Culture shock is something I heard about all the time in the International House at my university. I saw it first hand in my friends who were very far away from home. Prior to leaving the states for the semester my friends and family who’d studied abroad continuously warned me about how it would feel to be away from home. At the time I was convinced I wouldn’t be shaken by a life abroad. My school is a short two hour ride from home, but in the past year and a half I spent little of my time in my suburban Tinley Park.
When everyone asked me if I was afraid if I would get homesick, I always answered NO WAY. For most of the year I could be found in Central Illinois attending school, working a part time job, or practicing with the Gamma Phi Circus. I rarely left my campus except on a few visits to see my sisters at their university another hour and a half east or to return home for big holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving. Even though Central Illinois is just a few hours ride from the Chicago suburbs, it’s a whole new world. On my first trips down to school I learned to accept that I would no longer be surrounded by houses and forests as I am at home, but by vast seas of soy and corn. I was living away from home already I didn’t feel homesick then, how could Taiwan be any different? I asked myself as my departure date neared closer and closer. I knew getting away was exactly what I needed.
When I arrived in Taiwan I only felt a little homesick after scary experiences like watching stray mangy dogs wander the streets and almost being smashed by scooters. I got little jolts of homesickness once in a blue moon. My first month here was spent exploring Taiwan. I climbed mountains, visited temples, and even bargained in the most famous street markets in the country. I didn’t even have to start classes for a few weeks; it seemed I had all the time in the world. All my friends back home were jealous, and the new ones I made here just had more to show me. I was so happy I had the opportunity to see exactly why my friends and advisers were raving about Taiwan! Then things started to change. I realized my Mandarin wasn’t as good as I thought. I started to feel isolated from the people around me. It gets harder and harder every day not to miss simple things like the way people greet each other. It seems that nowadays even certain smells and sounds can make me feel homesick.
Today I walked down the street on my way home from class. It was a normal Taipei day. The sun was not shining and there was a steady drizzle of rain dancing across the top of my umbrella. I waited with a small crowd of other university students at a crosswalk, and then made my way towards a restaurant to grab a bite to eat. On my way something caught my eye, something I had never seen before. There was a stage built over night in the middle of a street next to my favorite dumpling shop. The stage faced a small temple that I had forgotten existed because it was surrounded by stinky tofu stands. On this stage danced a woman. Clad in what I would later find out to be traditional Taiwanese gowns. Her singing wasn’t anything I had heard before. It was more nasal sounds than anything. In addition I couldn’t understand anything because she not only sang through her nose, but also in a high pitch I didn’t know was humanly possible. My Taiwanese friend explained that she was worshiping the god of the temple by performing. That was why the stage faced the temple and not the street. The entire performance was all for a god. Even more he revealed that she was not singing in Mandarin at all, but in Taiwanese which has eight tones. Running into these types of instances reminds me what a different place I decided to travel. I am a little ashamed to say that I found the performance eerie – a reminder that I was not at home, but in a foreign culture where I did not understand the customs. I left the dumpling shop without my usual box of fried dumplings.
When I finally got home, I sat on my bed and thought to myself what did I get myself into? All I want is to stuff my face with a good Chicago style pizza, some Chipotle burritos, and some good hearty bread and cheese while not listening to music that I can feel ringing inside my skull more than hear with my ears. But I can wait. I’m content to ride out this phase of the culture shock roller coaster. Only tomorrow knows where I will find myself.
*Note: this graph on Culture-Shock shows the stages that many of our study abroad participants experience. It seems like Brett is going through stages 2 and 3 (when differences become irritating and homesickness occurs). However, most students quickly recover from these phases, and Brett knows that tomorrow he will most likely find himself in another stage of the “culture shock roller coaster.”