Lessons from First-World Culture Shock

This being my first blog post in sometime (my writing efforts have been focused elsewhere), I’ll give a brief update preamble: I moved to New Zealand.

It’s not an entirely new place; I’ve accrued 3 months here over two previous visits. This time I’m here to test out “real life.”

I don’t feel like I’m in a foreign land or that I am all that different from the people here. It’s precisely for that reason that life here feels more shocking and offers an incredible opportunity for growth.

Compared to many other places, New Zealand feels quite similar to home. Wellington is a predominantly white, middle class, mini-metropolis with a perfect blend of city life and nature, a nearly equal ratio of coffee shops to inhabitants, multiple CrossFit gyms, and a disproportionate number of hipsters to support a thriving albeit small art, music, food, theatre, and film scene. All the requisite accoutrement to make this coach/traveler/writer feel right at home while pretending to grow more cultured and worldly.

These seemingly familiar forces conspire to heighten my culture shock rather than dampen it. I have traveled to far more exotic places. Here though, I’ll find no squat toilets, foods ranging from unrecognizable to alarming, or physical and cultural surroundings that might as well be another planet. No, for a Californian in New Zealand the differences are far more subtle yet the culture shock is far more unsettling.

In exotic places everything is different. These vast cultural differences are precisely the reason most choose to travel in the first place, unless you aim to lay on a private beach where the only interaction with the locals is with the resort service staff and trinket shop owners. You expect differences, you dive in and celebrate them, and (hopefully) you let go of any expectations for the familiarity home.

In another English-speaking, Western culture it can be difficult to shake the notion that all is just like home. Sure, the road signs look different but at least I can read them. Sure, most restaurant chains are unique to New Zealand, but they are offering up dishes that I recognize. Sure, the Kiwi accent differs from mine, but at least we understand one another well enough to have deep and intimate conversations.

It is these surface similarities that create a window to view the fundamental differences. It is the baseline understanding that allows for the nuances to show through. Without a common language the subtleties of Kiwi humor would remain completely obscured. Without a common language I would hardly comprehend their national identity or how they view the political environment at home and the world at large. Without a common language they wouldn’t be able to tell me how strange my English sounds to them and how obviously Californian I really am. It’s because New Zealand feels so close to home that the “you’re not from around here are you?” looks that are a given in most foreign countries feel so potent. The smirky glances I receive when I reflexively say “dude” or pass a stranger on the right instead of the left constantly remind me of how different I really am.

While these differences are subtle and not terribly unsettling they serve to teach that there are almost no universals in life. As I settle into life in a familiar but foreign home I receive constant reminders that my way of life - my accent, my tastes, my ideas, my beliefs, my judgments - is just that: mine and mine alone. Most of us realize, at least on some intellectual level, that there is no correct way of being, thinking, or acting. Yet we can so easily begin to subtly (or often not-so-subtly) value our own way as superior and eventually correct.

I have just left the United States in a time when the certainty with which most individuals hold their views seems to have reach an all-time high. 

Certainty is rigid, brittle, and undermines all that civil democracy is build upon: reasoned and dispassionate discourse, empathy, and trust in the collective intelligence. 

While I am blessed with the constant reminder of how beautifully different life can be abroad, I share this with everyone at home:

Your truth is yours alone, not universal. If your beliefs and behavior are so tightly held to make civil, honest, and (dare I say) compassionate discourse impossible with your fellow human, you only exacerbate the problems we face rather than working to solve them.

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