By Mark Freedman
Culture shock. It is a process we all go through when introduced to a foreign situation. It can happen to you if you’re from the country and just visiting the ‘big city’ for the first time, or if you travel to another part of the world where everything is different, the culture, the norms, the taboos, the way of life…literally just about everything. Well, such is a fact even when travelling to Malawi for the second time. Generally, there are five stages of culture shock, the honeymoon stage, disintegration, reintegration, autonomy, and interdependence (Pederson, 1994). I use the term generally as my way of describing how there is some give within the constraints outlined by these five stages. I imagine culture shock as if it were a mountain, where the climber goes through the excitement of a new hike before starting, looking up at the beautiful struggle ahead. Then throughout the hike, the climber sees all these new things, the trees, possibly animals, and all the way to the top, there are positives along the way, something that you can look at while you are getting tired half way through the climb and you think to yourself “hey, this is still worth it, when I get to the top I’ll be able to enjoy it in the moment and for the rest of my life”. Feelings and aspects associated with each stage of culture shock, I believe, can be evident throughout the entire journey. However I can’t be certain for the fact that I believe I won’t reach some of the later stages of culture shock as they may take consecutive months to develop while living or being in a situation that is unfamiliar.
When we first got to the campus a few days ago, it felt familiar, everyone from the community that has become involved with TPM over the years was there to greet us, and coming back for the second time, it was nice and comforting to see the familiar faces and receive a personal greeting. The campus looks great. There is a new security house, a new addition since last year, the soccer pitch has grass on it, which school boys from the community got together to make possible. And seeing Kasungu mountain from the campus was definitely a honeymoon stage moment, having hiked it last year. But I have also already had moments where I’ve felt like a kid out of place. Just yesterday we went into town and while at a shop I was gathering the money I had put aside in my pocket; keep in mind this is Malawian Kwachas (the local currency) I’m talking about. So, while I gathered the bills, all of which were different denominations, and took them out of my pocket, I began to count, and hand the cashier money, and count, and hand him more change, and count again. Quickly I became flustered and was in a sort of shock where I just didn’t know what to do. It turned out that I didn’t give him the right amount, even though I counted about three times. I goofed, for lack of a better term. The feeling that ensued shook me a bit, but I realize that this moment was a moment of culture shock, being in an unfamiliar situation and not knowing what to do. But I feel I have definitely improved in getting to know the culture here, improving my cultural competence, if you will. In that sense, I definitely feel more comfortable in engaging with the locals Malawian’s especially with the few who know me from last year.
I will say this though, no matter the occasional feeling of being flustered, or shook by something, so far there is always an equal or greater moment of joy and hominess.