Last May I went to as many events as I could at the Northern Territory Writers Festival in Darwin. The highlight for me was a panel of speakers discussing memoir writing and how family might react to the stories shared. All four women had published a recent memoir.The questions asked ranged from, “Do writers edit out parts to protect feelings?” to, “How much time has to pass before dirty laundry can be safely aired and can it ever be aired?”.The consensus was that you have to tell your own story and navigate the “hard stuff” about who it’s going to affect, the wisest, kindest way you can. There was no easy answer to any question raised. Each writer recognised the problem and each had worked out for themselves how to tell their own story with minimal negative impact on family.
Magda Szubanski reminded us that Aboriginal people are very conscious of not telling a story that doesn’t belong to them.She struggled with writing her fathers story, balancing her words carefully so as not to disrespect the Polish Jewish and Catholic communities the family had been a part of. She taught herself to write by finding her own voice and thus making the telling her own, if not the story itself.The memoir took her eight years to complete.
Each person has a unique story, unlike any other. And to be able to tell it freely enables a person to make sense of their life’s experiences. To clarify their emotions, to heal from losses, to inspire and encourage and to preserve cultural identity and so much more. Storytelling is fundamental to human experience. As listeners or readers we are entertained, we learn, we experience vicariously and we are enlarged by the contact with another person’s world. But, for all the benefits it’s still a balancing act to be honest in our telling and to share our story, without taking away from those closest to us what is rightfully theirs. Their story, their perception, their life. And isn’t that the same compromise we face day after day, whether writing a memoir or living our lives.
When that shop assistant told me to Google culture shock, I’m sure I did, but I don’t remember a thing I read, neither have I written anything about it in my journal. Thats a puzzle to me and unlike what I normally do. I read to figure things out and record my thoughts.
I probably read that the definition of culture shock is “The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.” It may be experienced due to immigration or a visit to a different country, a move between social environments or simply travel to another type of life.” But I don’t remember being helped by any words about it.
Culture shock is a type of transition shock. Its a predictable state of loss and disorientation caused by a change in a person’s familiar environment that requires adjustment. Completely understandable when you read back a few years later from the comfort of the familiar place, but when, without warning you suddenly lose sense of yourself and the reality of the country you thought you knew, no written words will enlighten your rational mind.
It has degrees of severity, different effects and time spans but the most commonly experienced symptoms are as follows:-
- Sadness and loneliness
- Over concern about your health
- Headache, pains, allergies
- Anger, depression, vulnerability
- Idealizing your own culture
- Trying too hard to adapt by becoming obsessed with the new culture
- Feeling insecure and shy
- Feeling lost and confused
- Clinging to everything familiar by the need to email/phone home
- Compulsive eating/drinking
In the first few months and beyond of arriving in Aurukun I experienced all of the above and it was only a stranger behind a shop counter who thought to tell me about it. There’s a lot of helpful information on the internet but being aware of, and prepared for, culture shock would be the most help. The problem is that it’s an overwhelming reaction that once you’re experiencing it is difficult to get perspective. I’ve just found an on-line cultural competency course from “Unite For Sight” a US charity organisation. It gives the following helpful advice to dealing with cultural shock:-
- Pursue information gathering
- Look for logic in your new surroundings
- Make sense of the environment
- Use wisdom and patience
- Use humour (A big help!)
- Have faith in yourself (what you’re feeling is normal!)
- Don’t pity yourself
- Stay mentally, physically and socially active
- Get enough rest
- Eat a balance diet
- Take reasonable risks (go exploring safely)
- Ask for help
- Use friends and family as emotional supports
Thinking about all this five years later I look back over my life and recognise a few times of transition when I’ve experienced a sense of dislocation, moving interstate with my family as a teenager, staying at home with small babies after I married in my early 20s and returning to a hospital to do my nursing training in my 30s are the main times that come to mind. But beginning life as a remote area nurse was by far the most overwhelming and has taken the longest to come to terms with. In lots of ways I’m still dealing with culture shock.