Anyone who’s ever been abroad or studied culture has probably been told about “the culture shock roller coaster.” Someone explains it during an orientation or training and you sort of pay attention. You are way too excited about your upcoming adventure to take it seriously and you think that even if you experience “culture shock” it won’t be that bad. After all, you’ve jumped through the bureaucratic hoops, your bags are basically packed, maybe you’ve even made it to your destination, you can absolutely handle anything that country X decides to throw your way…farm animals and town fiestas? How charming! Then it starts to creep up on you. You’ve been in country X for a few months and the novelty of buying fruit on the bus and people showing up 30 minutes late for a meeting/class wears off. (Hint: country X=Ecuador:) You start to get angry at the little things you once thought were hilarious. You blame the local people for all the faults you see based on the filter of your own culture. Its a vicious cycle, a downward spiral, that’s hard to come out of. Culture shock is a real thing folks.
For all you visual people or anyone who has no idea what I’m talking about, here’s an illustration I found online.
I was there the last few weeks. The bottom of the bottom, the lowest dip in the roller coaster to date. (According to the handy graphic above, my feelings were right on. If you count 7-8 months in, I would be at Aug-Sept in the picture.) Throughout the past few weeks, I’ve kept trying to get back up the hill but then something would happen to knock me back down again. Every day is a mini roller coaster, I go from feeling excited and inspired to questioning my existence here…all in the same day. It is exhausting.
Sure people understand me, although sometimes I wonder when I open my mouth in Spanish, but no one gets me. No one gets my point of view. No one gets the purpose of me being here, or they think my purpose is different than what I think it is. No one gets why I like to walk by myself. No one gets why I take my work so seriously. All these irrational thoughts and about a million others were running through my head. One of the hardest things for me here is the mental isolation. I’m only 30 minutes from the nearest volunteers and we share excitement, frustration, and just about everything else but I still have lots of time inside my own head. Its been really hard for me to keep perspective and think about the bigger picture; its like a mental vacuum. I knew I was down but I couldn’t figure out how to get back up…something had to give.
So I thought back to all the times we talked about culture during our 3 months of training. We talked about it A LOT and rightfully so. Three months is not enough time to understand any place but I feel like they gave us the tools to deal with the culture at the very least. One of the things I remembered the most were going over culture continuums. I’m the first volunteer in my site and I would venture to say the first non-Ecuadorian my counterparts have worked with. Through no fault of their own, I feel like maybe they weren’t even aware that I might think about something differently. So in the hopes of helping them understand my point of view, I made the continuums into an English lesson. I explained that my job here is to understand their point of view as much as possible and to help them understand mine; my goal is not to change their views but to facilitate mutual understanding. I had them write a “Cultural Guide for Americans in Ecuador,” I definitely learned a lot and hopefully they did as well. By far, one of the best things I’ve done for my mental state here.
Stay tuned for more.