Reverse Culture Shock

A thoughtful friend of mine recently returned to the United States wrote to me about reverse culture shock.

“[I was shocked when my friend said.] I don’t care what you think. I’m gonna do it my way.” — which was one thing you mocked Americans for saying.

… I’m kind of surprised by how much noise there is, how loud and noisy people themselves are. It seems like we use space to “solve” issues, mitigating problems just by putting more distance between ourselves. Not just manners … we move our trash away to landfills, people move away from people they don’t like, etc.

And I’ve found myself coping by re-adopting a lot of these bad habits. Americans are also great at fighting fire with more fire.

I was first of all surprised at the speed that my friend absorbed a lot of Japanese thinking very quickly his brief stay here. I noticed the things that he mentioned, but it took me longer – maybe on the order of five years to his two weeks.

Why is reverse culture shock a sad thing at all? It seems like it must be a gain, because people who don’t absorb the culture where they travel never get culture shock. This additional cultural knowledge should result in being more able to empathize with people and more skill in working with ambiguous situations.

Why then, the sense of disorientation when coming back to one’s home culture, which one should in fact understand better than when he left? As with so many forms of interpersonal interaction, I find insights through the practice of martial arts. Martial arts is physical practice in negotiating ambiguity and conflict resolution, and represents the world in microcosm.

Each art, and to a large extent, each school is a collection of strategies for dealing with situations, and expectations about what your partner will attempt to do. This makes up its culture, and this structure is necessary because the actual world is too chaotic and boundless to lend itself to study. Some level of formalization is necessary to begin exploration and mapping of the world. Yet when the practitioner goes to another school to study, or switches to a different martial art, he finds that the formalization is a gross approximation. There is shock at encountering a different system of expectations, movement, and negotiation. He may exploit some effective openings, and face difficulties where he has his own gaps in understanding. This is culture shock.

After which, the student returns to his school, and is able to see what is wrong with what he is being taught. He may see possible counterattacks that have not been accounted for. He may see more efficient ways of moving. He may see that his partner is moving in response to a preconception, instead of responding to the situation at hand. When he sees such discrepancies in the people he was studied with and tried to learn from, he may become disillusioned with his teachers and fellow students. This is one definition of reverse culture shock.

Reverse culture shock requires its own coping mechanisms. At times people’s thinking and behavior look so obviously to stem from blind dogmatism that one has a strong desire to overtly educate people, but this seldom works well. The knowledge that we have is generally gained through experience, and acts at a level deeper than conscious thought. While a theoretical explanation works on a conscious level, it has a limited effect on behavior. What you have learned through experience, the other person must also learn by experience. Yet relentlessly exploiting a weakness to attempt to compress the experiential learning can make the other person become psychologically closed off. So, the most natural way to bring about change is to work within a framework of trust and feed the practice partner a set of ideas and experiences at a level appropriate to him. This may be done so subtly that the other person sees them not as things you are teaching but as insights that he has gained through interacting with you.

So this takes care of the problem of transmitting knowledge… This is another definition of reverse culture shock – the strong desire to pass on what one has learned. But the other issue is once there was the comfort of expecting that there was a correct way of doing things, and the confidence that it could be discovered. That comfort is gone. What is left is a feeling of being an outsider after having traveled to a different school, yet on returning in one’s home school, there is no relief – one still feels like an outsider. This is something I am still struggling with, but I think it is the beginning of being one’s own teacher, of having the sense that there is a lot to be learned, but we have to walk our own path, and there might be no one who can teach us everything that we want to know.

Yet, this path is formless and by definition, unwalkable. I can see in children of bi-cultural families where the parents are inconsistent in applying discipline, and in students who try to start two martial arts at the same time, that the students are confused by conflicting messages. While it may be possible for parents to completely educate children biculturally, or for the student of high physical aptitude to start in two martial arts at the same time, this is generally very difficult. For any student, there must be a home culture, a starting point. And, because we are all students, we must choose for ourselves a place to start. We must choose for ourselves a home ground, even with the realization that the worldview it represents is not objectively correct. American and Japanese culture are not correct to the exclusion of the other. Aikido and Karate are not correct to the exclusion of the other. Mathematically speaking, euclidean and polar coordinates are not correct to the exclusion of the other. They are just better adapted to different situations. After the shock of discovering the limitations of one’s original value system, one is painfully aware that choosing any perspective means that some things will be obscured from view. One is loathe to take on any obstructions again, so it is counter-intuitive to choose, but for any progress to be made, we have to choose a starting point.

In Aikido, I have often traveled to schools where they say “we follow” a certain teacher, and I have met Jewish rabbis who say “we follow” a certain rabbi. These are vast systems of codified and sometimes contradictory points of view that try to map the chaos of human choices into a transmittable system; the hope is that each generation can learn just a little bit faster and get a little bit smarter than the previous one. Without this codification, each generation would be stuck with the enormous task of creating its culture from scratch. But, even Aikido and Judaism are so vast that people choose a teacher to follow – one who has wrestled with contradictions and developed explanations – they explicitly choose a point of view to be the starting point of their experiential learning.

Cultures, like all maps, are feeble approximations of the real world, but one map must be chosen. In realizing that the map is not the territory, dogmatism turns into a healthy distrust of the map, which one follows with a measure of faith, but with an awareness that there are places not mapped accurately, or not mapped at all. We heed the GPS, but keep our eyes on the road.

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