Whether you had a tumultuous upbringing or a serene one (as if those exist), I’m sure you’ve experienced culture shock. It comes in many forms: meeting your boyfriend’s family, being conned into attending a wedding, visiting an unfamiliar church, or realizing that your mom’s vibrator probably wasn’t for massaging her feet. We call it a shock because it’s not pleasant. However, being exposed to other people and cultures is essential to developing into an actual human, instead of a hateful drone. I was raised in a sheltered environment. Bless my mother, she really tried to give me a broad education. Travel was one of her primary tools. Mark Twain said that, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
My mother once combined a family vacation with a business trip to France. For the first leg of our trip, we stayed at the home of a distributor in the south of France. It was a beautiful Mediterranean home situated on a hillside with a large olive orchard. He and his family were incredibly hospitable hosts, but I was in for an experience! For our first meal, he asked if we would like pizza. “That sounds great,” I said. What hungry teenager wouldn’t love a little comfort food after a 16 hour flight? I expected Domino’s to deliver a steaming hot cure for my jetlag. Not so. After extensive labor by his aged mother (who was living with him), an odor began wafting from the kitchen onto the patio where we eagerly waited, enjoying views of the nearby olive trees. The crusts set before us were topped with some form of regurgitation. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t eat what this dear woman had lovingly prepared. She seemed confused that there was so much food left on the table. After discussing it with my mother in private, I learned that it was the anchovies that repelled me.
Fortunately, breakfast was a provincial meal fit for a king (or the spoiled brat that I was). I never knew that bread, cheese, and charcuterie could taste that good. The loaves were little clouds captured within flaky crusts of celestial origin. The cheese? Did I mention the cheese? I avoided the stuff that smelled like anchovies and feasted on fromage that still haunts my dreams. Then we were off for a day at the sea. Our host warned us to avoid a certain section of the beach. So where did I saunter off to as soon as I could sneak away? That’s right. I assumed that nudity prompted his warning. I had heard of nude beaches and I imagined goddesses with perky breasts covered in tanning oil. Let’s just say that I returned to escape the shock of reality. We ate dinner at a lovely resort where our generous host ordered a surf ‘n’ turf platter. It was plentifully covered with organisms that I didn’t know to be edible. I had a small taste of the rabbit, but I avoided the octopus and everything else except the shrimp.
The second leg of our trip transpired in Paris where several European distributors were meeting for product training. Here, the real shock set in. The condescending attitude of Parisians was a shock, but the food was unbearable. I couldn’t even get a glass of regular water, it was sparkling mineral water everywhere. Finally, after enduring days of hunger and thirst, I ordered the only thing on the menu that I recognized as food fit for humans, a ham sandwich. The plate that came out looked like it had been accidentally left out in the sun for weeks where ants and other scavenging insects had removed all but a salty rind and a dense crust. Therefore, when we visited a quaint cafe with seating on the street, I refused to go in. I begged Mother to take us to a Burger King, instead. I broke. No, I shattered. We were shouting at each other in the street. I told her that I refused to eat French food one more time. She held her ground like a queen and told me that I could remain hungry in the street, if I liked, but we would not be eating American food in Paris. After perhaps twenty minutes of stewing on hunger and fatigue, I reluctantly went in and, once again, ordered the only thing I recognized as food, steak au poivre. It was the most incredible thing that had theretofore crossed my lips. I learned a powerful lesson that day. My burger would have prevented me experiencing a culinary masterpiece. No wonder Parisians treated me with such disdain.
Culture shock doesn’t always have to be traumatic. I grew up in a desert, so seeing the green highways of California and Oregon was a shock. Being from Utah, a haircut in Vegas by a beautiful woman who also served me beer was a pleasant shock. Strolling through the Danube Park in Vienna while thousands of Turkish immigrant families BBQ’d with aromatic herbs that filled the atmosphere shockingly contrasted with my experience of isolated backyard BBQs. Nevertheless, the best culture shocks take you so far out of your comfort zone that your life is suddenly and everlastingly enlarged. As Emerson said, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.”
My French experience taught me to seek out culture shock. After leaving Tokyo for a day excursion to the beach, I noticed that the city-bound trains on the opposite platforms were so crowded that station attendants were shoving commuters into the railcars so that the doors could close. I promptly exited my train and rode back toward the city so that I could experience that. I categorically refuse to eat in chain restaurants and I love sparkling mineral water. Sometimes I even order anchovies and octopus. I wish that I could go back and tell that boy to eat the pizza in the olive grove, but I can’t. I can only live forward and ensure that I never treat a host like that again. To everyone who has helped me grow, I’d like to say, “I’m sorry and thank-you…from the bottom of my heart.”
“Those who visit foreign nations, but associate only with their own countrymen, change their climate, but not their customs. They see new meridians, but the same men; and with heads as empty as their pockets, return home with travelled bodies, but untravelled minds.” – Caleb Colton
Photo by Tomás Fano (here).