Wednesday, August 15, 2012

My cyclical, surprising challenges of cultural re-entry

Exactly a year ago, my family and I headed to the Hyderabad airport. We arrived in Portland about 38 hours later and began the re-entry journey.

We'd been in India for five and a half years (and I'd put in another 1.5 years before we got married). So we'd picked up many cultural behaviors (i.e. the head bobble) and even some values (i.e. I can now live with an unbelievable level of ambiguity, or what is a crisis to you is probably not a big deal to me).

Of course, the first few months back in the USA were dizzying and I've written about that herehere and here. People ask if we are over the cultural shock/stress or re-entry. Yes. And no. Some small examples include:
  • Two weeks ago I accused (nicely) a cashier in the Nike cafeteria of giving me the wrong change. Then I realized that I hadn't recognized the coins correctly (I thought the new one-dollar coins were quarters).
  • My children wash their mouths after meals "Indian style", assume we'll have mangoes tomorrow, still must be urged to use sidewalks, etc.
  • I still occasionally panic when we only have 10 minutes to get to an appointment, forgetting that traffic is generally good here and you rarely have to search hard for parking.
  • I sometimes call or email people on the day of an appointment because I suspect a crisis (a monsoon flood? an unannounced strike? illness of a relative?) might have forced them to cancel without telling me.
  • Several of the thank you notes I mailed after job interviews this spring had old "first class" stamps on the recipients had to pay the extra $.06 postage. Um, yeah, oops.

Cultural re-entry is not an event. It is cyclical. And, good news, the gaps between "episodes" lengthen over time. I knew this intellectually, but to experience it is different.

The first few days back were constant re-learning and readjustment. Then, after a few months, episodes would only happen every week or so (i.e. an overwhelming moment in the proverbial cereal aisle). Now the episodes are once or twice a month. This is progress. This is normal. This is cultural re-entry.

Second, cultural re-entry surprises everyone. In some ways, it is more challenging than the adjustment to a different culture; when you return to your own land, you and people around you expect you to fit in...after all, you used to live here and function successfully! So everyone is doubly surprised when behaviors or feelings don't match expectations.

The danger is that we assume people go through cultural re-entry and then are done. But it is an ongoing cycle of episodes that really never finish, although they certainly become less frequent. Or we let surprise turn into judgment (i.e. "You did what? That is weird").

How can we show grace to people in our midst who may look like us on the surface -- even act like us most of the time -- but have a different cultural background, experiences, or orientation? It's a worthy challenge.