These are some definitions of culture shock:
Culture shock refers to the anxiety and feelings (of surprise, disorientation, uncertainty, confusing, etc.) felt when people have to operate within a different and unknown culture such as one may encounter in a foreign country.
Culture Shock is an American travel show hosted by Shenax Treasurywala on the Travel Channel.
Culture Shock was an anarcho-punk/ska punk band formed in Warminster, Wiltshire, England, in 1986 by Dick Lucas, previously of the Subhumans.
They tell you about it in training.
You will move to a foreign land. You will have a “honeymoon,” during which everything will seem shiny and exciting. You will be riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave through exotic, unknown lands, marvelling at the sights, the smells, the sounds, of your brave new world.
Then your surfboard will disintegrate, you’ll get dragged under a nasty wave and smashed to a million pieces against rocks coated in sharp, poisonous barnacles deep under the stinking, disease-infested sea, never to be seen or heard from again.
That may be an exaggeration. But at some stage, you’ll probably feel disoriented, anxious, depressed and frustrated, and maybe have anarcho/ska-punk song stuck in your head while you’re trying to sleep.
They tell you people deal with it in different ways. Some get mad, some get sad, some drink too much, some sleep too much, some stop talking. They tell you to stay positive. Remember, this too shall pass.
I arrived in Ghana on July 3 after a frantic month of quitting jobs, saying goodbyes, giving away most my belongings, sitting through a hectic eight days of training in Toronto whilst living in a stink-infested hostel on Spadina Avenue and spending two or three sleepless days traversing half the globe.
I should have been tired, but I wasn’t. I was drunk on Africa-love.
If you were to steal my journal and read entries from the first couple weeks of July, you would find embarrassingly corny passages like this:
“La Beach. Mist kind of floats over the wet sand jam-packed with shiny bodies doing acrobatics, riding horses dressed in Ghanaian flags, swimming, dancing. In the distance, the lines of fishermen pulling in their nets….Colours, smells, sounds, all foreign, all different, and so, so wonderful.”
“Everyone touches all the time. You sit cuddled up with strangers on the trotro and they sweat all over you and people hold your hand and it’s wonderful.”
“A playground for the senses, a T.V. blasting the World Cup game, three versions of “Waving Flag” playing at once, sewers and goats and garbage and tilapia grilling and fresh Star beer. It’s (you guessed it) wonderful.”
When I re-read this stuff a month later, I throw up, make a note to get a thesaurus and look up ‘wonderful,’ and then laugh. And laugh.
My first weeks in Accra were spent in a veritable orgasm of wonderment, revelling in all that was bright and new. A burble of languages, mysterious words in Twi and Ga singing out over the fruit stands and African clothing bursting with colour, the generosity and warmth of Ghanaians, who will invite you to eat and cook and drink with them, telling you as you walk down a strange street, “You are welcome.”
The landscape was breathtaking, the green hills dotted with palms and mango trees, the long white beaches with the surf crashing endlessly against them.
The inconveniences were charming — the 50-km tro-tro ride that takes four hours on a seat that collapses at every turn, falling into an open sewer, going five days with no running water, hours upon hours spent waiting for things that may or may not ever happen, getting violently ill seemingly every second time you eat, having throngs of children run over to touch your skin and hair. It’s all just so, so wonderful!
It is ridiculous to think, during this heady time of glee, that you might ever find anything bad about this place.
But if you flip a couple dozen pages through the stolen journal, the first line of every entry for days is this:
“I am tired.”
Suddenly, you find yourself irascibly irritated when you want to be somewhere and must sit for half an hour waiting for the tro-tro to fill up with people. You really wish you could just have a bloody shower instead of trying to bathe in a couple litres of water from a cracked bucket. You must practice meditation so as not to throttle someone who says they’re coming in a minute, and leaves you waiting for three hours. You can hardly choke out another “Hi!” when a group of men guzzling beer by the roadside start yelling “Obruni! Obruni!” at you and following you down the street.
It gets to you.
Over the course of about a week, I found myself getting more and more grouchy.
Then came a Wednesday when I spent hours in the office waiting for someone who was on the way, to be there in minutes. When the colleague showed up, he said he would be going for lunch. I smiled.
Then I went for a walk, to cool off in the 35-degree heat.
Despite efforts to refrain from smoking (which, unlike many African countries, is frowned upon in Ghana), I bought a package of Pall Malls and set about stomping down the road, chain-smoking, looking for some positive thoughts.
“Hey obruni!” came the usual call.
The man was striding toward me. I looked at him, unable to muster any sort of reaction.
“What is that in your hand? Don’t you know that smoking is illegal in Ghana? You should go to jail! A woman, smoking! You are an abomination.”
“It’s illegal?” I think I said.
“Go to jail!” he yelled, flapping his arms for emphasis.
It hit me like a wild tide of heartbreak, coming from my chest, funnelling into my throat, and straight out my eyeballs.
I started bawling.
The man looked frightened.
“I. Am. Having. A. Bad. Day. And. I. Just. Want. To. Smoke. One. Cigarette,” I think I said.
“I was joking, I was joking,” he said, patting my back nervously while I tried, unsuccessfully, to close the floodgates on my face. He ushered me to a concrete block and sat down beside me.
“Sit here, rest,” he said. “Are you hurt? I was joking, I was only joking, you will not go to jail. You can smoke anywhere in Ghana. This is a free country. Smoke all you want. Here, want more cigarettes? Smoke!”
Laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, while snot and tears continued to sketch in the layer of red dust coating my face, I kept telling him I was just having a bad day, and he kept apologizing for making me cry. Passersby looked on quizzically.
Eventually, I regained control of my eyeballs and he got most the snot off my face. As I stood to take my leave, he asked if we would ever see one another again. I shrugged.
“But I want to marry you,” he said.
“You’re crazy,” I told him. He raised his eyebrows at me.
We both began to laugh again, and I walked away.
The tide of unpleasantness came in and then, after some extra sleep, a few lengthy emails to old friends, and some snot left on the side of the road, it went out, leaving in its wake something in the middle of the two extremes experienced in the first weeks here.
I ran into my roadside friend again yesterday.
“Hey, crazy obruni, I see you’re still a chimney!” he called out, striding over to usher me to a concrete fence to sit.
We sat again for a short time on the side of the road and we laughed as I explained the reasons I was not a suitable candidate for marriage, but assured him there were others who would come along.
“You can just hassle obrunis about smoking. It’s a good way to meet them,” I told him.
“No, no, no. You people are crazy.”