One of my favorite pomo expressions is: de-centering the self. It's one I've spent a lot of time contemplating. Most of us live in our own bubbles of comfort, culture and "correct" thinking. We interpret the world through the lens given to us by our parents, our race, our socio-economic backgrounds, our Englishes, our educations, our faith traditions (or lack of them), our gender, our topo-geographic localities, our relationships, our pains, our abuses, our joys... all of these wrapped together create us, shape how we understand the world and each other. As we become competent in our worlds, we gain speed at navigating the requirements (passing tests, earning degrees, getting jobs, managing money, initiating relationships, respecting the tax laws, obeying the rules of the road, shopping, dressing up and down and when, showing respect and disrespect including knowing when and how to do each, having sex, managing the level of technology your world affords and/or requires... and so on).
One of the reasons going to a foreign country is so often recommended as an "expanding" experience is that in deliberately leaving behind what we know, we are suddenly de-centered. The way we know the world is no longer "normative" but in many cases, an impediment to successful living. For instance, my history degree didn't help me bake bread or wash my clothes by hand in Morocco. I was seen as a flawed married woman without the necessary skills, not as a highly educated "prepared for adult life" individual.
What I took for granted (knowing the price of postage, counting change, finding a store open at hours you expect, locating the bus line, weighing vegetables, lighting a stove, hooking up a telephone, daylight hours, flavors, words, etiquette, smells, the shapes of buildings, toilet flushes) suddenly cost me energy. All day long I was bombarded by ineptitude... my own.
It's not uncommon to need naps when you move to a new country. It's also perfectly normal to develop irrational fears and judgments: What if I get lost downtown? How will I find the right bus? Why does that man look me in the eye? Didn't she just snub me? Why do they do it like *that* when it would be so much easier to do it like *this*?
The advice to people who face culture shock (or culture stress, as it is more commonly called now) is to let go of the old expectations. The quicker someone immerses self into this new reality, the faster she becomes happy. The more language a person has, the more fluency in all aspects of foreign living. Over time, the expatriate not only learns that there are other ways to successfully live on the planet, in some cases, the new ways become prized as more valuable than the formerly most comfortable ways.
What is really remarkable about living abroad is that you have no option but to recognize that your way is not the only way. Hearing about a foreign way of life is no approximation for how it actually feels to live it. When your senses are overwhelmed, you are obligated to either have a breakdown or figure it out. You must yield to the reality that there are multiple ways to live that give people the things we all crave: love, belonging and competence.
Last night, Jon and I attended a lecture given by Dr. Michael Dyson. We've heard him before. He's what is known as a "public intellectual, teacher and cultural critic." Dyson speaks from his personal space of being black, of interpreting and representing what are black issues today and he does so in an almost Robin Williams-esque style (freely flying between ebonics, black speak, white speak, intellectual-ese and rap).
We arrived at Xavier about five minutes before the start of the lecture. The hall was already filled with audience members... virtually all black. It hit me. I'm used to Xavier being white with a smattering of other ethnicities. Yet last night, Jon and I found two seats smooshed in the middle of the hall surrounded by blacks. I was not troubled. I was aware. This must be how it feels all the time in the suburbs for blacks. When a black family joins our homeschooling co-op, they know that their kids' friends will all be white, that they will be the only blacks in the room much of the time.
Last night, I felt it. Not just that I was white-skinned, but culturally white. When Dyson would talk about the way their "mammas and daddies" raised them, he talked about teaching kids that they have to rise up and overcome obstacles. He talked about two languages: the ebonics of the home and the standard English of the outside world. He quoted Marvin Gaye and the Temptations and found the audience finishing his sentences. He rapped like Jay-Z and the college kids rapped with him. Jon and I laughed our heads off with the crowd, but we were not a part of it. We had entered that other world where the assumptions I have mean little to the gathered.
It was a lot like visiting a foreign country.... only different in one important way. When I go abroad, I'm deliberately choosing to place myself in the mode of "learner." I know I will not "know" how to be, do, talk, live. I choose to be open to learning. When I'm in my country, I don't want that experience thrust on me. I expect to feel competent, at ease. Last night, I was reminded again of how important it is to deliberately seek to be out of my comfort zone, to listen to the points of view of those who even see me as a threat, an enemy or an impediment to their competence and success in the larger culture. In other words, I realized that for blacks, they spend a lot more energy than I do accommodating the largely white culture I come from... every day. I dipped into it for about three hours one night.
I don't know how else we ever get to that place where we know and honor each other's experiences unless we de-center the self regularly: like jogging, like eating right, like holding back bad words, like de-cluttering the house, like taking medicine or vitamins. Self-discipline to give up my right to be comfortable and right.