When international students first get to Egypt, there is a required seminar on culture shock. We all walk in, super excited to be there, and the counselor comes out and says:
“How many of you brought your cameras with you today?”
About 3/4 of the room raises their hands, grinning.
“You are in stage 1 of culture shock, where everything is new and special.”
Of course, none of us wants to hear this, so our smiles falter a little as we settle in to listen.
“You brought your cameras with you, to a lecture. Don’t get me wrong, you’re more than welcome to! But in about a month you’re going to look back at this moment and laugh.”
In retrospect, that whole conversation was pretty funny, but at the time many didn’t understand just what she meant.
I think culture shock is one of those things you don’t recognize until you hit a low point. You’ll be extremely sick from the native food, or trying fruitlessly to navigate the post office system, and instead of the normal strength you have to just keep at it, the only thing you want to do is sit down with your head in your hands and rest.
The problem with Egypt is that the language makes everything more sticky. Take the electronics store for instance. I mean, it would be hard for me to buy the right kind of transformer in the Unites States, but trying to describe it in Arabic about took it out of me! In the end, although I am well aware of voltage regulations from living abroad before, I mistranslated the box and blew up my hairdryer.
This is the kind of mistake you see in movies. Needless to say, I was incredibly embarrassed. Thank god Egypt still has chocolate ice cream to console me.
The important part is that from this, I made about five different friends in the ‘mom and pop’ electronics store down the street. I lost a hairdryer, but I gained a friendly wave and a smile every time I walk to pick up groceries in the morning.
This experience pretty much encompasses culture shock. The feeling of determination, need, lack of need met, disappointment, anger, consolation, acceptance, and then positivity again.
Its like riding a subway for the first time. You descend the stairs and look at the map, totally confused and bewildered. You wonder how anyone could possibly navigate this sad excuse for a NY map, and stare at it trying to figure out where you’re going. The first couple weeks you get hopelessly lost, but people help you out, and in the end you feel empowered, because you have learned the system and can work it to get what you want.
The enamored feeling wares off, but so does the depression and homesickness, and in the end you’re left with a beautiful opportunity in what you’ve discovered to be a beautiful country.
I’m thankful to be here, and in moments of trial and error, I’m thankful to even have the opportunity to try.