On culture shock

Eighteen years is a long time to live in a place.

After living in the same place for eighteen years, and then suddenly being uprooted and thrown into life elsewhere, you expect a certain amount of culture shock. You might expect to find an eighteen-year-old Brit stubbornly referring to university with a thrust of the chin and a muttered “not ‘college’ ” after she says the word. You might forgive her when she refuses, absolutely refuses, to say ‘zee’ instead of ‘zed’; or if she looks at you blankly if you tell her the car needs ‘gas’; or if she’s baffled when the price she sees on the shelf doesn’t match her receipt. After all, eighteen years is a long, long time to call a place home; and the culture of that place – the ways and means of the day to day – never really leaves you.

What you don’t expect, after eighteen years of living in a place, is to go away for three years and come back with culture shock. You don’t expect to stare in awe at the Londoner who seems to actually have a Cockney accent, like he is some mythical being. You don’t expect to automatically jerk your head at the sound of an English voice, ready to say “hey, you’re English? Me too!” only to remember that here, you are not special and rare: here, everyone sounds like you. You don’t expect to be unable to work a lamp, because you’re trying to turn the switch, not press it. You don’t expect to be baffled by light switches that look like this and outlets that you have to switch on, like this:

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Yet, maybe it’s the jetlag, Port and Stilton jetlag, but I am struggling with those things. These things that I once knew are now strange to me, and it’s left me wondering who I am. Culture shock is not being unable to figure out a light switch: it’s reaching automatically for the type that you flick, and spending a few minutes wondering “where is the damn switch?” instead of considering that you might need to look for something different. Culture shock is assuming that everything is like what you already know. It is looking at a car with a license plate on the front and thinking “that is weird”, where once you got irritated by outsiders finding such everyday things ‘weird’. It is realising you used the term ‘license plate’ and having to look up what British people call them (number plates, FYI, even though, no, they don’t have exclusively numbers on them).

But, see, honestly, I always felt a little out of place here. I think that is why I ran to Georgia with open arms. Certain things always seemed a little off to me. I always felt I was saying ‘massage’ wrong (English people pronounce it ‘mass-arge’, not ‘muh-saahj’). When people pronounced words like ‘tuna’, ‘tune’, and ‘Tuesday’ with a ‘choo’ at the front, it irked me. I hear all these things now, these things I used to swear Americans were imagining: I hear the extra ‘r’ that English people put on the end of the words ‘America’ and ‘Atlanta’; I hear ‘car’ as ‘cah’. Yet no matter how hard I try, I can’t imitate it. I can hear that R, and I grind my teeth like I did the first time I heard an American pronounce ‘Canterbury’ as ‘Cannaburreh’, but I can’t say ‘Americar’ like English people do. I’ve realised I speak some bastardised form of English, halfway between English and American. I will call a massage a ‘muh-saahj’, but I still pronounce ‘route’ as ‘root’, even while I think that my English friends are pronouncing ‘tuna’ wrong because clearly there is no ‘ch’ in it. I am aware that my own logic is flawed, but I can’t correct it.

It is strange, being back here. All at once, it feels like coming home, and like being somewhere new. Some things I remember correctly, and I am so happy about it. When my beer tonight was cold – not lukewarm – I was thrilled; I wanted to text my American friends and say “HA! I told you so!”. Some things I remember correctly, and I wish I was wrong: when I saw not one, but two duvets on my bed, I thought “damn, I hoped my memory had exaggerated the cold”. I hoped it wasn’t actually pitch black by 5pm, but nope; it is. And it is so, so quiet. Even last night, exhausted from The Plane Ride From Hell(TM), I lay in bed unable to sleep because the quiet just hung around me like a creepy and physical thing: there were no crickets; there were no cars driving by; no one walking past the bedroom window; no quiet hiss of a baby monitor or snoring dog. Just the silence, and my loud, loud head.

So it turns out that I have changed. More than four years ago, I laid down in my bed in Georgia for the first time and I wondered how anyone could sleep with that damn racket those crickets were making. Now it turns out I can’t sleep without them.

Maybe culture isn’t tied to a place: maybe it is tied to ourselves. Maybe we soak it up, absorb it like the sun, and like the sun tans our skin, so does our culture change something in us. When we are away from it for a while, it fades; but we step back into it and we absorb it all over again. Maybe, like Toni Morrison said, our roots are deep, and only our top blossoms nod in the wind.

I’ve been away for three years, and this is my third time coming back. It still surprises me just how often I find myself surprised. I am worried that perhaps I am forgetting my roots; that one day I will come back to visit and no one will even recognise me.

But then when I go back, as I always do, I remember the things that I still miss even after three years. Like a sponge, I have soaked up two cultures. Georgia is my home now, and it will always have my heart; but I will fight to let England keep my roots.

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