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

More in Local News

A few weeks before what could be her final professional UFC fight, Miranda Granger grimaces as she pushes a 45-pound plate up her driveway on Tuesday, July 12, 2022, in Lake Stevens, Washington. Her daughter Austin, age 11 months, is strapped to her back. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Daily Herald staff wins 5 honors at annual journalism competition

The Herald got one first-place win and four runner-up spots in SPJ’s Northwest Excellence in Journalism contest.

Panelists from different areas of mental health care speak at the Herald Forum about mental health care on Wednesday, May 31, 2023 in Snohomish, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
At panel, mental health experts brainstorm answers to staff shortages

Workforce shortages, insurance coverage and crisis response were in focus at the Snohomish forum hosted by The Daily Herald.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Snohomish in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Report of downed hot air balloon turns up farmer’s tarp near Snohomish

Two 911 callers believed they saw a hot air balloon crash, leading to a major search-and-rescue response. It was a false alarm.

People gather for a color throw at Stanwood and Camano’s first-ever Pride celebration on Saturday, June 4, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
‘We’ve at least come a little ways’: Snohomish to host first Pride event

A 10 a.m. parade on First Street will be followed by a pop-up market with 60 vendors, a downtown wine walk, queer cabaret and more.

The site of a former 76 gas station and a handful of century old buildings will be the location for new apartments buildings at the corner of Pacific and Rucker on Wednesday, May 31, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Old gas station demolished for apartments in downtown Everett

A 200-unit apartment complex between three and seven stories tall is proposed at Pacific and Rucker avenues.

Kamiak High School is pictured Friday, July 8, 2022, in Mukilteo, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Kamiak football coach fired amid sexual misconduct investigation

Police believe Julian Willis, 34, sexually abused the student in portable classrooms on Kamiak High School’s campus.

Police: Marysville man fist-bumped cop, exposing tattoos of wanted robber

The suspect told police he robbed three stores to pay off a drug debt. He’d just been released from federal prison for another armed robbery.

Cat killed, 9 people displaced after duplex fire in Everett

None of the people were injured in the fire reported around 1:15 a.m. in the 11500 block of Meridian Avenue S.

Gabriela Kelpe at her home on Friday, June 2, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Long waits, big bills: Everett mom’s painful search for dental care

When she learned she needed a root canal, Gabriela Kelpe read an infection could go to her unborn baby. But she struggled to get affordable care.

Most Read