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 while happily living the expat life in Ghana, my man and I met a stylish couple in their thirties who had recently arrived in the country. It was their first time in Africa, and oh, the culture shock!
SHOCKED AND AMAZED
“That is 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 expat 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’s 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. I’ll just have to be Zen about it.
Valerie, in her frothily seductive accent, entertains us with stories of life in Paris, Beirut, Rome, Singapore (it’s so clean!) She’s funny and charming, if a bit . . . I don’t know (you fill in the blanks), making statements and judgments as if she has not a doubt that the world agrees with her.
Poor girl . . .
Soon it becomes clear that Valerie is having a bit of trouble adjusting to life in Ghana, suffering 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. I should be generous of spirit and not judge her.
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 fascinating to consider what a person can get used to.
I tell her that things will get easier, how wonderful the Ghanaian people are–so warm and full of humor; how great the music; how rich the culture; how delicious and copious the seafood. How happy we are living here. Valerie looks confused.
Expat life culinary crisis
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 such 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 (most everybody else in the expat community says it’s wonderful, but then they were last in Chad or Haiti or, well, 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 with Michelin-star restaurants. Besides, there are other restaurants here to explore and see if they are up to her standards. I have a niggling suspicious they might not. I’m tempted to tell her to try some local fare — say goat stew with fufu at the popular Country Kitchen. After all, she lives in Ghana now. But I have mercy on her as she is in such a fragile state and all. There will be time. But for you, dear reader, here’s a tale of a wonderful evening eating Ghana style.
High maintenance is a burden
Valerie’s husband, Andrew, catches on to the term “relative” as if it were a life line, saying yes, that’s how Valerie 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 a wealthy family, lived in Paris, in New York, and in Singapore — an upscale, multicultural lifestyle for sure, but not one that involved daily views of men peeing by the side of the road, out in the open 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!
Miss Footloose, the therapist
Having already scored with my relativity statement, I am now ready with another pearl of wisdom: I suggest that living in Ghana offers the perfect opportunity to cultivate a Buddhist mind set: It just is. Filth is. Traffic is. 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 suggestion with great admiration for me and others who are capable of thinking like that. “It is 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.
The joy of romance
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 is 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, and not very Zen. Really, she’s too nice, too charming: a fresh breeze in steamy tropical Ghana.
What the eye sees
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 mango 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.
“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. (As well modern buildings and nice shops and beautiful houses, and lovely people.)
Did she think she’d find herself in a village stepping off a plane? Where did she think she was going to live? I keep this thought to myself.
She gazes longingly at the mud hut village. “That’s what I want to see,” she says.
What to say, what to do
My mate points out to her that really, you can see mud hut villages 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 often 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 in some places, 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.
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 bit flaky since she’s so 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?
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Tell me your culture shock stories. What happened to you, or people you know?