Category Archives: Culture shock

Baby, I’m a White girl…

I struggled with race when we first moved back to the States from Papua New Guinea. I naively didn’t think it was so much a Black/White thing (although it certainly was), as the fact that I kept expecting African-Americans to be culturally the same as my dark-skinned friends from New Guinea.  I was constantly imposing a set of expectations and social ‘rules’ on African-Americans which simply weren’t theirs to keep.  It caused frequent ruptures and misunderstandings. My particular form of latent racism came with a certain brand of colonialism (borne from life as a White missionary child in a Black country).

I was gifted my freshman year of college by finding myself living on a floor in the dormitory which was predominantly African-American. My cultural expectations were quickly exposed, and quickly addressed.  Those girls would not tolerate my racism.  And I’m better for it.

Virlinda (also known as ‘Vi’ (pronounced VEE)) was all over my case. Any time I said something which exposed my privilege, she’d not let me linger in oblivion, but would interrupt, getting up in my face and demand, “Say ‘Baby, I’m a White girl.'”  At first I’d just stand there, staring dumbly.  She would get more animated and more obnoxious. “Say ‘Baby, I’m a White girl.'”  The line got repeated ad nauseum until I would finally give in and repeat aloud “Baby, I’m a White girl.”  Then she’d grin real big and continue on with whatever we were doing.

It came so frequently I began to dream it: “Say ‘Baby, I’m a White girl.'”

It became my mantra for the year: “Baby, I’m a White girl.” Virlinda wouldn’t let me lose site of the privilege I brought to each and every discussion, each and every interaction, each and every transaction.  For a period of time I hated her.  Then I loved her.

What an education! Thank you, Vi.

Baby, I’m a White girl.

A group of us from the dorm at a college football game.  Virlinda is in the front row, on the left.

A group of us from the dorm at a college football game. Virlinda is in the front row, on the left.

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A recent cultural shock…

I have spent the last week in S. Florida on a business trip.  My whole Chicago office (five people) went to Ft. Lauderdale to meet with our team members there (15 people).  I have been aware in past meetings of the cultural gaps between these groups, so I made a point to note them as they occurred this week.  I have struggled trying to synthesize this material in order to present it in a some cohesive fashion.  But I realize that the cultural differences and resulting culture shock have left me mute.  I don’t know how to wrap my head around them, therefore I will simply list them here.

  1. No mention of Trayvon Martin.  In the week leading up to the closing arguments and verdict on the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, not one of the Florida residents discussed the case with us–even though the trial was showing 24/7  on the lobby monitors.  This case has been of particular interest over the past year with the Chicago group, and we’ve spent hours over lunches, breaks, etc. talking about racism, what constitutes justice, etc.  It has impacted our lives.  But even after the closing arguments were made, not a single word was mentioned of the case by any of my Florida colleagues.
  2. There is a bizarre combination of machismo and hyperfeminity in the S. Florida office.  The men’s interests were either ‘gay’ (focus on bodies, musicals, and trash talk gossip) or machismo (motorcycles, sea runners, muscles, etc.).  The women wore full make up, mini skirt suits raised up to there and cut down to there, and platform five inch heels: they hobbled awkwardly from meeting to meeting.  The Chicago group wanted to talk politics, reform, ecology, poverty, postcolonialism, consumerism,  philosophy, and religion.  The Chicago women wore slacks, flat shoes, minimal make up: and our feminist hackles were raised over women who hobbled themselves for fashion.
  3.  There was an utter lack of sensitivity to colonialist discourse.  Our boss was downplaying the possibility of any raises or additional perks this year, and said as a means of making her point:  “You know, the natives in third world countries are happy to get a t-shirt.  They don’t expect more than a t-shirt.  They get a t-shirt and think that’s pretty cool.  You need to think like those third world people.”  And later we listened to a presentation about ‘smart tribes’, creature/critter mentality, idea monkeys, and the need for dom/sub swapping (dominant/submissive swapping roles).  The entire Chicago team sat there with mouths agape.  One colleague from Columbia was jokingly referred to as ‘the Drug Lord’.  The Florida team laughed heartily: apparently this is an ongoing joke.
  4. TV: this ice breaker left me cold.  In one of the ice breaker exercises, we were asked to name what guilty pleasure TV show we watched.  The S. Florida team named various reality TV shows.  The Chicago team responded with confusion: “I don’t watch much besides the news and sports”; “I don’t own a TV”; “I have kids… I don’t have time for TV”; “I have a TV but I made my own rabbit ears and they don’t work very well…”; and “It has been years since I sat down and watched TV.”   To which one of our S. Florida colleagues replied, “If you don’t have TV, what do you watch?”  We were speechless. Finally one of the young women from the Chicago group said “I don’t watch anything. I do things–I go out, participate in community theater, I read.”
  5. Reading.  The comment about Chicagoans reading resulted in a certain form of defensiveness from the S. Florida group.  Our boss said “Folk here read. We have readers in our group. But then we go and watch the movie made about the book.”  And once again, the Chicago group just gaped.
  6. Guns.  For the evening entertainment, the S. Florida group discussed the possibility of going to a realistic police training firing range where you can load a video feed of the streets of your home town, and shoot at people. “It is SO cool!”  The Chicago team refused.
  7. Materialism. The focus on acquisition of goods was overwhelming. Waste was viewed as the ultimate luxury. Our boss bragged about having thrown a corporate party with a budget of half a million dollars. “We found this really cute candy store in Manhattan.  It was perfect. The CEO said “Make it happen” so we rented it for the event.  The owner was concerned about his goods, so the CEO just bought out the store to put the owner at ease.  Then we could eat all the candy we wanted.”   The Chicago group were once again nothing short of stunned at the opulence and waste, especially in light of the layoffs we’d been through and the intention with which we strive to not be consumers (wearing second hand clothes, recycling, reusing, etc.).

So I write all this to say that I’ve not experienced that kind of culture shock in a while.

But no… that’s not true.

I was down in Southern Illinois for the 4th of July and we attended the fireworks at the county airport.  We parked our little car on the grassy lot, and were quickly surrounded by large four-door over-sized pickup trucks: guys sitting in the back in lawn chairs, drinking beer, spitting tobacco, throwing fire crackers and smoke bombs off the tailgate, Toby Keith blaring offensive lyrics from ginormous speakers.  I felt in a foreign land.

And now I don’t know how to go on.   There is much disparity in these states we call ‘United”.

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Coffee hour…

My cab driver today was from Ethiopia. We got to chatting about coffee and the changing significance coffee has had since the inception of Starbucks, and the effects on some of the plantation owners in Ethiopia. He then launched into a discussion of the traditional role of coffee culturally in Ethiopia: how “your door is always open, and people stop by–and you serve coffee.” He described how coffee is a form of hospitality there–and a truly social event.

Then he told me this story: My sister wanted to visit from Ethiopia. I sent for her and when she arrived, she spoke no English. I had to work, so she had to spend time alone in the apartment. She got quite lonely and bored. One morning, she decided to make a pot of coffee. After having made it, she realized she felt funny drinking it alone–in fact, she felt she couldn’t drink it alone.

So she went door to door down the hallways looking for someone to share her coffee with her.

Those oblivious Chicagoans didn’t know how to interpret this strangely dressed black woman gesticulating at their door, speaking a foreign language. They phoned the police, who came and picked her up. They held her at the police station, until her brother came and claimed her. He had to explain the reason she was going door to door. Culturally, there was no translating this form of hospitality.


History lessons…

In graduate school l was bowled over with culture shock: quite unexpectedly as I’d been living in the states 13 years and thought all that was behind me. But I took a course called “Sex, Race, and Christianity” at the seminary at Northwestern. We read texts which focused on the ways in which sex and race have colluded in US history, and how Christianity has been used on occasion to perpetuate oppressions. The class was open for lots of personal discussion, and my culture shock occurred within the context of one of those types of discussions. We were sitting round the room in a circle, each of us sharing our own experiences of ‘race’. I mentioned having grown up in Papua New Guinea, and then I made the fatal mistake of mentioning ‘our house boy’. WOW. Did it hit the fan!

And that moment of heat, embarrassment, and subsequent discussion which lasted until well after midnight, opened my eyes to my own ignorance of American history (not having had even the high school American history/civics courses to draw upon). I had no idea how my language triggered rage on so many levels. I didn’t know that America had its own brand of apartheid: Jim Crow law. I was stunned.

Since then, I’ve made a concerted effort each Jan/Feb to read Black texts (in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. day and Black History Month). This year I’m rereading the autobiographies of MLK, and of Pauli Murray (activist, feminist, lawyer, priest, and poet). Some amazing history and amazing people of faith!

Paper or plastic?

Few times stand out as clearer to me as a prime example of culture shock, than when I was for the first time ‘on my own’ at a grocery store in the US. I’d been overwhelmed not simply by the vast quantities of food and merchandise available, but by the variety from which to choose.  A simple task like selecting toothpaste became a half hour, painstaking decision.

When I finally gathered my list of goods together, I was exhausted and overstimulated. I arrived at the check out counter to be greeted by a friendly smile, but accousted by a persistent question: “Paper or plastic?” Befuddled I stared blankly back at the inquirer.  “Paper or plastic?” he repeated. I blinked. “Paper or plastic?” His tone had shifted from friendly to ‘annoyed’. Scrambling to find an adequate response to his insistent query, I finally blurted out “Is cash OK?”

Life uncustomized…

Upon leaving New Guinea for furlough, it became clear that neither of us kids were ready for re-entry into the full-swing, 80’s, North American, upwardly mobile, yuppy experience. The materialism we encountered was striking: we knew nothing of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, Guess watches, Izod shirts, or Polo cologne.  In fact, neither of us were certain of our shoe or clothing size.  In general, we’d spent the previous years sorting through what was available for what might fit, not for what we preferred–whether in used clothing boxes or at the local merchant in the city.  On our way back to the U.S. on furlough, we had a layover in Brisbane, Australia, and spent some time getting acclimated to western stores, crossing streets, ordering food, etc.  I recall walking in a department store and going up to a clerk and saying “I think I wear a size 10.”  She just stood there looking at me dumbly.  I repeated myself.  She then asked what it was I would like to see.  “Whatever you have in my size, please.”  She laughed and said, “But honey, we have everything in your size.”  I was overwhelmed.

I remember one of the few times we had to special order a customized item (at least as a kid, this is how I thought of it).  We’d each had complete physicals prior to leaving the United States, and had received the requisite vaccinations and medications for our protection against tropical communicable diseases.  The shots were not fun, but as it turned out, the anti-malarial medicine was much worse.  Chloroquine tablets had to be consumed weekly in order for a beneficial level to build up in the bloodstream.  One might not imagine that swallowing a small pill each Sunday was a big deal, but it was incredibly bitter and rarely could one of us get it down without gagging uncontrollably. Worse yet was the fact that this bitterness took days to leave; everything consumed for the following half week was tainted with the odor and taste of chloroquine. To add insult to injury, the chloroquine didn’t prevent us from getting malaria.  It only supposedly made our frequent bouts with the disease less life-threatening.

Along with the nasty taste were some extraordinary side effects: scar tissue turned a deep purple color (making any disfigurations all the more noticable), and our vision gradually became impaired.  Within six months of our physicals and beginning the chloroquine, we went from having 20/20 vision to needed glasses.  Like most kids who aren’t aware they need glasses, I didn’t know what was happening to me.  All I knew is that whereas I’d been in the ‘gifted’ classes in the United States, suddenly I was stupid.  I sat in my fourth grade class unable to read the chalk board (actually, unable to even tell there was writing on the chalk board).  I covered for my visual impairment poorly, without consciously being aware that I was doing it, until one day the teacher asked me to read something she’d written on the board.  I sat there dumb.  She thought I was being impertinent and demanded I read it.  I told her I couldn’t.  In what seemed to be a typical British form of pedagogy, she began openly mocking me in the classroom.  When I told her I couldn’t even see what was on the board, she whipped my desk up to the front of the room, and had me sit there with my desk flush up against the blackboard, asking me to read at her convenience.  I was humiliated!

Mom and dad took both of us kids to the eye doctor and were immediately surprised to find out that we’d both had severe visual changes over the last 6 months.  It became clear that not only did we need glasses, mom and dad’s prescriptions had also changed.  And while we were able to secure a prescription for glasses there in the capital city, there was no optometrist shop to actually procure the lenses and frames.  With such a large sudden expense (all four of us requiring glasses immediately), it was clear we couldn’t all fly to Brisbane to see the eye doctor.  It was determined that dad would go and choose glasses for each of us (including mom).  My poor father recalls a very stressful afternoon with an Australian store clerk as she tried on various frames and he tried to imagine what each of us might look like in them. I ended up as a 10 year old with an adult-size set of frames. Needless to say, the results were less than desirable.

Me playing the guitar at 10 years old... with my giant glasses.

Me playing the guitar at 10 years old… with my giant glasses.

On modesty observed…

My first day of high school in the United States while we were on furlough was to a very large suburban high school (of approximately 4000 students). I was fresh in the country from the ‘bush’ and was, to say the very least, nervous. My brother and I were ushered to the guidance counselor’s office, who reviewed our transcripts and poured over scheduling possibilities. Once classes were finally selected, we were given maps of the school and set off into the hallway. It happened that my first class was P.E. (physical education).

The maps we were given were confusing, and my brother was anxious to be rid of his little sister.  He fled down one hall as quickly as he could lest I embarrass him with a strange question asked (or worse, a question strangely asked).  He was no help. I stood there and looked at my schedule and saw that the time was right and my first class was to be held in the Gym-SW.  I stared at the map, noting there were 3 gyms in the building. I searched for the gym on the southwest corner.  No such place existed. I opted to go with the gym that fit that description in closest proximity.  Alas! it was not the gym. A kind teacher pointed me in the right direction.

I wondered around somewhat lost still, until I located the gym I was supposed to be in: turns out SW stood for ‘swimming’ and my schedule had me at the pool first thing.  I was confused because the map depicted a two-story building (something I wasn’t accustomed to accounting for)–and was thus VERY late.

Upon arrival at the pool, I reported in to the teacher who stepped back, sized me up, and threw a swimsuit in my direction. “Go get changed,” she briskly told me. “The other kids are already at the pool.  Meet us there.” I wondered into the cold grey cavernous locker room, found an empty locker, and began to undress.  The swim suit she’d given me seemed the right size, but I was feeling cautious.  I stood and looked at myself in the full length mirror.  I was aghast. The suit was quite immodest-far more than anything I’d ever been allowed to wear in the past (more so than anything I’d choose to wear).

I took a deep breath, steeled myself, squared my shoulders and reminded myself that everyone else would be wearing the exact same uniform.  There was no need for me to feel embarrassed because everyone would be dressed this way.  I talked myself into going out to the pool, and to do so with my head held high.

I walked out of the locker room and to the pool in utter silence.  Everyone was sitting on the bleachers at poolside, apparently waiting to be introduced to the new kid, the foreigner, the missionary kid. I was familiar with this sort of attention. I quietly took my seat next to a young woman I recognized from church.  She glanced at me sideways and said, “Nice tan lines.”  I smiled.

The teacher read the rules of the pool to the class, then invited everyone to get in.  “Everyone except Donna, that is.  Donna, would you please come here?” She whispered in my ear, “You have your swimsuit on backwards. Go fix it and come back to the pool.”

Welcome to high school in the United States!