Gradualist culture shock

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Wed, 8 May 1996 08:42:13 +0900

There is so much in Clyde Davenport's post that resonates with my own
experience that I hardly know where to begin. Two points that stick out are
"Concerning language difficulties, I found that I was again put in the
position of being a very young child," and "culture malaise." For many
years now, I have been found of saying that one of the most informative
parts of doing anthropological fieldwork is being in a place where you know
less than the average two year old.Reflecting on that experience is, in
many ways, the very heart of ethnography. Then, too, when Ruth and I came
home from our first fieldwork, two years in Taiwan, we, too, said that
while we hadn't been bothered by culture "shock" we did feel a lot of
culture "fatigue." Preparation for fieldwork had made many things in Taiwan
interpretable--Oh, there's what Margery Wolf (or Myron Cohen, or Don
DeGlopper) was talking about--while also blunting the sharp edge of newness
in the things we saw. When, at the end of the trip, we were ready to go
home, it was the daily grind of always being not quite in synch, having to
be constantly conscious instead of unthinkingly fluent in how we responded
to things.Our "fatigue" reflected the tiredness we felt.

Coming to Japan was, then, relatively easy. It was our second experience
living in Asia. We were used to environments saturated with Chinese
characters and came with a good start on Japanese (Ruth was a graduate
student in Japanese literature; I had two summers at the Middlebury Summer
Language School under my belt.) In some ways we found Japanese easier to
live with than our Chinese neighbors in Taiwan. Being ignored until we
introduced ourselves made it easier to create private spaces in our lives.
Chinese society, at least in Taiwan in the '60s and '70s, was something
like a never-ending Rotary Club convention, with everyone madly networking
and playing dominance games: "You're 25, I'm 26," "You paid what? I got it
for..." "Do you know [enter name of famous person]?" Fun in it's way, but

John McCreery
May 8, 1996

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo