Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Simple Life

Life here is harder than in the states.

I don't mean "hard" in the sense of "difficult" so much as "hard" as in Mohr's Scale of mineral hardness. With mineral hardness, the "hardness" is defined as the resistance to being scratched by a harder material and the ability to scratch a softer material.

In that way, life here is harder than in the states.

Culture Shock

There are several well-designated stages of cultural assimilation that most people go through. They call it "culture shock" akin to the way World War I vets suffered from "shell shock" but through political correctness and the gentrification of language is now referred to as "Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder."

As a recent immigrant to New Zealand, let's say I'm going through "Post-Acculturation Disorientation Syndrome."

As a teenager I was convinced that I was different than everyone else and that none of the things that "normal" people go through would necessarily happen to me since I was, after all, Steve. I had the now-bewilderingly deep-seated belief that when I gave something a try, I wouldn't have to contend with the same laws of convention or even physics that those who came before me had so well documented and described. I'd say the lion's share of emotional growth that happens between the bulletproof teen years and doughy middle age is evinced by the gradual dawning of the notion that you're just a schmuck like everyone else.

A schmuck that's just as susceptible to Culture Shock as anyone else.

The stages of Culture Shock (or "Pre-Assimilatory Discombobulation Symptomology" if you like) are:

  1. Honeymoon/Tourist Phase
  2. Irritation and Hostility Phase
  3. Adjustment Phase
  4. Bi-Culturalism
Honeymoon Phase

This ought to be pretty self explanatory. When moving to an entirely new country, I imagine the Honeymoon Phase starts well before you've left your country of origin or you wouldn't have left in the first place. There's a certain blank stupidity required to uproot yourself from a completely comfortable and happy situation and seek out something completely unknown and possibly dangerous on the other side of the world. There's no better analogy for this than falling in love and what being in love eventually begets: a honeymoon.

They also call this the "tourist" phase where even tragedies of the human condition take on the rosy-hued tint of "local color." "Look, Bob, at the cute little potbellied malnourished local tribal boy, isn't he darling? He's trying to sell me some rocks to buy shoes, bless his heart."

I definitely drifted around for the first half dozen weeks in a honeymoon haze when we first got here, no question. It's unfortunate that you're in this state upon arrival since you need to make some pretty clear-headed long-term decisions for yourself or your family like getting phone service, internet service, finding a place to live and so on. But then, being head over heels in-love is a terrible time to make a decision on who your life partner should be too if you think about it.

Irritation and Hostility Phase

This is a very-real phase of adjustment that you slip into slowly. I've actually been bobbing in and out of this one for a while. This is the hard just-make-it-through phase. This phase is marked by:

From this page and this page:
  • Homesickness
  • Boredom
  • Withdrawal (i.e. spending excessive amounts of time reading, only seeing other Americans, avoiding contact with local people)
  • Need for excessive amounts of sleep
  • Compulsive eating or drinking
  • Irritability
  • Exaggerated cleanliness
  • Stereotyping of or hostility toward local people
  • Loss of ability to work effectively
  • Unexplainable fits of weeping
  • physical ailments (psychosomatic illness)
  • Sadness, loneliness, melancholy
  • Preoccupation with health
  • Aches, pains, and allergies
  • Insomnia, desire to sleep too much or too little
  • Changes in temperament, depression, feeling vulnerable, feeling powerless
  • Anger, irritability, resentment, unwillingness to interact with others
  • Identifying with the old culture or idealizing the old country
  • Loss of identity
  • Trying too hard to absorb everything in the new culture or country
  • Unable to solve simple problems
  • Lack of confidence
  • Feelings of inadequacy or insecurity
  • Developing stereotypes about the new culture
  • Developing obsessions such as over-cleanliness
  • Longing for family
  • Feelings of being lost, overlooked, exploited or abused
Doesn't sound like a sunlit stroll through the petunias, does it? It's not so great. I've felt all of these at one time or another, and sometimes in concert together.

Adjustment Phase

I'm bobbing in and out of this one too. Rather than these being distinct phases that occur in discrete intervals as if you'd move from one to the next at, say, Thursday at 7:31pm, there's a sort of muddled continuum of observations, thoughts and feelings running from Honeymoon to Adjustment.

When I make a joke that only Kiwis would get, I feel adjusted---if only for a little while. When I know how and where to buy a bus pass and catch a bus or which shop to go to for such-and-such specific specialty item, I feel adjusted.

It's coming slowly---fraught with setbacks and sidetracks---but it's coming.


This is the final phase of the so-called "Culture Shock" process and is really the endpoint or the phase that continues into perpetuity. It's being able to navigate local and birth cultures with equal aplomb and a state that I sorely anticipate. I can't see reaching this sort of cultural equilibrium any time real soon now, but I can definitely see it crowning over the horizon.
Hard Like a Diamond

So back to life being hard.

When I got here, I was soft. Now, after months of living in Wellington I can say I'm not as soft as I was when I was fresh-off-the-boat. There are hard walls that confine our behavior and define our finanicial degrees of freedom. To be surrounded by hardness requires some hardness.

We live more economically here---out of necessity---in both the financial and non-financial senses of the word. Economy and living sparingly have replaced convenience and expense. Everything costs more here, but if you need less of it then it's a zero sum. Effort and cleverness have become a sort of secondary currency. And we feel improved for it---ruddy-cheeked from the involuntary moral exercise of deprivation.

But then we were ready to live more sparingly and without a lot of unnecessary material trappings and without leaving a huge swath of half-consumed half-discarded garbage in our wake. It's why we came here in the first place.


Jamie said...

Fantastic post, Steve. As I mentioned in a previous comment, my husband and I are in the early stages of planning a two-year move to NZ. I'm definitely in the honeymoon stage, but I'm trying to do some research about the "darker side" of such an undertaking to get a more realistic perspective. Your post was perfectly timed for me, and I'm showing it to my husband. Keep up the great blogging -- both of you! I enjoy reading it.

Brandie said...

I guess I am technically in stage two but I am in denial about it. I was totally convinced my new cleaning energy was here to stay.

I really relate to that hard wall statement. I feel like at home, we weren't as aware or conscious of our spending and our limits were fuzzy. Here, it's a more in your face reality.

Thanks for the great post!

Jacob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Djuna said...

This post was invaluable to me. I am a NZer who has moved to Vermont and although I would still consider myself in the honeymoon phase, I can see myself digressing very quickly into the next stages. I wasn't able to articulate what I was feeling or thinking until I stumbled across your blog, so thank you.