In early June I went “home” to visit my family—home to the US, home to lovely Lexington, Kentucky—the horse farms and rolling hills, and the craziness that comes from the people I grew up with and the culture I was born into.
I’d done this before—a number of times. I’d lived as an expat both in Haiti and in Vietnam. However, this home-coming was different. Very different.
You see, somehow, during the 13 months I’d been away from the US, “home” had up and moved away. Damn home. The nerve of it. Home was not where I had left it.
I think of this as the cultural equivalent of jet lag, only bigger, deeper, and more all-consuming. Jet lag is all about being “up in the air”—more similar to culture shock than what I encountered. This experience was more hard core, more about the bedrock of who I am and what’s important to me, how I define and create meaning.
My first hint that something had happened was a linguistic one, one that I noticed on my way to the US, when my original flight from Quito landed in Miami. I noticed then that I automatically assumed I needed to speak Spanish. I found myself speaking the language, slaughtered as it may have been, to anyone I talked with upon deplaning in south Florida. I’d have a few words out before I realized I was making a linguistic assumption that I struggled to interrupt. Yes, this may have been appropriate in Miami, where a lot of Spanish is spoken, but my impulse continued at the airport in Chicago and during my stay in Lexington, as well. It’s true, in fact, that my Spanish is pathetic, but some change has occurred at a linguistic level—a shift I had not even recognized until I reentered my culture of origin.
I associate this with stepping onto land after having been on a boat for an extended time. Folks have to regain their footing, even though they have walked on something solid their entire lives. Sometimes this happens literally, sometimes linguistically, and sometimes in a larger cultural sense, as well—even though that thing we encounter upon returning to our culture of origin is basic to who we are and where we’ve come from. We are wobbly on our feet at first.
I only know, having been in the US for going on two weeks, that on my way back to Ecuador, when my 3rd of 4 flights landed in Quito, I was relieved in a fundamental way. It didn’t matter that I’d not yet arrived in Cuenca. Despite the elevation I was breathing more deeply, taking more oxygen into my lungs and inflating them more fully than I had during two weeks thousands of feet closer to sea level.
Clearly, I’m no expert in the dynamics of culture shock or its opposite. I can only speak to my own experience.
I don’t know how to explain this phenomenon. I don’t know what to call it. I don’t, to be honest, understand it.
I only know the sense of dislocation it creates, the strange, dizzying awareness that something fundamental has shifted, that an internal geography has remapped itself, creating a crazy and hardly recognizable cartography.
Have you ever experienced a radical change that disoriented you temporarily, even though you were returning to something that should have felt familiar? Just how malleable is culture? How do you define home?
The WordPress Writing Challenge this week is about origins. To read other responses to the challenge, click here.