Being a first time expat is a lot about being swept up in various excitements. Everything is new. Everything is beautiful. But culture shock is not only real, it's an important part of the expat experience and transition. Everything is a little scary, too. Everything is different. There's also the added complication of language, even when you begin to understand words and phrases in, say, Norwegian, that moment of necessary translation back to English costs you time and clarity. Actions as simple as grocery shopping or booking a dental appointment are suddenly more complex, and thus more time consuming. And then you have social norms which differ between countries. You think you're doing something normal (smiling at strangers on the street, for instance), and really you might as well be walking around wearing a sandwich-board that says 'I'm an American! Regard me with disdain!' Or you put on socks with a hole in them because they'll be hidden in your boots all day, so who cares, but then you enter a Scandinavian house and must remove your shoes at the entrance. Hello, Big Toe! It's happened.
Culture shock is real. It's important to recognize this curve up front, because culture shock is also not something you overcome in a week or a month or six months. Some would even argue that, for an expat, a perpetual outsider, culture shock never ends. The tremors simply become less shattering after a while. So the above wave continues endlessly, but appears shallower and shallower at every interval.
When you first arrive in your new home city, you'll be cruising on the same happy endorphins that make vacation so fun and memorable. Adrenaline will push you out the door and into the cold air in search of adventure. You'll take lots of photos, chronicle your neighborhood and the local harbor and the way your cats are adjusting (they sleep a lot, FYI). The honeymoon continues even as you contend with life's practicalities. Receiving your new residence permit will make you gleeful. Completing a grocery shopping trip and cooking a meal will make you want to take a bow. And along the way, you'll start believing that you're already adjusting to this new place. It will feel easy. Look at how well I navigate this tram line, you'll think. See how expertly I order coffee at the corner cafe. Nailed it!
Then one afternoon you'll be standing at a bus stop on your way to hunt down and buy a yellow onion for dinner, and a middle-aged woman in a fur-trimmed coat will approach you and begin speaking rapidly in Norwegian. She'll speak to you so directly and so quickly that you don't have time to do your standard Sorry-I-don't-yet-speak-your-language head duck and smile. Though you recognize her expression as friendly, her torrent of words will bounce off your high, surprised forehead and scatter across the pavement near the bus stop, around the feet of the other people waiting there, all of whom are, thankfully, ignoring you and the speed-talker completely. That's the Scandinavian way.
But the fur-trimmed woman will keep on going, and the longer she talks without taking a breath, the more you feel as though you're about to drown in the deluge. It occurs to you that, maybe, you'll recognize a word or two somewhere in the mix, just a scrap, and if you could grab onto it, you might be able to deduce the context and respond to her in English.
Then, as suddenly as she began, she is finished. Silence swells between you as her eyebrows raise inquisitively. You will gulp, preparing to explain that you've understood none of this, but before you can utter a sound, something registers on her face. Her perfectly lipsticked mouth settles into a grim line of acceptance and disappointment. She knows.
Standing before this woman, you are childlike. Illiterate. Dumb. You've wasted her time. She will snort her disapproval, loud enough to make the other people at the stop look up, and stride to the other end of the platform, as far away from you and your helpless, hopeless foreignness as she can get.
The bus will arrive then, larger and noisier than you remember past buses being. Doors will fold open. Passengers will disembark. New passengers will step into the body of the wheezing, red beast. Doors will unfold shut. The bus will rumble away. And you'll still be standing at the bus stop. Red-faced, confused and small.
You'll hurry home, worried that if you slow down for even a second, someone will reach out and tap your soldier and ask you for something else in that baffling language. When you're safely inside your apartment, you'll press your back to the closed door and shut your eyes, grateful for this space that is entirely your own. Grateful for the English language and its universality. After a moment, you'll compose yourself and walk deeper into your apartment, shedding your coat and shoes. You'll empty your pockets onto the bookcase in your front hall: keys, wallet, phone, and a reusable shopping bag, which will fail to trigger your memory. Only later, after watching several back to back episodes of Friends and checking Facebook to Like photos of your cousin's four-year-old daughter playing in a fountain in your old hometown, will you remember the yellow onion.
It takes a calling out like this one to draw the honeymoon to a close. A reminder that the new city and country aren't entirely allies in your cause of adventure. They have an adversarial side.
I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal by Tom McClintock titled Yosemite National Park: Closed for Preservation, a rant instigated by the following legal action against the National Park Service:
Environmentalist groups such as Friends of Yosemite Valley and Mariposans for the Environment and Responsible Government challenged the National Park Service's 2000 and 2005 plans to manage the Merced River, which runs through the park, claiming that the Park Service was insufficiently preserving the river's "wild and scenic" character. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiffs and invalidated the Park Service's plans in 2008. A settlement, agreed to in September 2009, required the Park Service to draft a new plan for the Merced River--and also paid these professional environmental litigants more than $1 million, courtesy of American taxpayers.
As a true Yosemite girl, having climbed the domes and hiked the backcountry, having read Muir's musings on a flat rock in the Merced at dusk, and having married into the surname Camp, I felt the need to respond:
California Democratic Rep. Tony Coelho wrote a letter to the director of the National Park Service, vowing to fight any measure which removed current recreational facilities from Yosemite Valley, stating: "The Merced River in Yosemite Valley has been recreational for almost 150 years. Yosemite Valley has never been wilderness."
That's idiocy. And it's also the difference between someone who wants national parks to be preserved for generations to come and someone who actually understands what that will take to achieve.
When President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant in 1864, he designated Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove as a protected area "upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation". But in 1865, Frederick Law Olmsted, a landscape architect who served on the Yosemite board of commissioners, warned that "the slight harm which the few hundred visitors of this year might do, if no care were taken to prevent it, would not be slight, if it should be repeated by millions." This classic conflict between the desire to keep our parks pure and to attract tourists is what pressed President Theordore Roosevelt, after camping in the Yosemite wilderness with John Muir in 1903, to remove control of the valley and grove from California and return it to the federal government. President Lincoln's mid-Civil War desire to set aside a national treasure had been absolutely essential to the process, but it was an incomplete one, and Olmsted's words continue to ring true.
California's population density breaks down to roughly 283 people per square mile. That's pretty crowded. (For the sake of comparison, Norway's population density breaks down to only 35 people per square mile.) The wear and tear of people and their vehicles, not only on the ground, but to the air, the water, the amount of trash and sewage generated and accumulating in the parks, is astonishing, and must be slowed. The most militant environmentalists want it to be stopped altogether. And I don't blame them for that, but I pity them their shortsightedness on another hand. What good is a beautiful thing if no one gets to see it? If it languishes in a secret spot, we run the risk of forgetting it's even there.
Yosemite and Yellowstone and the like are some of my favorite places in the world. I have great childhood memories there, and sharing Yellowstone and Teton with Jonathan for the first time in 2007 ranks up there with the truest pleasures of my adult life. But there's a line we must make and be willing to hold, those of us who claim to admire and uphold Muir's legacy. He wanted Yosemite preserved for the generations to come, but he couldn't have known how large those generations would be, or how much strain we would put on the environment. He couldn't fathom families arriving in enormous gas-guzzling SUVs, using diapers that don't biodegrade, with seven different electronic gadgets, each with its own charger. At sixty, John Muir was still climbing to the tops of 80-foot trees to sit and consider the music of the wind. He couldn't guess that obesity would become an American epidemic, and that his favorite valley trails would be paved over to allow, not just foot and bike traffic, but scooters and electric wheelchairs. He wrote in his journal every day; sang songs robustly as he stomped off into the trees; camped so he could rise and walk directly into the mist of the waterfalls. He never imagined whole families would spend their evenings ensconced in deluxe rooms watching television and checking Facebook.
So, where is the line?