Culture Shock

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I am laying in bed – no, stuck, I am stuck in bed. It is 2:00 in the afternoon, and I still haven’t left my room. I told my host family I was sick, because that was the best way I could describe it. How do you describe the culture shock to your host family? My culture shock at times could be debilitating. It is hard to breath, I feel a physical pressure keeping me in bed, and I feel lazy but restless at the same time. Ironically, the fear, guilt and pressures of being a good Peace Corps Volunteer are the very things that keep me stuck in bed. “I don’t want to go out there” I think, “But if I don’t, how will I properly integrate into my community? – They are just so different. I don’t understand them”.

Culture shock is inevitable for every Peace Corps volunteer. A friend recently defined culture shock as “stripping yourself of your own culture, and putting the culture of your host country in it’s place”. As you could possibly imagine, it is difficult to find a spot – whether physically or mentally speaking – that you feel completely at peace. A spot where your culture and the host culture collide and all parties are happy.

Luckily enough, Culture Shock has its ups and downs, as you can see by the chart below. And lucky for me, I stick pretty true to the chart. So I know when to anticipate ups or downs – until recently. I had been in the down for what felt like months, and I couldn’t wait for the long-awaited up turn. But I had no indication of when that would happen.

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Easter has never been a particularly important holiday for me. So I wasn’t really anticipating much happening as the Easter festivities started. A few days before the Easter holiday, I visited the pastor’s house. While sitting in a warm kitchen, drinking coffee and eating dosis, we talked about my travels to Bali, her travels to her home district, and about her path to becoming a pastor. We were connecting, I felt like strings came out of our chests and were tying knots in the empty space between us. During our conversation, I brought up that when I was hanging out on the beach, I often found myself singing translated versions of children’s Sunday school songs in my head.

Little did I know that that very comment would land me at church Wednesday morning at 8:00 a.m. teaching “Jesus Loves Me This I Know” to the Sunday school children. Joy spread through my body like a warm, golden and happy river. It took everything in me to make sure that I didn’t tear up. But that didn’t stop my throat from closing up, or my breaths from being painful while I was gasping for breath in between verses. I was experiencing something that I had yet to experience in Timor. It is difficult for me to explain exactly what I was feeling, other than the exact opposite of culture shock: connection of cultures. The strings came out of my heart once again, and tied with all of the children in that room on that chilly Wednesday morning.

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At that moment, I felt connected to the Brandy I was before Peace Corps, as well as my community – I was at peace. There was no trace of the stress, guilt or pressure that was so debilitating before. Luckily for me, that peace lasted for several days.

Once Good Friday rolled around, I was surprised to see that there was a big difference between Timorese Good Friday, and America’s. Members of the Catholic church are not allowed to say “Good Morning”, “Good Afternoon”, or “Good Evening”. You can smile – just not too much. It is a day of silence and mourning, because it is the day that Jesus died. The ever-present music wasn’t blasted, children weren’t shouting, and it seemed that even the animals got the memo, not a “cock-a-doodle-doo” was heard.

The Good Friday service began as normal – but for the first time, I was able to pay attention and completely understand the pastor’s sermon (which honestly can be a struggle in English). But half-way through, the youth group stood up in front of the congregation to sing and act out a small play.

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The play really depicted the story of Jesus. Kids would limp up to the youth pastor who was dressed like Jesus with white and purple robes and a white paper crown. Jesus would heal the kids and they would run away screaming “I can walk! I can run!” Then young girls would come up with their hands over their ears and mouth to depict that they couldn’t hear or speak. Jesus would heal the girls, and they would jump and shout and say “We can hear! We can speak!” Then four men carried in a boy who was dead, and after Jesus healed the kid, the boy shouted “I’m alive!” Shortly after this, the same people that Jesus healed came out and beat Jesus and tied him to a cross.

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I felt it coming before I could even realize what was happening. Warm salty tears met my lips, my throat clenched in immediate response. And before I knew it, I was bawling. The story of Jesus’s crucifixion is a story that always pulls my heart-strings. But I quickly tried to pull myself together, I didn’t want my community members laughing at me for crying about a silly children’s play. I gave myself what seemed like hours, but was probably only seconds before I looked up at the play. But as I looked up and glanced around the room to make sure that no one saw me cry, I noticed that everyone was crying. Even the actors were crying.

My jaw dropped. Shock poured through my body – but not culture shock – “connection of culture shock”. In this moment, I realized that we weren’t so different, and it felt like my heart exploded with strings searching for other strings to tie to.

That day I learned an important lesson. If you let the cultural differences, daily practices and any other small differences cloud up your view, it is hard to see the similarities. Similarities exist, you just have to search for them. Which is always the more difficult thing to do, but in the long run, it is the more worth-it thing to do.

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