Handling cultural shell shock

  • MARI HAYMAN / edge correspondent
  • Monday, September 25, 2000 9:00pm
  • Local News

A week and a half into my new life as a Uruguayan, the unthinkable happened.

Despite the four years of high school Spanish under my belt, the 13 exchange students who had lived under my roof nearly every summer since I was 2 and the extensive collection of multicultural literature lining the bookshelves in my mother’s office, my wrought-iron cultural-acceptance mechanisms were undermined.

I succumbed to culture shock.

At the time, I couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong: I rented foreign films at Blockbuster (subtitles, never dubbed), traveled at every opportunity and voluntarily consumed sushi on a regular basis.

The biggest motive behind my escape to Uruguay was the fact that my life needed a change, and post-graduation seemed like the time to dive into it headfirst.

I went so far as to defer enrollment in Stanford University (the school I’d dreamed of attending since I was 8) in exchange for a year abroad, where I’d brave the "jungles and uncivilized tribes of Uruguay" instead — thereby mystifying pretty much everyone I knew and intensifying my desire to get away.

After all, I had spent my entire life in Marysville, which is just about as novel and exotic as a cow pie, and I was absolutely convinced that no one was more ready to leave a place than I was.

But if I thought I could get through a yearlong exchange program completely unscathed, the last month has proven me wrong.

On the plane, when I nobly informed myself that I, unlike the ethnocentric rabble that had gone before me, would be the paragon of open-minded cultural relativity, I hadn’t expected to be coerced into argyle knee socks, loafers and a wool dress-like monstrosity faintly reminiscent of the Hitler Youth.

This, in case you missed it, refers to the obligatory high-school uniform I am required to wear to my Uruguayan high school every day.

There’s even a tie — a travesty of human dignity that I believed I’d permanently cast aside when I quit my job as a Safeway courtesy clerk. Wrong again.

Technically, I’m not even supposed to be in high school anymore, but the Uruguayan school system is a semester behind (due to the reversal of seasons in the southern hemisphere), and I have been reduced to this.

Every morning, as I stand in front of the mirror dumbfounded by how unflattering my uniform is, my only consolation is that I finally had concrete proof that Britney Spears and her insidious little Catholic schoolgirl routine is making my life pure hell.

My host mother just beams. "You look exactly like a Uruguayan!" she tells me approvingly.

This is just one of the many shocks, surprises and rude awakenings I have encountered during my first month as an apartment-dwelling, Catholic-school-attending pseudo-Montevidean.

If I thought that the three-week Super Leisure Tour of Europe I took with my grandparents the summer of my sophomore year would prepare me in any way for life in a foreign country, I was stupid.

If I thought I wasn’t ethnocentric, I was wrong. The Super Leisure Tour may have taught me how to get along with a busload of 60 senior citizens for three weeks, but Uruguay, it turns out, is an entirely different matter.

First of all, that water goes down the drain clockwise and that the Big Dipper is missing from the night sky are just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s Uruguayan society, more than anything else, that seems foreign to me, and next to a South American’s zest for life, I feel anemic by comparison.

Unfamiliar with the concept of personal space and restrained affection, hordes of complete strangers descend upon me in greeting and proceed to shower me with kisses every time I walk down the street, then look somewhat stunned when I pull back in bewilderment.

The kids in my class have been known to burst into song without warning, cheer when a favorite teacher enters the room and bestow weird pet names upon one another like Chipi, Salgui and Koki (which refers to our headmaster, a Jesuit priest whose head looks like a coconut).

And every morning on the way to school, two Bolivian transients hop on the city bus and treat the commuters to a rousing rendition of "Guantanamera," accompanied by guitar and panpipes.

Although any notion that Uruguay is an uncivilized jungle is a myth, one certainly does not encounter these things in the United States.

Well, I guess society and culture aren’t as easily shed as I had hoped, and it turns out I’m reinforcing stereotypes about pop-culture-obsessed, materialistic American society that I’d initially hoped to dispel.

Because of my pathetic Spanish skills the week of my arrival, my main function at any Uruguayan gathering seemed to be dissecting the lyrics of the Bloodhound Gang’s "The Bad Touch" to a captive audience of Uruguayan teens.

So, ironically, just as I was congratulating myself on my cosmopolitan, citizen-of-the-world ability to use chopsticks and appreciate fine foreign films, it dawned on me that I was undeniably American after all.

A month later, I’m still trying to construct my personal identity from scratch as I confront my own closed-mindedness and occasional stupidity.

After 18 years of developing an identity that served me perfectly well in the United States, this isn’t easy to do. Despite my eagerness to flee the country, I can’t help but maintain vestiges of my American self.

And when placed against a backdrop of the Uruguayan culture, they’re more apparent that they’ve ever been before, particularly when I’m sitting through a 40-minute lecture in Spanish on the Uruguayan bicameral system, surrounded by the crucifixes that adorn the walls of my private, Catholic high school (note: I am not Catholic).

Now I can recognize the slow, two-way process of assimilation that’s going on as I expose the part of my American self that is complete bull, while recognizing that there is a part that is actually worth keeping.

In any case, I’m just an exchange student, not an expatriate. When I come back to the United States a year from now, I hope to be the best of both worlds.

And I’ll definitely be leaving the high school uniform behind.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Traffic idles while waiting for the lights to change along 33rd Avenue West on Tuesday, April 2, 2024 in Lynnwood, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Lynnwood seeks solutions to Costco traffic boondoggle

Let’s take a look at the troublesome intersection of 33rd Avenue W and 30th Place W, as Lynnwood weighs options for better traffic flow.

A memorial with small gifts surrounded a utility pole with a photograph of Ariel Garcia at the corner of Alpine Drive and Vesper Drive ion Wednesday, April 10, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Death of Everett boy, 4, spurs questions over lack of Amber Alert

Local police and court authorities were reluctant to address some key questions, when asked by a Daily Herald reporter this week.

The new Amazon fulfillment center under construction along 172nd Street NE in Arlington, just south of Arlington Municipal Airport. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald) 20210708
Frito-Lay leases massive building at Marysville business park

The company will move next door to Tesla and occupy a 300,0000-square-foot building at the Marysville business park.

Mountlake Terrace Mayor Kyko Matsumoto-Wright on Wednesday, April 10, 2024 in Mountlake Terrace, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
With light rail coming soon, Mountlake Terrace’s moment is nearly here

The anticipated arrival of the northern Link expansion is another sign of a rapidly changing city.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Snohomish in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
1 dead in motorcycle crash on Highway 522 in Maltby

Authorities didn’t have any immediate details about the crash that fully blocked the highway Friday afternoon.

Photographs in the 2024 Annual Black and White Photography Contest on display at the Schack Art Center on Thursday, April 18, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Black and white photos aren’t old school for teens at Schack Art Center

The photography contest, in its 29th year, had over 170 entries. See it at the Schack in Everett through May 5.

A memorial with small gifts surrounded a utility pole with a photograph of Ariel Garcia at the corner of Alpine Drive and Vesper Drive ion Wednesday, April 10, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett mom charged with first-degree murder in death of son, 4

On Friday, prosecutors charged Janet Garcia, 27, three weeks after Ariel Garcia went missing from an Everett apartment.

Dr. Mary Templeton (Photo provided by Lake Stevens School District)
Lake Stevens selects new school superintendent

Mary Templeton, who holds the top job in the Washougal School District, will take over from Ken Collins this summer.

A closed road at the Heather Lake Trail parking lot along the Mountain Loop Highway in Snohomish County, Washington on Wednesday, July 20, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Mountain Loop Highway partially reopens Friday

Closed since December, part of the route to some of the region’s best hikes remains closed due to construction.

Emma Dilemma, a makeup artist and bikini barista for the last year and a half, serves a drink to a customer while dressed as Lily Munster Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022, at XO Espresso on 41st Street in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
After long legal battle, Everett rewrites bikini barista dress code

Employees now have to follow the same lewd conduct laws as everyone else, after a judge ruled the old dress code unconstitutional.

The oldest known meteor shower, Lyrid, will be falling across the skies in mid- to late April 2024. (Photo courtesy of Pixabay)
Clouds to dampen Lyrid meteor shower views in Western Washington

Forecasters expect a storm will obstruct peak viewing Sunday. Locals’ best chance at viewing could be on the coast. Or east.

AquaSox's Travis Kuhn and Emerald's Ryan Jensen an hour after the game between the two teams on Sunday continue standing in salute to the National Anthem at Funko Field on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019 in Everett, Wash. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
New AquaSox stadium downtown could cost up to $120M

That’s $40 million more than an earlier estimate. Alternatively, remodeling Funko Field could cost nearly $70 million.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.