Well, Hello There, Culture Shock…

Today was…. Amazing, scary, overwhelming, gratifying, exciting, encouraging, demoralizing, and exhaustive. Amongst other things, of course. Welcome to stage two of the culture shock cycle.

When you study abroad, they teach you about the culture shock cycle, which generally occurs in four stages:

  1. The Honeymoon: The world is fantastic and new! How have you never known that this exists or that is used to do such?!?!  Everything is full of wonder and you can *not* absorb enough of your new environment.
  2.  Negotiation: Also known as the What-the-hell-am-I-doing-here phase. For some this is a short pit-stop, for others it is a longer journey. Most people characterize it by the irritability that one experiences when the wonder starts to fade a bit. One travel blog I’ve read actually characterized this stage as “Depression,” rather than “Negotiation.” Not to say that’s where I am, exactly, but having to start the “grown-up” part of my trip has served as a rather swift kick in the pants.
  3. Adjustment: Things start to make sense now and you’re piecing things together that used to send you running to the nearest paper bag to hyperventilate for a bit.
  4. Mastery: Hey, lookit you! Your new environment is starting to feel a bit like home, things are beginning to feel natural and did someone just ask you for directions around the plaza? Yes, yes, I think they did! Well done, you!

Because my trip is relatively short in terms of experiential service programs, I won’t be cycling through them the same way as someone who made a long-term commitment might—my cycles are more likely to be smooshed together and overlapping. That being said—I have a renewed sense of amazement at my friends who have made the decision to join the Peace Corps or leave the country to teach for more than my little month. I take my hat off to you (or would if I wore one)—you have truly made a great commitment towards building a global community.

My first day at school was… Not quite what I had expected. I teach two three hour classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Nuestra Senora de la Luz, a technical school in a barrio called Cienfuegos. Three hour classes are really something else, especially when you consider that my students’ ages range between 6 and 13 in my morning class and 8 and 13 in the afternoon. Mad props to one room school teachers, because that kind of planning is crazy crazy.

My morning class went really well—the students loved being introduced to Around the World and writing on the board to show off what they already know. I was really impressed with the students’ patience and willingness to sit through my instructions—especially when I realized half-way through talking that I had no idea how to say an essential vocabulary term. Oops… The kids are really sweet and warmed up to most of the activities very quickly, though some things I think we’re going to have to back up a bit first.

Highlights and surprises:

-Kids come up to you as soon as they finish an activity to have you check their work and for praise—no one waits in their desk until others have finished

-Dominicans have a limited sense of personal space—Your tummy, arms, hands, and back will all be poked and prodded for attention until you set some “americana” boundaries

-Recess at my school is 20-25 minutes long and we don’t have a playground. We just release the kids into the street to either go home, to the store, or for a walk and they (more or less) come back when you call them. Which you have to do, shouting “Ven” from the front porch until you start seeing your students come back into view. I have learned to delegate this particular task to some of the more… enthusiastic younger students.

-Several kids ran to the office after dismissal and told the secretary how much they liked class. I got hugs from a couple of the kids and many of the older girls didn’t want class to end! For me, that last part really affirmed that I made the right choice to teach middle school.

-Talking during instruction/moving/getting up and walking around during work time are all normal classroom behaviors for our school, as many of our students have never been to a formal school.

-We do a lot of coloring—I can already picture my UNC professors going into cardiac arrest. The books the school uses are written at an elementary level, which is fantastic for the little kids and far too simple for the older students. Students complete a basic (and usually insufficient) activity and then color. My plan is to slowly wean some of the older students off the coloring and toward some higher level thinking activities.

All in all, it was a good and challenging morning. I felt confident in my teaching abilities, positive about my developing language skills and excited for the next step. And then the afternoon class happened. Do you know why our schools get out before 3:00? It’s because no one in their right mind would try to make an 8 year old learn grammar at 4:00 in the afternoon in 98 degree weather. For three hours. Even using games, songs and movement, that’s a lot to ask of a kid. And their teacher. It destroyed me. I haven’t felt that out of place or defeated in a classroom since- well, maybe ever. The regular teacher forgot to leave the materials for the afternoon class (which is slightly ahead of the morning class—which they also forgot to tell me). Everything I had planned had already been completed the week before and I had no copy of the materials to improvise with. I made out pretty well the first two hours but I was so lucky that there was a compassionate 13 year old in that classroom who took pity on me around 4:00 and helped lead vocabulary games until the end of the day. The little ones were all over the place and the 9 and 10 year olds were sniping at each other. She helped run all the games and keep the little ones together—I would not have survived without her.

I’m not going to lie—my first step after school was to scout out a chocolate bar (no easy feat here, as chocolate melts too fast to be carried in most places). I pulled myself back to the apartment, put on a happy face for my host mom, and then boarded myself in my room for the next hour and a half. Though I’m not particularly proud of it, I’m going to own it: I threw myself a pretty little pity party. I lay on the bed and pondered through a bit of an existential crisis (you spend a lot of time in your own head when you travel to a county that speaks a language you’re not completely fluent in), pouted despondently, listened to my music, and researched signs of culture shock (hence the beginning of this entry). I was in the throes of debating my usefulness in society when a rather subtle orchestral version of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” popped up on my iPod. Message received. It was enough to make me put down the research, change out of my gym shorts, and go out with the other ISA students, where I had an absolute blast. I’m so thankful to have so many positive influences in my life.

Tomorrow I’m going to re-work my game plan for my afternoon class; I already have a few ideas I think might work better. But for tonight, I feel hopeful. I’m going to try to internalize the lesson here and go to bed.  You can only do what you can do—then you have to let it go. You can pout for a bit but you can’t let the things that scare you stop you or you’re always going to be scared. You have to own it, learn from it and try it again.

In case you’re interested, these links proved especially helpful:

http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/lisalew/cuerpodepaz/1128460200/tpod.html This is an entry from a Peace Corps volunteer here in the Dominican as she realizes some of the impacts of culture shock in her life.

http://thoughtcatalog.com/2013/6-tricks-for-a-more-enjoyable-existential-crisis/ As the link suggests, here are 6 Tips for a More Enjoyable Existential Crisis


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