Home for the Holidays
January 13, 2013
I returned to New England on Christmas day. Since I couldn’t eat anything on the plane (no gluten-free meals on the flight), I scrambled to find a salad in Atlanta. I stopped at a Wolfgang Puck’s and bought a Greek salad. As I got up to the counter to pay, I asked the price and opened my wallet. The young woman told me the cost, and then said, “Uhm, Mister, you’re in the U.S. now … you need to start speaking English.” I was amused to realize that I had just asked the price in Spanish.
When I left, the sun was coming up and it looked to be a beautiful day in Bogotá. I arrived in Boston to temperatures below freezing and within a few days was shoveling 18 inches of snow. Christmas night I got into bed … a bed I’ve slept in for years. It felt the same, and yet not the same. It was slightly different in texture and smelled a little different from what I’m used to. In Boston we buy fragrance and dye-free detergents. In Bogotá I haven’t had much luck finding similar products, and even if I did they’d probably wreck my budget. So, everything “smells” and “feels” a little different in Boston.
When I awoke in the morning, the room that was the same, wasn’t really the same. When I first opened my eyes and looked around, it felt a little like I was dreaming. It looked familiar, and yet not familiar. I felt a little light-headed and things around me just didn’t seem quite right … which, on the one hand could be attributed to a day on the road, but yet I wasn’t sure that was the issue (I’m used to traveling). Again, smells, textures, images, locations of little things like my wallet and glasses on the night stand … all of them seemed a little off … a little different … a little strange. Everything was totally normal, and yet not normal. It was all somehow subtly different. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it just didn’t seem right.
Going down to breakfast was more of the same. The coffee didn’t quite taste the same (though, admittedly, I’ve been spoiled by the “good stuff” living in Colombia). But, also, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to eat. Nothing seemed to make sense or strike my interest. I looked in the refrigerator several times. I think I was looking for arepas, though, of course, logic would suggest otherwise. I settled for a freezer-burned, gluten-free, English muffin.
On New Year’s Day, I attend an evening service … The Feast of The Holy Name. While everything seemed the same, it somehow didn’t quite feel the same. I drew a blank at certain points in the service with things I’ve been saying from memory for years, and when we started to say the Lord’s Prayer it sounded really strange … I had begun in Spanish.
The following night, I was the guest preacher at a mid-week Eucharist, after which I gave a presentation about my experience in Colombia. Again, the service felt strange. I was dressed the same. The service was the same. I had the same Prayer Book in hand. And I have attended mid-week Eucharist in that chapel many times. Yet, nothing seemed quite right. I’m usually quite comfortable preaching, and yet my homily felt a bit stiff. It was as if I was going through the motions, and somehow I was outside myself observing my experience in different surroundings. I appreciate that my serving was a little different in that these days when I serve as deacon, which I was doing, it’s in Spanish, and when I serve in English, I’m leading worship. That, in itself, probably contributed a little to the odd feeling. But I don’t think that explains everything.
You may recall one of my blog entries from last May about culture shock. We often think about it from the context of arriving in a strange culture, with significantly different ways of knowing, different customs, different language, and so forth. But culture shock actually works both ways. I remember my first return to the States after an extended stay in Nicaragua … I cried myself to sleep for 2 nights and didn’t understand that I was experiencing what is often referred to as “reverse” culture shock. When I mention the issue of reverse culture shock in mission workshops, others chime in about their own experiences … having difficulty at work, feeling uncomfortable getting dressed, being frozen – not speaking about their mission experience, not knowing why but having an overwhelming need to cry, and so forth.
I think I can safely say that this “subtlety” I’m feeling, with things not … quite … feeling right, is probably a manifestation of some kind of culture shock. Although I’ve returned from mission trips many times over the years, clearly I’m not any more immune to symptoms of culture shock than anyone else. In addition, I’m not returning from a 10-day mission trip to Haiti or El Salvador, I’m returning after having established a home in Colombia. Though I’ve traveled to a few meetings and conferences in the States, I’ve been living in South American for a year. … living … speaking Spanish … eating Latin food … texting in Spanish … walking to the diocesan offices down the block … buying groceries … sleeping in a different bed … listening to different sounds around me … moving to a different lifestyle rhythm … living in a different culture.
… hmm … culture shock?!?