Culture shoc

We heard so much about it – yet it all comes down to the straw.
And the people you love.

I really love this poem, Hermann Hesse wrote 1941 and think it’s still worth considering although it has whiskers. It is neither a travel nor a cultural poem. He wrote it after a longterm disease, reconciling thoughts about death and life.

Wie jede Blüte welkt und jede Jugend                                   As every blossom fades
dem Alter weicht, blüht jede Lebensstufe,                            and all youth sinks into old age,
blüht jede Weisheit auch und jede Tugend                           so every life’s design, each flower of wisdom,
zu ihrer Zeit und darf nicht ewig dauern.                              attains its prime and cannot last forever.
Es muss das Herz bei jedem Lebensrufe,                              At life’s each call the heart must be prepared
bereit zu Abschied sein und Neubeginne,                             to take its leave and to commence afresh.
Um sich in Tapferkeit und ohne Trauern                              courageously and with no hint of grief
in andre neue Bindungen zu geben                                       submit itself to other newer ties
Und jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne,                           A magic dwells in each beginning,
der uns beschützt und der uns hilft zu leben.                      protecting us, telling us how to live.

When I arrived in Kyrgyzstan I was prepared for the ultimate shock that would strike me at one point in the next months. And with Hesse I was counting on the magic that would help me endure it. But there’s more to that subject than mere (always helpful and great) poetry: Science! As I studied the phases you go through, (predicted by scientists of I don’t know what subject – travel-psychology supposedly) I found different models that are of course all kind of idealtypes and are to be individually adapted but that now in hindsight offer the possibility for interesting thoughts.

The basic is the best: U-model
All models agree on that the first phase (often only some weeks) is a euphoric honeymoon phase (which I certainly had and where everything is really exciting and interesting). This one’s followed by a disintegration phase with daily life problems you have to cope with, like marshrutka rides and work habits, or just certain things you might be doing wrong like shaking hands with strangers although: “hey, stupid – you’re a woman”. These mistakes are hopefully leading to a learning process, which, in turn, leads to the adaptation phase where you start to find ways to deal with these problems (developing different work habits, looking for your place in the society – and start using marshrutkas in an effective way)…

Stop! It’s not quite so easy!
Given that I come from a mostly priviledged society that is also not particularly the target of hatred in any other society I’ve been to and given that in Kyrgyzstan all my efforts to integrate somehow have been taken rather friendly (with a lot of understanding for stupid foreigners) and I have mostly been supported and encouraged rather than hindered, I assumed at a certain point that adapting to daily habits and surroundings is doable for almost everyone with a certain degree of intercultural learning competence and flexibility. However, I think that this depends a lot on the reaction of the people you get in touch with as well as your standing and your background. For example it is a lot more difficult and I’m sure it takes a lot of effort and a thick skin for persons who belong to a group that is discriminated in whatever way in the respective society.
Do I need to give details? We don’t even have to talk about societies where women’s rights are violated, or where people belonging to certain ethnicities are humiliated and cannot move freely. Just have a look at supposedly democratic societies and the way they deprive people of the possibility to deal with daily problems the way the natives do – like when you can’t rent an appartment because of the letters your last name ends in or you get searched regularly on the metro and interrogated when buying flight tickets…

Beer, Soccer, Holocaust
No matter where you’re from your country, your appearance and your overall background (race, gender, ethnicity, clothing) always awake certain assumptions in people which they might throw at you. The difference is what these assumptions are about. It is certainly annoying for me to be always interrogated about soccer (which I’m not interested in), cars (which I’m not interested in either), beer (which I’m interested in on a casual level but don’t know a lot about) and holocaust (which I know a lot about but am hesitant to discuss at a casual level in the same sentence as cars, beer and soccer). However, these are rather open assumptions that I can deal with because they do not have a lot to do with my personality. I’m sure it is a lot more disturbing to be confronted all the time with the unverbalized (because bad) assumptions about your income, education, values and criminal energy level…

Not over yet
Having that clarified, I think it got clear that I am in a lucky position that made it easy for me to survive the first disintegration phase. However, in some other models the three above-mentioned phases are extended to five where the adaptation is not followed by integration into the culture and society but more so by a second deeper crisis where additional to the daily life deals you start realizing that you have not adapted personally, and this is supposed to be way deeper. You don’t worry about daily life habits anymore so much but start seeing other things that are different and not that easily exchangeable, like deeper rooted habits, cultural premises, even your personality and morals that you don’t want to change because they construct your view of the world.
I think this is very personal and individual and therefore general examples and explanations probably do not make a lot of sense here.
But this phase is said to be the preparation for a real integration phase. Howsoever “integrated” that sounds I think it is useful to acknowledge that you’re probably never gonna be totally assimilated – exactly because of these deeper norms. You can for sure adapt them, shape them and use them in an adequate way without offending people, and you can always find people who share your point of view. But I think, although it is always depressing to live in a society that doesn’t share your values (every anti-gay or neo-nazi-demonstration somewhere in Europe, NSU in Germany, the FRONTEX debates and the recent anti-freedom-of-movement voting in Switzerland kind of disillusionize my “European integratedness”) it is way harder in a society you weren’t born in because you “by default” cannot understand. Then you’re not the annoying but somehow legitimate opposition but the foreigner who doesn’t understand. And this is why it is so difficult to criticize while reflecting on your role and standing as an outside insider (or inside outsider). In my view this is the everlasting internal conflict one has to live with when living, working, interacting in a foreign society.

Where it all comes down to the wicked straw – or: the W-phase-model

that's when I realized it's so normal that I don't even have a picture of it. But just flickr-search "beer Kyrgyzstan" brought me tons of straws (like this one by: Travlr)

that’s when I realized it’s so normal that I don’t even have a picture of it. But just flickr-search “beer Kyrgyzstan” brought me tons of straw pics (like this one by: Travlr)

Well, to complete this I have to include the W-phase (the second U after your return home).
I think you’re gonna like this one.

The place I felt disintegration most strikingly during the last year, was in Kreuzberg, Berlin. After my return to Germany in January I went out with some friends to a normal, alternative bar in this fancy district of Berlin. I had never been to this particular bar before but it was like going out in Berlin on weekends is. Late (we started around 00am), loud, packed, queer, hipster… all quite familiar. However, when I went to the bathroom I realized I was extremely surprised because of the Western-style toilet there. And something about the people seemed strange (I still cannot say what it was but I was fascinated and kept looking at everyone all the time). It was only when my friend asked me what I was doing with my hand always reaching out for something above my beerglass, when I realized I had been looking for the Kyrgyz straw the whole time…

W curve



Well, I got over this disintegration phase by now (but avoid beer in glasses and rather have bottled ones) and adapted quite quickly to the second half of the “W”. I’m back to Berlin electo vibes, the quicker pace of people, and delicious non-instant-coffee. I’ll be going back to Kyrgyzstan soon and am curious what will await me during re-re-adaptation. And howsoever accurate or not the models are I think to track down adaptation and disintegration with yourself is a fascinating thing to do.

What is also always fascinating to me is how fast you CAN adapt to different surroundings once you have people who support you, help you, build you up and love you. I’ve learned so much from this up and down, from the people, about the people, about my role, my personality in both countries; in all the different places I’ve been to.  It just makes it more difficult to chose to leave them for something new. But that’s it. That’s the moral of the story. To phrase it with Hesse:

Wir sollen heiter Raum um Raum durchschreiten,                    High purposed we shall traverse realm on realm,
an keinem wie an einer Heimat hängen.                                       cleaving to none as to a home,
Der Weltgeist will nicht fesseln uns und engen                           the world of spirit wishes not to fetter us
Er will uns Stuf’ um Stufe heben, weiten.                                      but raise us higher, step by step.
Kaum sind wir heimisch einem Lebenskreise                              Scarce in some safe accustomed sphere of life
und traulich eingewohnt, so droht Erschlaffen.                           have we established house, then we grow lax;
Nur wer bereit zu Aufbruch ist und Reise,                                    only he who is ready to inspan,
mag lähmender Gewöhnung sich entraffen.                                 and journey forth can throw old habits off

Es wird vielleicht auch noch die Todesstunde                             Maybe death’s hour too will send us out
uns neuen Räumen jung entgegensenden.                                   new-born towards undreamed-of-lands,
Des Lebens Ruf an uns wird niemals enden…                             maybe life’s call to us will never find an end…
Wohlan denn Herz, nimm Abschied und gesunde!                    Courage my heart, take leave and fare thee well.


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