culture shock

Robert Thornton (031RTHOR@MUSE.ARTS.WITS.AC.ZA)
Fri, 10 May 1996 16:22:21 -0400

Sadly, I have never experience 'culture shock', Tofler-istically or
otherwise. I am not sure what it is since I have, I think, always
found all cultures rather shocking, and have felt alien in all of
them to more or less equal degree. In other words, because I am very
near sighted, and have no depth
perception, I experienced the
culture of sport in AMerican primary schools deeply shocking,
especially games like dodgem and kick-ball since I could rarely tell
where the ball was until it hit me in the face. It has always seemed
to me that this was a form of culture shock, but in the terms that it
has been discussed here, it is probably not.

I have had little time lately to participate in the list, I
have enjoyed reading about other people's experiences that they call
'culture shock'. Before I hit the road for home, some observations
and reminiscence.
My family moved to Delhi, India, when I was 12. My parents simply
enrolled me and my brother in an Indian school where we were the only
non-Indians with a few exceptions (a Cambodian, a Nepali, and so on).
They did this without fuss. Although in retrospect they could have
enrolled us in the American school (my father was a staffer at the
Fulbright foundation office in Delhi), they did not. In our St.
Xavier's school uniform, and with our Indian friends, we were treated
as Indians in all contexts. After surviving disentery, I more or less
thought of myself as like them. Had we stayed in India, I would have
discovered eventually that there were boundaries, and that I was in
some way not Indian, perhaps, but I did not.
We returned to the US for awhile, and the family later moved to
Uganda. Again, I do not recall any 'shock'.
I think that it must be true that many people, perhaps most, do
indeed experience shock in other countries and other cultures. But
why? What is the condition under which people could and do feel
'shock' in these circumstances??
I think an answer to this question would tell us more about 'culture
shock' than any number of anecdotes and instances of it, which is
mostly what we learn about when people talk of culture shock.
Are there some deeper, biologically/psychological condditons or
correlates? It has seemed to me that it might be worth thinking about
some of the non-linguistic, non-congnitive experiences of
1) smell: do some people react more strongly (positively or
netgatively) to different spices, cuisines, body odors, smells of
environments (dung, earth, reeds, pine-wood, brick?). Is there an
odour of culture? or cultural odours, in other words (it seems to me
that there are).
2)space: Do some people respondd to physical closeness differently
than others? It is clear that differnt cultures priviledge different
proximities, so that, no doubt, some people with different 'natural'
personal space requirements have to fit in or feel estranged, and
strangers definitely do. (I have noticed that I personally have
almost no mandatory body-space and so fit in quite naturally with
African cultures which is one reason that I live in Africa, perhaps?)
3) sound: there are different preferences for tone, timble and
aspiration in different langauges and these 'sound funny' to people
who are not used to them. Also, different musics or different
rhythms of life, either of speech, daily routine, or seasons, must
have a subtle disorienting effect much as jet-lag does. (Indonesian
music makes be nervous as a cat, but African music which is equally
percussive but tonally and rhythmically different is what I like.)

All of these are not cognised, and largely unconscious, and the 'feel'
of the 'pattern' is experience non-linquistically, or at least not
easily coded as words. With the exception of music, they are not
easily coded as culture. When I remember my India teenage years I
think, wordlessly, of the smells, the spaces and the sounds, not the
languages, the acts, the events, the mistakes and efforts to 'learn'
as a child or an adult. Of course, I was neither child nor adult, so
that might queer the comparison somewhat

Sorry about not getting back to you all on the power thread. I had
other things that had to be done, and the list is optional (I keep
telling myself).
===========Robert Thornton, Department of Social Anthropology======
University of the Witwatersrand, PO Wits, 2050 Johannesburg
South Africa
Office tel. : (011) 716-2900
Secretary, fax and answering machine: (011) 716-2766
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