Fresh Eyes: Culture shock is not a bad thing

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by Seth Barham

I sat in the Green Bean over an empty mug and a full pint, trying to look as pensive and cool as everyone else in there, but probably coming across as disheveled more than anything else. This was a moment I had been so excited for. The coffee in China sucks and the beer sucks harder. I had survived a year of it.

When I walked down Elm Street to get here, I could hear birds, the willows being rustled by the breeze and the general ambience of downtown that always suggests “something” is happening. On Ju Ying Guo Ji, my street in China, it’s usually the incessant honking of horns, the rattling of pneumatic drills and someone hocking up an impressive specimen of phlegm that will no doubt land inches from my feet a half second later.

And, yes, most of these sounds do make their way inside the 15th floor window of my classically Maoist-style apartment block. From this same window, I watch winters of apocalyptic proportions descend on the city of Daqing, dropping the mercury to 30 below and freezing its lakes solid. Seemingly to intentionally add to the desolate wasteland effect, the government then turns on the coal-powered heating system around November-ish, and the smog completes my annual Christmas card. Classic China.

As I walked inside my favorite Greensboro café and sat down, I enjoyed complete anonymity and utter ordinariness. No one stared or giggled. Nobody poked a friend in the ribs to direct their attention to the foreigner. I was no longer the laowai. By all accounts, I should be thrilled to be home. And I was, for a couple of weeks.

The fog of culture shock can blind you. Humans are tribal beings, and we cling to the norms of our communities of origin stubbornly. It can be a challenge to overcome the concept of the “other” and embrace eating chicken feet as just one of those weird quirks rather than an exclusively Chinese thing. But perhaps reverse culture shock presents an even taller hurdle.

I realized something about that version of myself that had been sitting on a cramped plane to Raleigh-Durham International, salivating like a dog hearing the first fast car in a year coming up around the bend.

Once I got home, I hugged my mom, drank with my friends, ate burritos and binge-watched “Community” on Netflix. But I missed the chaos of China.

Therein lies the incredibly frustrating but overwhelming benefit of being floored by a different culture, and then your own. Sometimes it seems impossible to enjoy home without missing your own place, half a world away and vice versa. I feel weird in America now. My more conservative relatives are probably wondering if I’m in the process of defecting.

As much as I love Greensboro, I’m not finished with the hellhole I described earlier. It’s that tribal thing. It’s obsolete. We all have it, because we are all ignorant on some level. Mark Twain nailed it when he said that travel is fatal to this innate ignorance. The most important thing I’ve learned in China and everywhere before it is that we — the different branches of the human family — are far more similar than we are different

I think we can objectively say that it has not been a good month for the world. There’s Ferguson, the escalation of aggression between Russia and Ukraine, incredible bloodshed in Gaza and, of course, the significant gains of the Islamic State at the cost of grotesque violence. That deep, tribal instinct has not changed much at all since we were bashing each other’s skulls in with clubs. Only the motivations are different, but the excuse is the same: “They’re not like us.”

It’s that tribalism inside me, the outdated myth of the other, that I’m always trying to kill, little by little, country by country.

If only every country in the world had some sort of mandatory conscription, not into the military but a gap-year program. Travel is a force for the greatest good and if everyone was made to do it, I probably wouldn’t need a beer every time I see the news. Tribalism would just be more vestigial refuse, tossed to the side in the wake of human evolution.

Obviously, not everyone can go abroad and I’m incredibly lucky. Maybe also a little naïve. But, that’s the stuff I thought about in the Green Bean while I tried to reconcile my new cultural baggage from China with my old life in the Triad. I achieved world peace (in my mind) over coffee.

You’re welcome, world.