Reverse Culture Shock

I worked in Aurukun at the top of Cape York, Queensland on a five week contract before deciding to apply for a permanent job in the clinic. After I was interviewed and got the job I was flown home to South-East Queensland for 10 days to pack my things to be shipped back for the three-bedroom house I was to move into.

En-route I stayed overnight in Cairns. There were too many people at the airport, the shops and the motel foyer. There seemed to be more cars on the roads than when I was there five weeks previously. The colours were brighter, there was too much choice in the shops and everyone seemed to be talking loudly. I felt strange just walking around Cairns Central looking at the shops. I felt out of place, like I didn’t belong.

When I arrived home and met up with family and friends their questions sounded trivial to me, or their lack of questions widened a gap I felt was opening up between me and everything I’d considered normal before I left home.

I didn’t know it then but I was feeling the effects of reverse culture shock.

When a person returns home after being in another country or social environment it takes a whole other set of adjustments to when they first encountered the new setting. People assume because their friend or family member who’s been away, looks and sounds like the person they knew, that they still  belong to all they left behind. But often things have changed in their absence and they have experienced life outside their previous norms in the time since they left home. They can, in fact, be quite disorientated on return.

Being aware of reverse culture shock, being prepared to experience boredom, isolation, disorientation and annoyance on arrival home will help a person to readjust. It’s a good idea to keep in contact with new friends made from the host culture and to talk to people with whom you can relate. It’s also often helpful to use creativity to incorporate the new cultural experiences into one’s regular life by writing articles or creating a photo exhibition, or simply by bringing art or cultural items into one’s home as a reminder of the time away.

Asking yourself what you’ve learnt and how you’ve changed help you to be more aware and to adjust and for the time away to have a positive effect.

I have to admit though that while these ideas are helpful, coping with reverse culture shock takes a much longer time than you’d think and if a person moves between cultures fairly regularly it doesn’t seem to get any easier. In fact one often feels like an in-between person not quite belonging anywhere.

Samoa in Aurukun

My first weekend in Aurukun I wondered how I was going to fill in the time where there were no café, cinemas or friends. But I was invited to go fishing with another nurse and the two Samoan guards. I caught my first fish, a Trevally, and began a habit of walking down with the boys most weekends and spending time with a rod among the mangroves. Fasi and Tupe were fun to be around. They laughed, joked and told stories of Samoa. The time with them went too quickly.

I soon looked forward to having a chat with Fasi, on the clinic verandah on my way back home after seeing patients after hours. His English was better than Tupe’s and he told me stories about working on the family plantation in his village of Tuan’ai on the island of Upolu, before and after school. Of the long walk there and the need to please his often angry father. Being taught to dive by him, to spear fish and octopus to feed the family. He taught me a few Samoan words and laughed at my pronunciation. He talked about breadfruit, taro and coconut cream and other Samoan foods.

A month or so after I arrived Fasi and I walked down to the landing most afternoons after work if we weren’t on duty. The landing was where we fished and where the locals put their boats into the Archer river and headed off closer to the Gulf waters. On a slow wander along a red dirt track one afternoon we found a tall breadfruit tree, covered with green fruit the size and shape of small basketballs. Fasi was excited to see what he called in Samoan, an ulu tree. He knocked down four with a long forked stick and we carried them back to his flat. I had my first lesson in Samoan food preparation. The tiny kitchen soon filled with the warm scent of baking ulu. The next thing to do was to find coconuts to scrape the flesh and make cream to dip the ulu in, take fish out of the freezer and an island style feast would be ready in no time.

Security

090Before I flew into Aurukun the Director of Nursing at the Health Clinic told me she employed two Tongan security guards to keep the nurses safe in the clinic on after hours emergency call outs.

When I arrived in 2008 I was taught how to lock the ambulance securely in a shipping container. Prior to that idea ambulances had been stolen and wrecked by local youths hungry for adventure.

I soon became accustomed to carrying several keys for various secured doors and the padlocks of closed heavy metal gates.

The word security means the state of being free from danger or threat, it comes from an old Latin word, securitas, which means “free from care”.

Aurukun over the past 20-30 years has had a history of violence, riots in the streets and fighting between families and clans. The reasons are too many and complicated for this post. But it’s resulted in the need for high security measures for all who work there.

It’s an odd thought that to be safe and free from care actually requires a large amount of resources, planning and attention. It’s just another paradox I’ve encountered as a remote area nurse.

Real or fake?

100_0140A few weeks after I arrived in Aurukun I heard about a grass weaving workshop being held at the Arts Centre. Three elderly  Central Desert women had been brought to Aurukun to share their weaving culture with the local Indigenous women. When I asked if I could watch them on my days off I was told I could join in. I was rapt.

I arrived early at eight, there was brightly coloured raffia lying around on the ground and the three visitors sitting among the tangled strands, gathering up dried grasses into lengths and drinking milky tea out of large enamel mugs. No local women appeared for a few hours. The visitors spoke no English, their soft voices sounded like a light breeze rustling through desert grasses. I’d never heard their gentle syllables before.

I sat down next to them after being handed a darning needle and being told to gather some raffia and grasses. I was disappointed to see the garish colours. The local Aurukun women wove pandanus grasses into intricately designed mats and baskets after they dyed them with various  roots turning the grasses into browns/reds/yellows. Their finished products looked more natural than whatever we could make out of the cheap imported raffia.

I wondered just what it was that the visitors could possibly show the locals. A white man videoed the scene on and off throughout the day, as a few locals straggled in and out of the blue tarpaulin shelter. Some began a basket, weaving the dried grasses together with raffia in a blanket stitch, others made themselves tea and biscuits and wandered back up Kang Kang road in the Spring heat.

I sat for two days weaving with the desert women, they guided my hands and nodded approval. I finished my basket at the end of the second day. As I was about to leave a white woman told me that everything made at the workshop had to stay with the Art Centre for an exhibition in Adelaide. No-one had mentioned that and I was the only person to have completed a basket. I told her I wanted to show the other nurses, she agreed to let me but warned me to bring it back the next day.

Now, I don’t know about you, but her attitude made me angry. I’d spent two days making something which would have been at a negligible cost to whoever paid for the raffia and I wanted to keep it as a memory. She approached me at the clinic twice after the workshop demanding my basket. I refused to let her have it on the grounds that I hadn’t been told before the workshop and that the exhibition in Adelaide was for the work of Indigenous women. Did the fact that Aboriginal women collected the grass, guided my hands and inspired me with their voices…make my work Indigenous?

I still ponder this after five years….what makes a creative work genuine? and how, especially with handcrafts does the buyer ever know what they’re actually buying? It’s different nowadays with Aboriginal paintings Art Centres go to lengths to provide proof of  the artist. But my weaving experience makes me wonder how anyone can really know if a work is made by the persons name on the accompanying ticket? and if you like it does it really matter?

Learning

There are many ways to learn, many paths to education. I completed my nursing training at Maryborough Base Hospital in 1991. It gave me a Certificate in Nursing. I now have that certificate plus over 25 years of nursing experiencing. I never had the time or money to upgrade my certificate to a degree as I was responsible for bringing up my four children. Now I plan to begin a creative writing degree next year, but I’ve been writing one way or another for over 50 years!

There is endless discussion on whether hospital or university education produces better nurses. Valid arguments come from both sides. Each needs to qualify what they mean by better, but it’s difficult not to be in agreement with both sides. And what about the many writers over the years who have never been to university and yet have produced much loved and treasured stories? The ideas and thoughts around learning and education are endless.

When I began remote area nursing, I had my certificate in nursing, 15 years of paediatric experience and two years in a small private hospital. I wasn’t an emergency trained nurse. The DON (Director of Nursing) in Aurukun told me, when also telling me what skills were needed for remote work which I didn’t have, ” They’re just skills to be learnt, but we need someone of your experience and temperament.”

I was taught to suture, cannulate, plaster, take blood and evacuate patients by ambulance by my colleagues. I was doing the work for six months before I was offered a four day course in remote nursing skills. By then I considered myself capable. I read recently of a post graduate course in remote nursing. My five years of experience has turned me into a competent practitioner.

What am I getting at in todays post? Just a reminder that learning and education comes in different guises and to be open to accepting what’s offered to you, don’t discount learning experiences that come less formally, Life’s a great teacher. I have probably learnt the most during my nursing years from people considered the least important, patients and their families, enrolled nurses and health workers and agency nurses like myself.

The photo is me sitting with visiting desert women to Aurukun in October 2008 learning to weave baskets, they spoke no English.

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Culture Shock

100_0013I was collected from the airstrip by an Aboriginal health worker from the clinic in a white rodeo ute, he tossed my luggage in the back and drove without speaking to the flat I was to stay in. It was about a kilometre up the main bitumen road, Kang Kang road. The block of three flats was across a red dirt track from the clinic.

Six foot high barbed wire fencing surrounded the flats, the sturdy metal gate was padlocked with a chain around it. I wondered if the stories I’d read of violence in Aurukun were really true. Perhaps I had good cause to feel mounting fear, the pounding in my chest was maybe an accurate warning.

A few days later when I took photos of my surroundings and emailed them to friends and family everyone was surprised at the need for such security. One person commented that the photo of the flats looked more like South Africa than Australia. Fasi told me later that I looked scared of everything when I first arrived.

There were skinny, mangy dogs lying listlessly in the heat, everywhere. The Australia I knew wouldn’t have allowed the cruelty of ribs showing and bald patches. Local people yelled at each other up and down the main street until late into the night. There were limited places to walk before you met the sea or the thick bush of pandanus and gum trees. Small children were fluent in another language with harsh staccato sounds. I felt trapped in strangeness and didn’t have a clue what to expect, none of the behavioural rules I was used to seemed to be important there. Anything could happen.

I was driven to the store soon after landing by an agency nurse. It was a large square plain building, dark and musty smelling inside. Sweaty bodies milled around, lined up at check outs or stood around the entrance mostly speaking words I’d never heard. There was little fresh fruit and vegetables, I chose a few cans and bread and wanted to get out. As I was being served by a white woman she asked if I was new and if I’d worked in an Indigenous community before. I told her I was a new nurse there for 5 weeks. She advised me to google culture shock, her kindness made me want to stay near her, but there was a queue behind me so I had to move on. I must have looked as scared as I was beginning to feel.

In her book called “Other People’s Country” Maureen Helen wrote of her arrival in a remote desert community in Western Australia in the nineties…”Life’s experiences had not prepared me for the sudden loss of personal congruency. Disorientated and sick from culture shock, I couldn’t fathom what ailed me. It made no sense that I could experience such disorientation in the country where I was born and raised.”

It’s an oddly dislocating feeling to suddenly realize you’re a stranger in your own country. No-one had prepared me for that and that shop assistant has been the only person to even mention culture shock to me in the five years since arriving in Aurukun.

Arriving

100_0035Arriving somewhere new, for a holiday or work or to meet someone is often accompanied by varying emotions and have layers of meanings. I’ve often people watched at airports and wondered what was going on in different people’s lives at the time. Airports and train stations are places of transition, arrivals and departures are portals into another life and with any journey the traveller never really knows how their lives are going to be affected by their destination.

When my partner arrived in Aurukun, a few months before me and before I even knew that he existed he wrote in his diary after landing “This is a strange place.” A short sentence but filled with many meanings that he was yet to discover, as would I too, months later.

On the 1st September 2008 and a few hours after landing in Aurukun this is partly what I wrote in my diary:

“I flew into Aurukun today, the first day of Spring. From the sky the area around is criss-crossed by dirt roads and rivers. Dense bushland, small fires spiralling up smoke, odd patches of semi-cleared ground…and still more flying time left. How far away is this place I’ve come to work in at the top of Cape York. I have no idea what to expect. I don’t know what my curiosity has landed me in this time. A place I’ve never heard of and couldn’t even find on the map. I don’t know what a paediatric nurse is doing in a place like this. I climbed down the stairs of the plane and walked into thick heat, dust and dark-skinned faces tinted dusty red by the gritty wind. There were people everywhere, standing about, shouting, waiting, kids on bikes, skinny, mangy dogs and police checking bags for alcohol…while I waited my turn to have my bags searched curiosity dissipated the shock of strangeness.”

We both described Aurukun as strange immediately on arrival. I felt afraid, Fasi was intrigued, we told each other months later. It was a place like no other we’d ever seen, nothing in my experience as an Australian prepared me for it and certainly nothing in Fasi’s experience as a Samoan had even come close. Neither of us had a clue how our lives would change after the long journey there.

Perhaps there’s more than one reason people feel apprehension at the beginning of a journey, for themselves or those close to them. And maybe it’s not always the hope for a physically safe trip…it’s because travelling and arriving has the potential to change our lives. There’s no guarantee that the person who arrived will be the same when they’re ready to depart.

The photo here is of the airport shelter at Aurukun place of so many arrivals and departures and in the wet season, the only way of entry.