people talking and two people yelling, layered on that an airplane and a helicopter, a siren, a car door closing, the wind in the trees… Every sound was so clear - too clear and piled on top of each other. My mind, not used to these sounds, jolted forward and back - trying to register each one, trying to stop and think. My body naturally would follow suit. It was hard to hold a conversation, hard to walk without pausing every other step, hard to listen and comprehend. The speed and amount of sounds was too much. My mind would quickly go into over drive and within an hour I felt utterly physically and mentally exhausted.

Food became difficult as well. After a year of dreaming of foods I couldn’t have I found I didn’t want any of the foods around me. I would wonder around the supermarket and look at all the glossy packages. But they didn’t register as food - they were more like pages in a magazine. Nothing made sense - where was the food, y’know food? Not the flashy processed stuff. I no longer really remembered what some of those things tasted like and I couldn’t register, as hungry as I was, whether I REALLY wanted that particular item.

When I ended up in the produce section my mind seemed to explode. I remembered the Weins flying in on x-mas eve, running towards our cabin as fast as they could and bursting in the door with a package wrapped up. It was fruit! They had traveled all the way from Fairbanks during a time when we had about 3 ½ hours of light (just enough to get to us and back) and had hand delivered to us fresh fruit in -30 degree weather. It was quite an accomplishment. I remember I could only eat half an apple at a time, it was overwhelming and did a number on my stomach…but it was damn good! Now here I was in a produce section the size of 2 or 3 of my cabins. There were so many apples - all different. I remember I called Ryan, I was in tears. It was all to noisy, there was too much fruit, it was too bright, people were walking too fast, no one looked at me or said hi, I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t decipher the sounds, I couldn’t think - nothing made sense anymore. What felt vaguely familiar now was discombobulating and all crashing down on me. I suddenly felt fiercely a lone and utter lost in a way I had never felt up north.

I was so much more happier with that basket of apples than when I was standing in a sea of them.

During those first months, I spent a lot of time wondering how far we had come.

Have our bodies adjusted to all that incoming “noise” - so that it is truly normalized? Or are we, deep down, in a constant state of adrenalin and reaction - trying to take in more than our bodies were designed to compute?
It is now a year later and I’m preparing to return to my Northern home. I know that I’ve adjusted to much of this world here. If for no other reason than that I’ve spent much of my life in ‘civilization’ so my adjustment ’back’ should be easy - yet I still feel that I am not as comfortable and confident as I once was in this ‘society’. I suspect much of it is due to my resistance to allowing my mind and body to forget the north. To turn my back on that reality is like turning my back on part of who I am - but allowing myself to be remembering two worlds at once means that I am probably forcing a bit of ‘culture shock’ to remain reacting in an uncomfortable state of awareness instead of escaping into a tunnel of denial…


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