Culture shock

When my husband and I arrived at our new home in Maynooth, Ireland, we could barely believe our luck. Maynooth is a charming college town, home to a bustling main street of cafes and pubs and even a 12th-century ruined castle, which we toured while jet-lagged on our first day. Trees are greener here. Groceries are cheaper. The accents are definitely more charming.

Common wisdom tells us that, after moving to a new place, we will experience “culture shock” — a feeling of overwhelm that can render us aghast and immobile, until we acclimate and get over it. Perhaps that is true for some people or some places, but what I’ve found in moving around the United States and, for brief stints, to other countries is a different mixture and order of emotions.

For example: In Ireland, apart from being totally confused by which way to look when crossing the street (they’re driving on the left so that means you look to the … right?), I felt no debilitating shock. I just felt a kind of certainty that everything here was better than where I came from. It’s a feeling I recognized from previous moves, one I call “cultural infatuation.”

Infatuation comes when you buy your first baguette in a French bakery for less than two euros, or when you’re driving around Los Angeles and find yourself at the top of a hill with a majestic view of the Pacific Ocean. And you don’t just appreciate the experiences — just as quickly, you start attributing positive character traits to the locals: People in Washington, D.C., are so much smarter than in Illinois. Fathers in Ireland are so much more dedicated to their kids than in the U.S.

I knew, from previous moves, that this kind of thinking is normal but also fundamentally flawed. It’s based on selection and recency bias. I remember when I first moved to Aix-en-Provence for a semester in college, I studiously noted how my host mother never brought napkins to the table. French people don’t use napkins, I concluded. Perhaps it’s because they eat more neatly, or because they’re more environmentally conscious. A few weeks into my stay, I mentioned this to her at dinner. She looked confused. “I use napkins,” she said. “Do you want one? I just forgot to bring them out of the kitchen.”

French people: They’re just like us!

But just as quickly as the bubble of infatuation grows, it can burst. And in its absence lies a sorry state: “cultural fatigue.”

In Ireland this fall, my cultural fatigue came in the form of a rhetorical question. I had a stomach bug, felt dehydrated and went to an emergency room in Dublin. Some things about the Irish ER are clearly superior to the U.S., like how it never costs more than 100 euros (no surprise billing here!). But the wait times are no shorter — I spent an hour sitting in an uncomfortable hospital chair and fantasized about lying in an uncomfortable hospital bed. Finally, a nurse called me in, gave me an anti-nausea injection, and told me to get a snack from the hospital café to see if I could keep it down.

“So I can’t stay here?” I asked.

She shook her head. “Just go back to the waiting room until the doctor’s ready to see you. It might be a few hours. Is that OK?”

No! I wanted to yell. That is not OK! But I could tell the question was not supposed to have an answer. I’ve noticed this ever since: The rhetorical question, “Is that OK?” is used to soften the blow of some slightly unpleasant news, presumably to absolve the other person of guilt when you feel compelled to agree. It irritated me to the extreme. Irish people are so passive-aggressive, I decided at that moment.

For what it’s worth, after I threw up my next snack, the nurse did find me a place to lie down, and everyone who cared for me was very pleasant.

Still, my irritability remained. When I noticed imperfections around me, I felt disappointed, not just in that moment but in the entire Irish culture. “I just want ice in my water,” I have moaned many times to my husband. “Why do they eat so much dairy here? Why does the main street smell like fish and chips?” In short, I have been an annoying, petty resident of Ireland and, more importantly, an annoying partner.

This middle stage can last as long as you put your mind to it. I’ve certainly known folks who’ve moved to Nashville, fixated on the city’s flaws, and moved out without ever getting past the fatigue. But there is a third stage that we can achieve if we stay in one place long enough, or agree to have an open mind.

I call it “cultural equilibrium.” It’s the understanding that no place is perfect — not the one you came from or the one you’re in now. Every place, every culture, has aspects that resonate with you and those that don’t. The trick is to embrace the positives during your time-limited stay.

For me, I’ve been loving my morning walks to my office at the university each day. I take a path through the old campus, with buildings from the early 1800s and trees from the 1400s, and I sometimes stop for a coffee at a cute food truck parked outside. I have gotten used to drinking water at room temperature. I have even figured out that you can push back when people say, “Is that OK?” And in a couple weeks, we’ll leave this life we’ve built here, head back to Nashville, and probably start the whole process all over again.

3 thoughts on “Culture shock”

  1. This is absolutely hilarious Emily. So well written, as I of course expected it would be, and so true to the evolution of experience when planting oneself somewhere unknown. Masterfully articulated.

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