Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Riding the Roller Coaster

Ex-pat Life

I remember contemplating the wooden table in front of me at our first new faculty orientation meeting. Above and around me flowed a steady stream of words, explaining the stages of adaptation to a new country: Exaltation and excitement, culture shock and frustration, adaptation, and finally enthusiasm. Brett mentioned it took him about a year to adjust to Japan. Everyone was agreeing that we were sure to suffer serious homesickness at some point in the next few months, though opinions varied on when the hump would be - December? February? Rrgh. Nothing quite so comforting as being told about your upcoming struggles. 

These days I know I am over my initial culture shock, which, incidentally, was my first stage, not my second. The other day as I went for a walk, I found that a shattered plate glass window by the sidewalk and a stray dog or two were not enough to spoil my enjoyment of kids piled on a slow-moving merry-go-round and new facades sporting fresh bright paint. The blocky buildings kind of fade together now, like the background in my own personal video game when what I'm really focused on are collecting the prizes and beating the level. I exchange smiles with the man selling me fruit - 10 points. Brett and I become friends with two Bulgarian kittens - 20 points. We plan a trip to Marrakech - 50 points. My seniors show a distinct interest in my lesson plan - 1000 points. 

I find this whole four stages of adjustment idea helpful in a vague way, but unrealistic. The truth is, we are all riding a roller coaster out here. Frustration, excitement, fear, bliss, culture shock, enthusiasm, frustration, more frustration, enthusiasm. The ride never takes us home, but it takes us up to enjoy the view, and down with a rush to scare us half to death. One minute I find Chicken Bouillon cubes at the store and you'd think I'd just won the Pulitzer. Later, I offend the lady at the gym without knowing how, then spend the next half hour fantasizing about rollerblading Venice beach in L.A. After a while, up and down start to blur. There are so many of each in every day, but a baseline through the middle prevents deep plunges. 

I have my own concept of the ex-pat adaptation cycle, the ride. There is no linear pattern, but rather a rotation around the center - your new home. At first, you spin fast - good, bad, up, down, light, dark. Your ride is out of control, though you try harder than you ever have in your life to control it. Later, you gradually begin to spend more time on the good side of the center. Your loops take you for longer and longer rides through the light as you travel, master basic phrases, get the hang of the local geography, meet friends, and find our a few city secrets. You rewire your aesthetic sense to include your new surroundings. You pet your new kittens. You eat Indian food magically delivered to your door. But does the dark side ever disappear? Do you really eventually float free of the ride and into a magical stage of pure "enthusiasm"?

Stay tuned. 


Mary and Jamie said...

Hang in there, Betsy. Your home is movable. When you find a good group of people to lean on, the location of your bed doesn't seem to matter any more. Every place becomes just like any other. Seems like you're doing a great job creating a new home. Soon it will feel like that.

Anonymous said...

Striking photo and written imagery, here. You're going to have a comprehensive record of this year - not only the visible, but also the invisible elements. I value the increasing range of topics you consider in these posts, and I remain a faithful, contemplative reader.