Culture shock…Blog #108

House is 6 floors high, 107cm wide. In La Seu, Valencia

I’ve heard about it, been aware of it, down played it, and now experienced it…culture shock! Shock is a great descriptor.

When I was 11, still living in Ireland, my dad, was recognized as the top sales person in his company and thus won an all expense trip for the family to a location of his choosing; my parents decided on Ibiza, Spain. It was truly amazing, very different from our home country. The language was different and the food was not quite the same as we were accustomed to. I remember one particular dinner at the hotel in which we were staying. I can’t recall what was on the menu, but whatever it was, we thought, called for ketchup. Admittedly, ketchup was like a side dish for us. Once the food was served my brother naturally asked for ketchup. The look on the server’s face removed any doubt that this was not customary for our dish…or any dish served in this establishment. Still, he returned with the requested condiment, and with the chef. They stood by my brother and watched what he was going to do with the ketchup, then shook their heads and walked away. We thought this was funny, continued on with our delicious meal, and decided that the Spanish people had strange ideas about food, and easily accepted it as being a cultural thing. No big deal. The language barrier was overcome with non-verbal hand descriptions aptly demonstrated by my dad, and learning very basic, and important, words and phrases: baño, por favor, Cuánto cuesta este?, Muchas gracias, and, Podemos tener más papel higiénico? (can we have more toilet paper?). For 2 weeks we were able to get by. 

We observed another very strange thing…around 2pm, everyone seemed to disappear, leaving the pool at the full disposal of our family! We were so excited, and enjoyed our choice of deck chairs, servers, and of course, no one to worry about when splashing to our heart’s content. Later that evening, we learned of our error. 2pm marked the time when the sun was at its hottest, and the smart people of Ibiza knew to escape to the cool of their rooms. So here we were with our virgin Irish skin, washing off what little sun tan lotion we had applied by jumping into the chlorinated pool, towelling off…repeat. By bedtime we were in such pain! Our red scorched skin replaced the need for any lights being turned on that night! Again, we learned, and quickly mimicked the practice honoured by everyone around us on the resort. For 2 weeks we were able to get by.

A few decades later I am once again in Spain; it’s not so easy, and we are not on vacation, and it’s not just about the sun or getting more toilet paper, and we are not in the comfort of a resort. We are living in the old fisherman’s quarter of El Barrio del Cabanyal. The area is steeped in history; a walk around reveals glimpses of a turbulent past. It truly is a neighbourhood, not a tourist attraction. And, English is not spoken by, well, anyone! For this we were not prepared. It’s not just the language, we feel like outsiders, like we don’t belong. We’re not the ‘longed for welcomed guests’…we are trying to insert ourselves into someone else’s home, and it is hard! Not only is the language different, but the non-verbal actions are challenging to interpret. It’s almost a feeling of indifference that we are getting. Please don’t misunderstand me, this is what we are seeing and feeling…it is not an exposé on the character or hospitality of the Spanish people. When we do find someone who can speak English, they are more than happy to help, the challenge is finding those people.

One of the Fallas monuments in Valencia El Carme

Another surprise awaiting us was the constant setting off of fireworks. According to Mario, our amazing tour guide, Spaniards love fireworks; the noise, the smoke, the smell of gunpowder, everything about them. And, it is early March…time for Las Fallas. Officially, the festival runs from March 15th -19th, with Noche de la Cremà  finishing off the celebration. However, the locals start celebrating March 1, with firecrackers going off every few seconds…be still my heart! For those who enjoy an elevated BOOM, a thunderous firecracker show called a mascletà is held every day at 2 p.m. in Plaza del Ayuntamiento. My husband attended while I remained as far away as possible…by the Central Market. It was unbelievable…the ground literally shook under my feet! I know I can’t do justice to describing this event, so please visit this Fallas site to get a better sense of what this celebration is all about.

Getting the chicken ready for paella

As we walk around our neighbourhood we see large groups of people celebrating and enjoying being together; it’s like multiple block parties with paella being cooked on open fires in the middle of the road, lots of laughter, and drinking. We walk by, watching, observing, but not joining. We are outsiders, not part of their history, or present, or future. It really is lovely to see the community created by these folks, it makes me miss home.

One of my projects while on extended study leave, is to study for and write the exam for my GPHR (Global Professional in Human Resources) designation. The module I am currently studying relates to culture, in particular culture shock. The context relates to organisations supporting expatriates as they go on assignments to other countries. As I read through the general ‘symptoms’ I was amazed at how many I was personally experiencing. The list includes: irritation, homesickness, loneliness, nervousness, loss of appetite (no, not in my case!), sleeplessness, feeling tired, extreme pride in one’s home culture, hypersensitivity, confusion. Pretty significant, and relevant. The good news is that, according to my study material, “culture shock is temporary, and everybody goes through it to some extent in the process of cultural adaptation.

Good to know. What struck me about all this when considering the desire of many to work from anywhere, to mix work with travel, to relocate to a different country while working from your home country, is the lack of dialogue I’m hearing about the potential for culture shock when making these big life decisions. Organisations, when sending employees to work abroad, need to take the responsibility to support and adequately prepare their people for such tasks. However, who prepares individuals and families for such undertakings? Let me strongly suggest those of you considering such a move to do your homework, take time to make informed decisions, learn the language, make connections in your host country, and don’t underestimate the impact of culture shock.   

For us? In the 2½  months until we return to Canada, we are going to continue using our on-line programs to learn Spanish, dig into understanding as much of this unique culture as possible, watch bonfires, admire ninots that make up the Fallas monuments, find the best paella valencia around, learn to make paella, spend as much time as possible at the sea, watch and observe and respect and take in all the Spanish culture has to offer. And we will be richer for it.

El Cabanyal beach on the beautiful Mediterranean Sea, a mere 5 minutes walk from our flat

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