Feb 3, 2010

Culture Shock

For the first time in my life, I have a driver's license from a state other than Florida. I am in a State of disbelief to go along with it. It's sinking in that this Florida girl is "not in Kansas anymore" and that doesn't make sense but I'm still kinda sad about it.

I still have my DL from Mexico City, but in the five years we lived there, I didn't have to give up my Florida license in order to get my permit.

Yesterday I had to surrender my Florida license and do now possess a shiny new South Carolina license. (With a decent photo. A couple of guys gave me a nice shout-out of congrats, so rare is it to have one's official photos look decent. It was kinda nice to get a witness that wasn't a cop. I'm not likely to get carded at the liquor store any more.)

All in all, Charleston has been miserable for weather, but luxurious in fine dining, good job prospects (especially with Boeing coming here), and friendly people. They really are nice and if I don't learn to NOT honk the horn, EVER, they're gonna run me outta here. My SC license tag may say, "In God We Trust" but He's the ONLY one I trust. All others are frakkin' texters and rear-quarter-panel huggers that get on my last nerve. Speaking of which, I actually shamed a texting idiot in his visible-from-outer-space Escalade to pull over before he squashed someone in their Miata. A forbidden beep of the horn, and a well-articulated, if silent, "eff you!" with attendant texting gestures got the message across.

So I'm settling in just fine. Charleston will just have to learn to live with me, I guess.

Have you ever seen real culture shock take over a person? In our five years in Mexico City, we saw a couple of singular and spectacular cases of it. It rends your heart to see someone refuse to leave their bed, zip up their sleeping bag over their head and wait for the money to be wired to them so they can return home and forget they ever tried to live cheek-to-jowl with 20 million other human beings that don't speak your language. We're talking an entire young family that had made the commitment to move there, and were gone within 30 days of arrival.

Third-world countries are not for the uninitiated or the ivory-towered. We had a TV sports producer come down to visit and make a professional video for us. He was great while in our fairly modern home, but when we took him into our community, amongst our friends in the poorest sections of the city, he couldn't recover. He couldn't eat. He could not function well. He stuck it out, we kept him in more Westernized areas of the city and he did an awesome job for us. But we were sure he'd never make a return trip to visit.

You have to roll with it, baby, and learn the language to survive. You had to have a burned-bridges approach to living there because 20 million people don't slow down for you. They turn away in exasperation if you don't know how to order your deli selections. They won't serve you, or drive you somewhere, or bother at all with you if you can't step up and make yourself a pleasant and harmless addition to their daily rat race. They won't publish signs or legal documents in any language but theirs. And don't even think about answering the phone! Your Spanish is great until you have to decipher garbled phone jabber and colloquialisms that leave you hoping you didn't just agree to something you'll regret later.

And I can't imagine the challenges of Haiti. Many years ago the J.R. inadvertently spent 12 days there on what was supposed to be a short week's trip to visit some missionary friends. It seems the hired pilot that flew him down there got himself arrested for smuggling drugs! Haitian jail! The pilot was good enough to vouch for the J.R.'s innocence, but it took another five days for the Jolly Roger to find a way home. It was a long, silent 12 days back home, waiting for word, too. Haiti was a wretched place full of beautiful folks, but even back then the government couldn't come up with a million bucks to pay for a tanker of oil.

My only moment of real culture anxiety was while illegally visiting a small, Western island nation that is ruled by a dictator. I was there to do translation work for a team that was bringing medicines and supplies to bolster their amazing free healthcare system that Harry Belafonte raves about. (Socialism works best when supported by Capitalism.) However, just getting past customs was scary enough since our pretext was thin, we were being told to go home, I was having others to shepherd and translate for, learning new idioms on the fly, shielding the authorities from the misguided wrath of one of my charges, translating others' thoughts for hours and days and never being able to express my own, trying to make stupider team members see how maybe driving someone's car late at night without "official" permission could be a jail sentence of uncertain length. I was emotionally wrung out with herding stupid cats and finally just collapsed in tears. I hit the wall. The shock was in working with the Episcopalians. (The Pope doesn't know what he's asking for. . .) But I loved that place like no other. Away from the main city, out in the country, meeting with local folks and drinking agua ardiente, singing for a houseful, porchful, porchfuls of people, dancing for joy and rum, and generally just feeling from folks the most bittersweet love you can imagine. . . I'd dare that adventure again, happily.

I guess I should write more about it, but those memories are like a secret little hoarde of delight for me; snapshots of another life that I forgot to keep living.


Omnibus Driver said...

Ah, Charleston! Have you been to Hyman's yet? If not, what are you waiting for? Order the deviled crab. It's a beautiful thing!

jwm said...

In '81 I took a trip to Mazatlan, and on a whim I decided that I had to see the Museo de las Momias in Guanajuato.
(That's sort of like visiting LA, and deciding to do a side trip to Mount Rushmore.)

All day, all night, and all day again transferring from this bus to that bus. From Mzatlan to Tepic, to Guadalajara, to Leon, and finally to Guanajuato. I saw the museum, and the mummies. And I had just enough money left to get the cheap-o bus back to Guadalajara, buy a plane ticket to Tijuana, and get a taxi to the border. I walked across to San Ysidro, CA. There I had less than five bucks left. Luckily a Greyhound driver cut me some slack and took me all the way to Santa Ana. I called my Dad collect at sometime around three AM. That's a story for a blog post someday...


CastoCreations said...

Why is honking wrong??? That confuses me.

pamibe said...

Culture shock can be quite severe; I cried when moving to Florida required turning over my Texas DL. Horrors!

It's been 15 years and I'm just starting to settle in... ;)

After so many adventures... maybe you should write a book?

LauraB said...

Oh, do tell the tales...even in such small snippets as they're wonderfully rendered.

And yes - when creature comforts are removed the real character of a person is revealed. One must simply smile and enjoy being alive as there is often little else left...

Betsy said...

Florida is diminished in your absence but this Floridian is grateful for teh interwebs to keep up with your adventures.

PeggyU said...

I agree with pamibe. You should write a book. You don't have to share it if you don't want to, obviously, but I'm sure there are many of us who would like to read it! (Besides, I need something to sit next to A Trip of Goats on the bookshelf.)

Jean said...

Please share more, even in bits.
Have always been in awe of your courage to explore life in its fullest. No fear.
I am a timid shit.

GUYK said...

Yep, after spending many years in places such as Turkey and countries in S.E Asia I can assure anyone that live in the third world is not for the timid among us. Bad water, flies, and poor sanitation habits are enough to send most American tourists back to their five star hotel waiting for the next flight out.

But those who are willing to learn the customs and enough of the language to communicate will find it an enjoyable learning experience.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Hey Joan,

You can't just leave us hangin' here...not with several potential cliffhangers to exploit. :^)

Anonymous said...

Charleston=She Crap Soup. I go to Charleston just for that every month.

Tell your tales! I went to Haiti while on a cruise. Not exactly a humanitarian mission, although I did buy some of their wares, so I helped the economy I reckon.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to Charleston, great place except for the tourists. Hyman's is a tourist trap, too many other great places to eat.

James Old Guy