Thursday, July 23, 2009

Stage Two

Sorry if I've been a little taciturn lately (in other words, if you've checked for a new entry, expecting my usual verbal diarrhea, and have been disappointed). In truth, I've been struggling with ugly feelings and haven't wanted to share them.

I wanted to embark on this adventure because I knew I needed a change. Perhaps it's the cliched midlife crisis--I'll turn 45 next month and, assuming 90 to be a ripe old age for anyone, that puts me right at the halfway point--and I need to shake up the usual in order to feel as if I'm really living, or perhaps I really did want to get out of Green Bay in order to explore the rest of the world, to feel that I was still connected to it, or maybe I wanted to recapture some of that high school buzz I felt living in Mexico, getting a whole new perspective on the "American" experience.

I wanted, too, to think of myself as cosmopolitan, a woman of the world, to remind myself that I'm not a stodgy middle class white woman who takes her privilege for granted. In other words, I wanted to think of myself as a good person.

But I can't think of myself as a good person when I walk down the streets with a black clot of despair and anger and even repulsion roiling in my brain. And that's what I've been carrying for the last two or three weeks, an intermittent, pulsing center of disgust and rejection, along with waves of homesickness and fear. I remember the Army brats at the American School in Mexico, angry kids who swore and spat out their hatred for my adopted country between long drags on their cigarettes and pulls on the bottle. I never wanted to be like them, mired in self importance and entitlement, full of loathing for anything new or different, "ugly Americans" to the core.

Surfing the internet yields the stages of culture shock: stage one is the honeymoon phase, when everything is exotic, new, exciting. Stage two is the negotiation phase, when 60% of those of us in new cultures begin to compare and contrast, and to reject. We might withdraw into small communities of like-minded compatriots, to feel depression and repulsion for aspects of the new culture, to dream of returning (immediately) to the familiar. This stage is characterized by the fear of doing wrong, the self consciousness of difference, feelings of rejection and anger. Some of us never make it out of this phase, becoming Rejectors. Stage three, if one gets there, the adjustment phase, is either assimilation, or adoption, rejection or cosmopolitanism.

Of course I don't want to be a rejector--rejectors have the hardest time, even when they do go home (reverse culture shock on reentry is the worst for these folks). I don't want to be one of those people who has to drink herself into oblivion, or smoke herself into a stupor, one of those women who barely lives and, because she's so miserable, makes everyone around her as wretched. And I don't necessarily want to disappear into a new culture, to assimilate perfectly. Either way, I don't want to lose myself. I want to be better, bigger, a cosmopolitan, able to sort through all the cultures I've experienced to enjoy them all while retaining a core identity.

But I'm feeling all these rejector feelings (which I didn't even want to admit to you all, which is why I've been reluctant to write anything real down, except in emails to those who know me best). These feelings play themselves out on the level of sight and smell (as, if I'm honest with myself, they did in Mexico, too), but smell particularly. Is that because the sense of smell is the most primal of our senses? In any case, for the last few weeks I've been overwhelmed by smells here: Jeepney smoke, a black pall that hovers over the street; the mold and dust of the air conditioner, sour and dizzying; human excrement; thick woodsmoke; armpit sweat; rotting garbage; overripe fruit; stinging laundry detergent; moldy sink rags; dirty hair; cheesy feet; fried foods; raw meats in the hot market air; cigarette smoke; the skim of snot at the back of my throat. That many of these smells emanate from myself makes little difference--actually, if anything, it makes my feelings of disgust worse.

The other thing that's happening is that I'm keeping my head down. I don't want to catch people (strangers) in the eye. Eye contact feels invasive, dangerous. So I watch my feet as I walk, creating a little world in front of me for myself only. At the same time, I feel the rudeness of my little world, my attempt to put up an invisible shield, and it pains me.

I won't say that I want to come home immediately. It's not that dire. But I am aware that we're nearly halfway through our stay here, and will admit that the thought gives me comfort. Perhaps the knowledge that our visit is only for 4 months makes me more likely to stay in the second stage of culture shock, negotiating, isolating myself, failing to learn much of the new language; knowing that we'd be living in Mexico for at least two years forced me to find my place there, my peace, to see the good. But I did, on reflection, spend quite a bit of time hidden (alone) in my room, reading whatever I could get my hands on--but, particularly, schlocky American novels and trashy romances. And there were smells and sights there that still haunt me, that can't be expiated by poetry, fiction, talk or time.

I guess the worst feeling of this second stage is the self consciousness, the paranoia of the uninitiated, the obvious outsider. I've always wanted to belong, I suppose.

And the flashback to high school. It's painful to feel like that lost young woman again, trying to find her voice in both a new culture and (what she couldn't name) an oppressive patriarchy determined to shape her voice to suit its pleasures. Does anyone out there want to relive his or her high school experience? I hope not.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I followed your blog for a simple reason...I like the way you write. But after reading a few entries, I realized for the first time the difficulties of living in another country...and I am not talking only about the Philippines. From the eyes of an American expat working in the Philippines, I suddenly saw the difficulties that our own OFW (Overseas Filipino Workers) experience in working abroad in terms of living in a different culture. You are now living in Metro-Manila. I don't know if your Filipino friends have told you this but in fact the Philippines is made up not only of 7,100 plus islands but of diverse cultures, languages and even values. The dismal, cramped and maze that is Metro-Manila is not a real representative of this country. I am Filipino and even I encounter cultural difficulties when traveling to different parts of the country (and I detest living in Manila as well). And so I empathize with you and I hope you will have better and more enjoyable days for the rest of the semester. Here is a blog that might interest you and help you understand this country better...the Philippines from the eyes of a Fil-Am
    Stay sane and keep that smile on your face :)

  3. Dear merl_md:

    Thank you for your kind response and support. Indeed, the best part of being here is experiencing the warmth and openness of our friends. I've been aware that this part of the country can't be indicative of the vast and varied whole, and have been thinking about trips to other parts--but sometimes just trying to plan a weekend adventure seems impossible. What trips elsewhere might you suggest?


  4. For a short stress free weekend trip just around Metro Manila's about Tagaytay and Taal? But you have to plan your trip to avoid the weekend traffic. Do you have friends who can bring you? For peace and quiet, there is a place there called Antonio's that serve great food and Sonya's Garden, a nice country-styled place with great salads and a health spa. There's also the historical Taal Vista Hotel.

    If I lived in the area, I'd bring you but I am in the Visayas and my Manila trips are usually business in nature and never more than twice a year unless an emergency comes up.

    You know it would be good to get out of the Metro-Manila Area...I studied there for 6 years and spent another 6 months in-service training and I could not wait to come home, that in spite of the fact that I had family there, so I can imagine how you feel. When your stint in UP is over, it would be great to explore the Visayas...let me know.


  5. Thanks for all your help, Maritel!