In my life so far, Culture Shock ranges from mild to extreme. Television and movies have reduced the total strangeness and unfamiliarity element, but not everything is captured on screen. Here are some of my Alice in Wonderland moments:
1. When I was a kid and I saw people on American sitcoms wearing their shoes in the house and “Oh my gosh!” on the bed, I was horrified. I immediately thought of all the dirt and mud that was tracked in from the outside. I still don’t really understand it. My whole life, I have been conditioned to always remove both my socks and shoes before entering the house. It’s not explicitly taught, but it also feels like a form of courtesy and a show of respect when you enter someone’s home. I googled to find an explanation and I see it’s about the weather. Asia tends to be warmer and so we don’t need our shoes to protect our feet from cold floors. I guess wearing shoes also protects the feet from dryness caused by lack of humidity?
2. When I travelled to the US, I was so rattled when I was asked “stay” or “to go” at fast food joints. I was utterly confused and felt like the biggest idiot on the planet. English had suddenly become my second language. No one could not really understand my strange accent and I often had to repeat myself. In Singapore we say, “eating here” for “stay” and “take away” instead of “to go”, so it took a whole lot of getting used to. I can imagine the confusing time expatriates in Singapore must be going through.
3. My family has it’s own traditions. To us books are sacred and you should never touch it with your feet, so when I see that happening I get so appalled. I guess to some cultures, a book is just an object. To us it has been elevated as a vessel that imparts knowledge and so has to be treated with respect. Are there any special family rituals you have too that caused you culture shock when the reverse was done?
4. Another ritual we have is that when we visit a home, we always bring a present with us to show gratitude to the host. Whenever I am at someone’s home and forget to bring something, I feel just awful, even though friends tell me it is not their custom and perfectly ok.
5. Years ago, in Indonesia, I saw people adding lumps of butter to their coffee and I was baffled. I later tried it and found that it actually made kopi (Asian style bitter coffee that is roasted with barley) taste richer. It was not as awful as I thought it would be and quite the opposite in fact. So, it’s true, butter makes everything better?
6. Just everyone saying hello to you, complete strangers, was quite a surprise when I visited Australia. I thought it was the most refreshing happiest place ever. Asians tend to be very reserved and shy. A friend who migrated to Australia as a child came back to Singapore and had quite a rude shock when she greeted people and they stared at her like she was crazy.
7. When I was in London a decade ago, I found the British very uppity and snooty, but perhaps it was just their culture and they were being reserved and giving you your space. I guess I was contrasting their manner with the friendliness of Australians.
8. Australians always surprise me in a good way. Before shopping in Australia I was used to the rude experience we have in Singapore where if you browse you have to buy or you will get glared at. Luckily it’s changing these days, but when I first travelled to Australia and was served at a store I was so pleasantly surprised that I was not expected to buy anything at all. It was wonderfully refreshing. They genuinely just seemed so friendly and nice. My aunts were also shocked that they could easily exchanged goods they were not happy with. My friends experienced this when they were studying in the US and when they were back in Singapore they got fed up with our rigid no return policies.
9. On the other hand when I did my masters in Australia I experienced the harsh competitiveness that I was not used to. Suddenly the Aussies didn’t seem so nice anymore and just seemed really aggressive. In Singapore we are just not trained to express our views out loud and eloquently, so constantly having to give on the spot presentations and argue your point, was quite a rude awakening. A friend working in an American firm was always asked to speak his mind fully, but in Asia we don’t always do that, because it is considered rude and abrupt. So there is quite a bit of unintentional misunderstanding – Asians are not trusted and Americans are considered aggressive and rude. This is why there are several publications on business communication in different cultures.
10. Just the feeling of being really short and small framed when you are out of Asia. I felt like a Lilliputian. This can be quite intimidating, especially at the Customs and Immigration when you land. On the other hand when shopping at American and Australian stores, the sizing does make you feel delightfully slimmer even though you’re just smaller framed and could be just as overweight for your height. An illusion I love.
11. In India, I was floored when the hotel laundry service (3 star hotel) returned our clothes with the buttons smashed and we found sand in them. Earlier one of our relatives was joking that the hotel sent our clothes out to be washed by the river and slapped on a stone, as our tour bus was passing such a scene. It turned out to be true!
12. In China, we were served live prawns that jumped off the plate onto the floor when we removed the lid. It was part of a set meal. I refused to eat them.
13. Profanities being yelled by teenagers on the streets of Perth at night. That scared me out of my wits, but I think it was supposed to be normal – just kids having fun. I am such a country bumpkin.
14. The big gaping holes at the bottom of the toilet cubicles in America. I was not used to being so exposed. In Singapore we get a full door and complete privacy. Also the toilet paper was really paper and not tissue. They were being environmentally friendly and we were spoilt in Singapore. But on the other hand the toilets in American were spotless and so clean. I can’t say the same for Singapore and which is why I prefer to stick to the better malls in the Orchard Road area.
These are just some things off the top of my head. I am sure more will come to mind later. I think, the culture shocks add layers and density to life. Imagine if we were so alike, there was nothing left to surprise us? I would be bored to tears.