EXPAT LIFE: CULTURE SHOCK

by missfootloose on July 2, 2010 · 7 comments

in Africa, Culture and Customs, Expat life, Ghana

When you live abroad, you often meet other expats from all kinds of national and cultural backgrounds.  Fascinating people, boring people, off-center types, wacky ones and all sorts suffering from culture shock.

One evening in Ghana, at the house of friends, my man and I met a couple in their thirties who had recently arrived in the country.  It was their first time in Africa. Read all about it below.

Photo by AndrewtheCook/cc


SHOCKED AND AMAZED

“That’s so beautiful!”  A lovely voice floats in the air as we enter the sitting room at the Sorensen’s house.  We’ve been invited to dinner and to meet new arrivals Andrew and Valerie whose latest habitat was sterile Singapore.  The voice, we now realize, belongs to Valerie.  What is so beautiful?  We don’t know.

Introductions are made and drinks poured.  They are Beautiful People, it is soon obvious. Andrew hails from Connecticut, USA and Valerie is the gorgeous product of a French mother and a Lebanese father. Andrew is the quiet New England sort, while Valerie is bubbly and charming like champagne.  She’s film star beautiful – luscious dark hair, enormous dark eyes, slim as sin in a skimpy dress (sans bra).  You get the picture.  Only minutes ago I thought I looked pretty sexy in my flirty little number and high heels, but next to her, I must admit, I look rather like Dowdy Dime Store Dotty.  Well, so it goes.

Valerie, in her frothily seductive accent, entertains us with stories of life in Paris, Beirut, Singapore (it’s so clean!)  She’s funny and charming, if a bit . . . je ne sais quoi, making statements and judgments as if she has not a doubt that the world agrees with her.

Soon it becomes clear that Valerie suffers from the malady called Culture Shock.  All expats and travelers experience this at one time or another.  And certainly yours truly has.  Only I was cured or desensitized a long time ago and now I’m becoming aware of this agonizing affliction again through the eyes of poor Valerie.

She is shocked and appalled by Ghana: the poverty, the filth, the terrible potholed roads, the maniacal taxi drivers, the men peeing by the road.  Who can blame her?  So was I, long ago.  It is scary to consider what a person can get used to.

Photo by Berry Fine/cc


Photo by Stig Nygaard/cc

And as far as food goes, Valerie is not impressed by the restaurants that everybody raves about.  And she and Andrew love eating out, which makes this quite a disappointment. Take Sole Mio.  Really, she says, they do not serve great Italian food (we think it’s quite delicious) and Dynasty, well that’s not real Chinese food (everybody else in the expat community says it’s wonderful, but then they were last in Chad or Azerbaijan or England – not Singapore).

I make a comment to the effect that everything is relative.  We are, in fact, in Accra, the capital of a poor country in West Africa, not in Rome or Hong Kong, or New York City. And just imagine, without these Accra restaurants we might be sentenced to eating fufu and snail stew.  (Okay, okay, Ghana has first class seafood and wonderful tropical fruit, but it sounded so deliciously dramatic, I just couldn’t help myself.  I apologize, really.)

Valerie’s husband, Andrew, catches on to the term “relative” as if it were a life line, saying yes, that’s how she needs to look at it!  It’s all relative! As if this is a brilliant, brilliant insight.  I’m wondering if he has a bit of a struggle dealing with his beautiful wife and her culture shock crisis.  But well, she grew up in wealthy family, lived in Paris, in Beirut, and in Singapore, a multicultural lifestyle for sure, but not one that involved men peeing by the side of the road much, and poverty and reeking gutters.  And the traffic!

I watch her getting all riled up about how terrible the Accra traffic is, how people don’t know how to drive and how she wants to keep jumping out of the car and tell people off, showing them how it is done.  And there’s no way she is going to drive here!  She could not possibly handle the constant aggravations!

Having already scored with my relativity statement, I am now ready with another pearl of wisdom: I suggest that life in Ghana offers the perfect opportunity to cultivate a Buddhist mind set: It just is.  Filth is.  Traffic is.  Rampant public peeing is.  Poverty is.  You might as well accept the inevitable and not waste energy getting aggravated and angry.  It just is.  The best three words in the world for mental serenity.

Photo copyright by Kalupa. Used by permission

Valerie receives this with great admiration for me and others who are capable of thinking like that.  “It’s so beautiful when you can be that way!” she sings in her sexy voice.  “And, really, I’m open to hearing these things, you know, but I can’t possibly look at it in that kind of way.  I just get so angry and aggravated!”

Then there is the Buddhist saying: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Clearly, the student is not ready.  (Too bad because I have a few books she could borrow.)

So, Valerie, suffering from not-yet-cured aggravation-itis, is not going to drive in Ghana, but when they’re leaving for the month of June to be in New York, she tells us, they’re having their gardener take driving lessons so he can drive her around when she gets back.

Then she’ll be safe.

Our friend and hostess Cindy serves up a lovely dinner and we all enjoy the evening.  The wine flows liberally and the conversation is scintillating, with each couple telling the story of their meeting and marrying.  Valerie sparkles with enthusiasm as she hears our love tales.

“Oh, that’s so beautiful!” she keeps saying, and saying and saying, until I want to pour my wine over her gorgeous head to shut her up.  But this is a passing impulse.  Really, she’s too nice, too charming:  a fresh breeze in tropical Ghana.

Back in the sitting room with after-dinner coffee, we admire a large photo book with dramatic  African pictures of mud huts, people, animals.  You know the kind I mean.  Stunning professional photography.  Valerie looks at the photographs of a village of mud huts with thatched roofs.  A couple of picture-perfect coconut trees, a cute baby goat.  I tell you, you’d want to move in, it looks so idyllic.  It is truly an art to make beauty out of poverty.  Such serenity, such calm and peace.  Only I know better.

No phone.  No TV.  No electricity.  No plumbing.

No restaurants!

Photo by c.hug/cc

“That’s what I thought I’d find when I was coming here,” Valerie says, excited, because the pictures are so beautiful and she feels so cheated for not finding it to be just like the photos.  Instead of all this lovely tranquility, she found a crowded city with dirty gutters and potholed streets and inferior restaurants.  She gazes longingly at the mud hut village.  “That’s what I want to see,” she says.

My mate points out to her that really, you can see it, out in the country.  But you have to get in a car and battle hari kari traffic on very bad roads, and some of them aren’t paved at all.

And there are no good places for a pee break, I’m tempted to inform her, but I don’t want to traumatize her by explaining to her what is available, so I keep this malodorous knowledge to myself.  To tell you the truth, even I get shocked by what I find sometimes.  The place advertised on the photo below, however, doesn’t bother me too much.  It’s all relative, you know.

A Special Place to Free Yourself

Photo by Tranquilo Traveler/cc

Valerie has a lot to learn about not getting aggravated (as I did at one time), but, hey, she is amusing and charming in an irritating sort of way.  And she promises to cook us some really good Lebanese food after they get back from New York, and to tell you the truth, dear reader, you tempt me with good food and I will do anything, maybe even forgive her for being a nit wit, since she’s culture shocked and all.

She’s also very impressed by my being a writer of romance novels (that’s so beautiful!) and is eager to read my books, and happy when I tell her I will give her some.

So, I ask you, how can I not like her?

* * *

Tell me your culture shock stories.  What happened to you, or people you know?

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

GutsyWriter July 2, 2010 at 8:50 am

When I saw the poster of Larry King in Ghana above, I was shocked, and thought your post was about Larry King’s new career in Africa. (He’s quitting in the U.S.) Culture shock for my family in Belize was when I saw a fight between two guys outside a hardware store and all the locals watching. A woman chasing her husband (boyfriend) with a machete, dogs starving on the streets, toddlers left to play the game of “natural selection.” Thanks again for entertaining us with your stories.

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Boonsong July 4, 2010 at 2:10 am

A great post with some great pictures – as always.
Thanks for this.

All the best, Boonsong

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Mae July 6, 2010 at 6:38 pm

I saw the images you described so clearly in my head. I really do love reading your posts 🙂

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Welshcakes Limoncello July 8, 2010 at 4:53 pm

A great post. Poor Valerie!

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Aledys Ver July 15, 2010 at 5:05 am

Excellent post!Reading this made me wonder – how is it possible that I suffer from culture shock coming originally from Argentina and living now in Holland? Am I entitled to say that I experience sometimes, culture shock? Or is that something that can happen only to people moving to places like … Ghana?

I suppose in my case, culture shock involves issues having to do more with the quality of human relations, people being more down-to-earth here, but also colder, less intense – something I wasn’t used to back in Arg., luckily and unfortunately….. both at the same time!

I’m desperately trying not to compare myself to silly, light-headed Valery! 😀 At least I do think that there are great restaurants here in NL and I have found the cute little cottages with mills and canals that I had seen in books before I moved to Holland!

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missfootloose July 22, 2010 at 3:30 pm

@ GutsyWriter: The things you describe can be seen in many poor countries and they are very disturbing. To some degree you have to allow yourself to “get used” to them or you’d spend your days crying and your nights having nightmares.

@ Boonsong: I also enjoy your posts and photos!

@ Mae, thank you! I love writing and am glad you “see” the stories!

@ Welshcakes Limoncello: I’m sure Valerie learned to adjust. Most expats, if not all, do learn to overcome culture shock.

@ Aledys Ver: Of course you are “allowed” to have culture shock! Lots of people have culture shock when they come to live in my nutty native Holland 😉 and even I suffer a bit every time I come back. I was just there, staying with family and thinking: What’s this with those tiny little baby washbasins in the WC? (half-baths for US readers).

Okay, that aside, yes, the Dutch are very blunt and down-to-earth. Even my American husband had trouble with me on this issue. Dealing with that for you would certainly count as culture shock. And I doubt you’re anything like Valerie, don’t worry!

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linda@adventuresinexpatland.com October 1, 2011 at 4:31 pm

What a wonderful cautionary tale for those living cross-culturally. Poor Valerie (‘it’s so beautiful!’), the world may be full of third world countries in which suffering, disease and poverty exist, but obviously she feels they are not for the likes of her. She’s clearly stuck in the ‘frustrated, irritated, angry’ phase of expat transition. I’m sure Andrew has his hands full with her. You were very kind and empathetic, trying to gently guide her to a more positive approach. I’d have been tempted to tell her that she’s only seen the poor version of Ghana; only the favored expats are allowed to see the secret beautiful version!

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