Culture shock, culture acclimation, culture void

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 13.07.2018

It’s all about dosage. When you first move abroad you can’t handle any part of it, like when you’re fourteen and vanish your first vodka shot. Americans get to Europe and are instantly drunk on accents, traffic signs, rogue urban layouts, and the unaccountable roundness of everything. I recall, during my first visit to Europe(age thirteen), finding the bus rear-view mirrors hilarious for some reason. Judging from the photos I took, they impressed me at least as much as the Acropolis did.

But then some time elapses and, as with anything new, your mind adjusts and these aesthetic tics become largely invisible. Next, it takes an actual foreign person to shock you. Making new friends is easy because of the endless fields of observational ground at your feet: “In America you put all your recycling into one bin! They sort it for you!!! IT’S DIFFERENT THAN HERE,” I remember screaming once at a German guy in a noisy pub.

And after a while these “this, not that” ponds of conversations also become boring. You outgrow their simplicity and crave observations with more depth: for example, there is a whole sea underneath the observation that two British strangers will often treat each other with a familiar sarcasm, whereas two American strangers rarely do. What does that imply about Brits and Americans? Which counterexamples challenge this conclusion? How does irony permeate each culture?

Mind you, none of these stages of immersion is ever fully surpassed. I still, after nine years in the Old World, sometimes find myself in tiny, cryptlike toilets with wonky ceilings and sixteenth century floors and think to myself, “Ah, Europe, what is this utter bullshit you’re trying to pass off as a room?” Or I’ll see a bag of chips boasting a glossy picture of a bell pepper and make fun of my Luxembourgish fiancée for coming from a place where advertisers juxtapose vegetables with junk food. Or I’ll notice how, in emails at my expat-ridden workplace, passive aggression is pulled off with a fabulous drunken punch that I know I’ll never master.

But, such exceptions notwithstanding, once you have waded deep into all of these cultural waters you do feel something like acclimation. There is certainly a little jolt of achievement when you first realise that you have swum through a conversation without bringing up homelands, travelling, or foreignness. All along, this ease has sort of felt like the goal.

And then the pendulum swings back the other way.

Bored with acclimation, you look to outfit yourself with exoticisms, and where better to source them than your now-foreign-seeming homeland? In my case, I rediscovered a childhood obsession with ice hockey, started preaching about American jam bands, and casually started dropping outrageous assumptions (“Sure I’d love a snack! Girl Scout Cookies with maple syrup would be amazing, thanks.”)

Going back in this direction unearths the realisation that you’ve been away for possibly a long time, because your authority on your mother country has aged. What used to be a thick painting of culture is more like a cartoon, now, as you lack the texture of fresh observations. Times were, every zip and lining in my life was American, to such a degree that it didn’t even seem that way. How could it? But now, that country seems made up of guns and Brooklyn Lager, fake news and Ranch dressing, and baseball and 20 per cent tips and morons from Silicon Valley. These items get filtered through my American cultural markers, which are old but evermore confident, into a saturated and stylised image. Like an Instagram filter of my own design.

Nine years in Europe is not a lifetime, but it’s enough that people recognise me as being no longer fresh off the tarmac. You can be obviously a foreigner without being obviously American, and this is a sweet spot because control of the imagery flips completely in my favour. In stage one of expat living, by contrast, you’re an oozing conclusion for others. During an Erasmus year in Dublin, I once—and it takes a lot for me to admit this—ate a bun on which a square of butter (which I had put there) was pretty much still wholly intact. See, the butter had been too cold and hard to spread, really, so I just went for it. I didn’t care. I was going wild that year. And a French classmate saw me and asked if this was common in the States. “Oh my god, no! Ha ha ha!” I shouted, so nervously that a pimple on my forehead popped.

But nowadays, perhaps also because my friends tend to be older and wiser than Erasmus students, these conversations occur less and less. If they do, there are two modes of response. In the first, I will spontaneously invent a grandiose, philosophical backdrop based on what it was like to be an American in America in 2009, a backdrop that seems to get more pronounced and more simplistic all the time, and use that to explain the phenomenon. In the second, I’ll just lie my ass off and claim that indeed Americans do eat whole butter squares, because they (no longer “we”) are a monstrous people too preoccupied with cryptocurrencies and student loans to bother with the viscosity of milk fat. Sometimes I feel that I’m losing my grip on knowing which tack, if either, churns up a more accurate answer. Other times I feel that I see the States more clearly than I ever have.

I fully expect to enter a new phase of culture shock sooner or later. Maybe crossing the language hump and getting conversationally cosy with Luxembourgers (don’t worry, Luxembourgers, you still have a few years of peace before this happens) will send me down the wires of a new crisis. I certainly hope so, because too much comfort with life again is making me crave an even stronger cultural drink.

Jeffrey Palms
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