What does it take to change the culture?
To change our dominant culture from a “white supremacist culture” to one of liberation and inclusion requires awareness and discomfort. In this piece, I reflect upon my experience of ”culture shock” when I came to the U.S. I started to name the differences I was experiencing and some I have adopted and others I refuse to adopt. Individualism is the first thing we must overcome to create a more inclusive culture.
I can now reflect on my experience of culture shock and appreciate the lack of foundation and preparedness for beginning a new life in this country. I was clueless. My parents did not prepare me for “here” in the ways that I needed. Yet, they were the best parents a child could have.
Their priority was to prepare their children for a first-class education that would make us independent, successful people who lived fulfilled lives and were not a burden on anyone. The foundation for life that my parents sought for my siblings and me was to live “here” in physical safety, far away from the various forms of violence that were now normalized in a formerly colonized, newly formed country in Africa. Living here meant I could dream and pursue my own personal self-actualization.
I did not expect culture shock. After all, my mother was American, and I was coming to her country. I did not expect any challenges. Honestly, I was more concerned with morality. In America, there was too much sex, cursing and pot smoking and I had to make sure that I was not contaminated with any of that immorality.
Little did I know that there was just as much sex and pot smoking back home, if not more, but my sheltered life had me naively believing that those behaviors were not prevalent. The cursing? Well, we just tend to use more descriptive and colorful language to insult a person. And it can be so much more satisfying! Yet, young people were using all the American epithets but not in the presence of the elders.
My experience of culture shock was an indication that I was not connecting and integrating in social life in college, but I did not recognize that, and there was no one around me to point that out. It was the 80s. My parents lived in Nigeria, and I could only send them a telegram if I needed to communicate with them urgently. I wrote them letters weekly. And I spoke to my sister on the phone once a week so she could confirm that I was still breathing.
When people asked me if I was experiencing culture shock, I vehemently nodded yes and showed them the vial of dried red pepper flakes I carried around to season my food. My concept of culture shock was that the food here was bland and being the self-sufficient-wanna-be-adult that I was, I just poured hot peppers on everything. I also thought culture shock meant getting used to the cold weather which I deeply hated.
Today, I know that culture shock meant I did not know how to read the cues that were my internal alarms that I was behaving and being treated as an outsider. It meant I was trying so hard to fit in but did not know how. It meant that I tried to stay small so no one would notice that I was different. It meant that I clung to my few friendships with desperation as I did not have another social support system. It meant that I did not know if my judgement of others was because their ways were so different from mine, and I could not reconcile their behaviors to my moral standards or was it that the cultural norms seem to be a free for all and did not guide people to treat each other as parts of each other.
One huge culture shock was my introduction to rugged individualism and the lack of community cohesion was particularly troublesome for me.
In college, a new friend and dorm mate was driving into town and said, “Hey, I have some errands to run in town. Wanna ride?”
I did have some errands to run, and I was happy to catch a ride with her. I was also thrilled that someone was trying to connect with me. We went to the same places, the grocery store, and the library, and on the way back, she stopped for gas. She then asked me for a few dollars for the gas. I immediately gave it to her, but I was deeply offended and shocked.
The cold way she asked for the money, the formality and demand in her voice chilled my openness to a friendship with her. The surprise of the exchange felt exploitative, and I immediately felt a shift in power in our interaction. I was silent on the way back to campus as I immediately felt distanced. To have asked for money when she would have had to pay it all on her own if she went by herself to town, to charge a friend for an altruistic act, made the relationship transactional for me. I felt that I only represented dollars to her. Chatting on the way to town and learning about each other was not a valuable currency.
Of course, I was confused at the time as this was not behavior that I was used to. I felt that I owed her money and was being accused of not paying it back and she had to make a demand. She was a white woman and I found myself shrinking away from her and other white women as I did not understand the socialization. I did not understand then the language of “rugged individualism” and how it creates transactional and capitalistic relationships.
My point of reference was from back home. If someone gave you a ride, it was an opportunity to get to know each other and further invitations would naturally ensue if you clicked. It would also open the opportunity to think of each other and exchange gifts as acknowledgement for the transportation. Friends do things for each other without expectation of a return.
I now understand that as a college student, she probably did not have much money. Over time, I also came to understand that this was the normal practice on campus. I also had experiences with other people who handled it differently. Some people did not ask for money and others made friendlier gestures such as telling me in advance, “My gas tank is on E and my cash is low. If I give you a ride to town, could you please spare a few dollars for gas?” I respected those exchanges and I learned to offer gas money upfront.
I have noticed that in America, money issues always seemed to come up and interfere with the joyful exchange that humans could have with each other. It abruptly switched gears from “Let’s have a good time and get to know each other” to “There is a financial cost to this, and this is where I draw the line. I am not financially responsible for you.” It interrupts the ebbs and flows of normal bonding. It constricts curiosity and introduces crisp exchanges.
For many years, I thought that gas experience was uniquely college culture. However, over time, I learned this was also the larger American culture. In a capitalistic, highly individualized culture, boundaries around money are clear and prioritized. That was new to me. If someone invites you out, do not assume they are paying. Always address money upfront so avoid awkwardness later.
Back home, wealth equated with generosity and a responsibility to others to share resources. And certainly, if you were headed somewhere and gave someone a ride, you would never, ever, ask that person for money. Now, if that person took you out of your way, and it cost you what you do not have, that is a different story.
One fond example of how we address sharing resources back home happened when I was in elementary school, I overheard my teacher complaining about problems with her car and the high expense to fix her Volkswagen beetle. I also had overheard my father discussing with my mother the expenses he was incurring in taking care of his widowed sister’s car, another Volkswagen beetle. And after all, I went to school each day in a very nice and reliable Volkswagen beetle. I promptly informed my teacher that my father would be happy to fix her car since he was fixing my aunt’s car and keeping ours in good working condition. My father had to share his resources even though I got scolded for volunteering his magnanimity. I don’t ever remember any other time my father scolded me and smiled and kissed me! My 8-year-old reasoning was that she was part of our family responsibility since that teacher took care of his daughter in an educational setting!
My father was a deep proponent of balancing communal ways of living with self-responsibility and individualism. His approach was, if you could better yourself, you did so, in the service of the greater good.
These values have stayed with me, and I continue to learn how to balance individualism with my obligation to the community. It is not one or the other but in fact, it is an artful balancing act.
Tell me what makes you come alive in this writing?
Let me know!