On Culture Shocks

I wrote this post a few days after returning from Peru, so not all of the sensations and impressions it registers are current. It is ironic that I programmed it almost two weeks ago to come up the week of Hurricane Gustav. Soon we will be in a position to compare not only traffic jams but also devastation and general Third World conditions.

This news video gives an idea of part of what I mean about the destruction of Lima and the ecological disaster that is Peru. I, meanwhile, dream of airports and the interior of city buses when I sleep, see ghostly images of Lima traffic when I drive, and in general, seem to believe the United States is a stage set. It looks very like itself, and everyone seems very American, so much so that I find myself thinking, “What brilliant scenography! What good actors! What a good director! How well the writer knows the country! What genius, to have chosen to represent exactly those details which will most enhance the effect of realism!”

I am getting used to being here, though. I can tell because it no longer seems as opulent as it did when I first arrived. I am shocked at the high prices of basic foods, but this is in comparison to the prices they had here in May, before I left, not in comparison to their prices in Peru. I only react like a Peruvian when I see how much lower the prices are on some luxury items, like the mid range cosmetics you can get here in supermarkets (e.g. Almay and Revlon products – which in Peru, along with Maybelline, are sold at high prices in exclusive department stores).

I am hungry all the time. We do not eat dinner in Peru so I am out of the habit of it, but lunch is smaller in the United States. I crave fruit, vegetables, and fish in the middle of the afternoon. I go out on the prowl looking for them because I can tell that if I do not, I will lose too much weight. I crave sopa de mote and I have just realized I can go to the Mexican store to eat pozole. I might go as soon as I finish writing this post. I crave sopa criolla and I will have to make it. I crave dark bread, eggs, spinach, and ham, and I have bought these items in large quantities. I have all this excess energy I am not sure what to do with – since life is so easy materially when you do not have to wade through a large Third World city to go about daily activities, I juice up mentally to go and do routine errands only to discover it was not necessary.

I went to this diner here in town because it is cheap and I knew I was going to eat two of everything. (I really did order and consume the same meal twice in a row – vegetable salad with tuna and orange juice – and I seriously considered going on to a Thai restaurant for dessert, which would have consisted of two orders of spring rolls, one vegetarian and one with shrimp. I may do that tomorrow.)

In the diner, all the other customers were working men. Some were white and some were Black, but all were speaking English – slowly, because this is a Southern town – and none were Asian or Native American. Nobody had straight black hair and I found this very strange. (I remember having this reaction as well when I moved to Louisiana from California. Initially I did not understand why I had this nagging feeling that SOMEONE WAS MISSING. I figured it out when I dreamed one night that all the Mexicans and Asians in Los Angeles had been kidnapped and sequestered in the Foreign Student Center at UCLA.)

And all the cars in the diner parking lot but mine were large pickup trucks. This last detail was odd because I live in flat country. In Peru those pickup trucks are very normal in mining areas, but on the flat I expect there to be cars. I further expect at least some of the cars to be Ladas. I think I must have acculturated myself to Peru at very deep levels if I am still having these kinds of reactions.

But we must return to shocking images of devastation. One of the most direct ways to my house from downtown Lima is the AVENIDA MEXICO, in the now slum LA VICTORIA which I have always avoided as much as possible. The first time a taxi drove me through there was during the day and it was bad enough. Then I went through that area at night and saw what I could tell would soon be scenes like this:

This experience motivated me very strongly to pretend I needed to learn to drive in Lima, so that I would be able to clearly dictate alternate routes (e.g. the via expresa, even if it is going to be bumper to bumper all the way).


5 thoughts on “On Culture Shocks

  1. I remember the culture shock I got when I returned to Australia after 6 weeks in Zimbabwe. It was very strange, that — and even now I feel as if the company of certain Zimbabweans is capable of causing me to revert to a rather conservative mindset.

    But, I’d just come back from Zimbabwe in the heat of summer, which is even hotter in Perth than it is in Harare. I took myself off to Swanbourne nude beach, as was my habit during those years.

    And there was this little elf of a guy talking with some other hard-skined nudists about how he always carried a box of tampons around incase some lady happens to require these.

    It really struck me, like “Wow! You’re crossing the gender divide there, buddy.”

    And now, once again, since I am in the company of old school friends, I suddenly have a rather acute inroad into the conservative mentality that was really spectacularly oblique to me before recently. The grooves formed by their thinking, the inevitability that their thoughts follow certain trajectories, this all becomes apparent to me. (So much so that I wonder if I am becoming conservative.)

  2. This is interesting, especially the part about more energy. Does it seem strange to hear English all the time instead of other languages?

  3. J – conservative, or just traditional in a certain way?

    Undine – on English, strangely no, because it’s not out of place here, and also because English is a global language so it’s not *really* out of place anywhere.

    I say not out of place, but I mean not out of place as a language … accents and content can be out of place. One of the most jarring things to me in P. was hearing American tourists speak English and being so American and so touristy.

    Others didn’t mind but to me it seemed really loud since I understand so easily, I couldn’t screen it out or treat it as background noise.

  4. Conservative. But it is only a temporary hypnosis. It’s like I can suddenly experience the whole reflexive descent into viewing the world in terms of “common sense”. It is as if part of my brain had shut down. But I think I can explain it in this way: For a very, very long time (see the latest entry on my blog), I’m had to think very deeply and strategically about how to survive in situations that were proving to be increasingly hostile to me. The ability to think in an abstract but complex way was crucial to my survival. So I developed this faculty of mind to a very high degree.

    But, more recently I have encountered my old primary school friends from Africa, who, in their ignorance and sweetness, appear to love me unconditionally, no matter which of my intellectual ideas I suddenly expose them to. (The worst that happens is that they go quiet for days on end.)

    So suddenly my need to have a brain has been short-circuited by the unconditional sweetness. I experience the possibility that life is possible without struggling hard, and without having a brain. From this position of feeling hypnotised by the possibility of surviving by doing nothing, I have an inroad into understanding the female conservative mindset.

  5. J – Ah yes – I see the phenomenon, I do believe!

    U – on the languages – also, I used to find Lima seamlessly familiar with “home” because it is “Hispanic” (whatever that is) plus Chinese. When I moved to Louisiana I thought it was really, really strange to hear only English. Now I am used to that but when I get to S.F. and hear Spanish and Cantonese floating around me, I relax and realize I still do not feel quite “at home” without these sounds.

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