On Culture Shock

When I first arrived in Kampala — the capital city of Uganda and home to more than 1.5 million people — I was happy for about the first hour and a half.

Which was actually how long it took to drive from Entebbe Airport to my temporary home in Najjanankumbi, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. For an hour and a half, I sat in the passenger seat of a Toyota Rav4, mostly silent, I absorbed the exhaust-filled traffic, the brightly colored billboards and the free-range cows wandering on the sides of the roads.

Even as the Rav4 bumped up the rutted dirt roads of Najjanankumbi, I was tired and overwhelmed, but still, I was happy. And then, I dropped my bags off in the guest room where I was staying and something clicked. Only now did I realized that I was 7,000 miles from home. And that I knew only two people in the whole city, which left no real plan outside of volunteering for a very small nonprofit. I was free floating, and I wanted to leave immediately.

I spent the rest of that day and most of the next week holding back tears in public. Only later in the day locking myself in my room, and give myself permission to release my emotions and tears. On that first day, the executive director of the nonprofit I was working for took me to the store down the road and helped me buy a portable wifi so I could call back home. As I waited for the woman behind the counter to set everything up, I sat on a small gray cushion and tried not to let the tears spill onto my cheeks. As we left the store and climbed back into the Rav4, I sat in the passenger seat and bit my bottom lip, to keep the tears from rolling down my cheeks.

I was like that for days. I called my best friend and told her I wasn’t strong enough to live here. I called my mom and told her I wasn’t prepared to live here. I called my partner and told him I didn’t even want to live here. It seemed I was always battling the tears back into their ducts.

It was a culture shock, of course, but at the time I worried it was more. Travelers’ sometimes throw around the phrase so casually, you’d think it was as mild as a cold or as inconsequential as a sneeze. “Ah, it’s just culture shock,” they say, and they’re right. It is “just” culture shock. But when you’re traveling solo to a place you’ve never been, to a place whose culture is drastically different from your own home country’s then “just” culture shock doesn’t begin to describe it.

This culture shock crippled me for many of the days that passed. Days of which were so slow, I could’ve sworn they were each a week long. Leaving the compound for more than five hours at a time drained me of all the coping resources I had. In reaction, I slept for as many as 10 hours a night on a regular basis, simply to recover from the effort that each day required of me. I struggled to engage with the activity going on around me because it took all of my energy just to observe. I was so easily overwhelmed and so quickly tired that it seemed at times that I was of no use at all. It felt like an illness, or like extreme old age or as if I was a child again. I felt like this culture shock had broken me, either that, or Kampala had.

That is the danger in modifying culture shock with the word “just.” That modifier tells people that it’s “just” culture shock — so suck it up, stop being immature, start appreciating what you have, deal with it on your own. The narrative behind the “just” is that a seasoned traveler, a so-called real traveler, a long-termer, could handle the culture shock with a smile and a wink. And, on the flip side, if you can’t handle the shock without a few breakdowns along the way, then clearly you aren’t a seasoned — or deserving — traveler. And if you aren’t a deserving traveler, then maybe you should “just” go home.

That, of course, is not true.

Traveling doesn’t affect everyone the same way. Still, no matter how it affects you, it isn’t always glamorous. Leaving your home, especially when you’re living somewhere else for a good chunk of time, doesn’t look like an Instagram travel account. For me — and for just about every other globetrotter I’ve met — travel is messy. Sometimes you start crying in front of a woman who you just met, who really only knows a few words of your language. Sometimes you try goat’s meat because you’re supposed to get the local experience and you hate it so much you can hardly swallow. Sometimes you start looking at return flights “just” to check, sometimes you feel lonely and sometimes you half wish you had never left home.

It isn’t “just” culture shock, it’s throwing yourself outside of your comfort zone and then praying to every god you’ve heard of that you can adjust. It’s scary, it’s messy and it’s unpredictable. But within my own culture shock, I found moments of absolute peace and stillness. Moments that centered me and reminded me that one day I wouldn’t have any culture shock tears to hold back.

It isn’t “just” culture shock. Downplaying the trauma also downplays the strength it takes to work through it. Looking back now I have a bittersweet gratitude for my first two weeks in Kampala, but every time a new frustration pops up, I remember that this, too, shall pass.

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