On Instagram, people post pictures on Thursdays with the hashtag #tbt, meaning ‘throw-back Thursday. As it’s Thursday today, instead of instagramming, I decided to post this close to 20-year-old memoir of my family’s unforgettable experience in the US here on my blog. I wrote this in 2002, having done the Fulbright teacher exchange in 1996-1997. All the sentiments and insights still ring very true today.
Back in those days, no knowledge of digital cameras, and as all our old-fashioned slide pictures are still waiting to be digitalised, after all these years – only one scanned print of us. Here we are, young and wild, at the White House for the annual kids’ Easter Egg Hunt. It was the Clinton era, and the President and the First Lady even came on the balcony to greet us.
ONE FAMILY’S JOURNEY THROUGH AN AMERICAN FULBRIGHT EXCHANGE YEAR
Culture shock has been defined as ”the anxiety that results from losing all of our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse” (Kalvero Oberg, “Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environment,” Practical Anthropology 7 (1960): 177.) As such, people setting off for any length of foreign sojourn are usually well counselled to deal with this challenge as easily as possible. As indeed, were my family and I.
We learnt all about the four basic stages: euphoria, hostility, gradual adjustment and finally – hopefully – adaptation. We thought we would have been well prepared and aware to avoid it, or at least be able to smoothly survive and get through any of the difficult stages…
Here are some brief thoughts on our year in America.
STAGE 1: EUPHORIA
August 1996 – excitedly off the plane, to set foot on American soil for the first time ever in our lives and into dazzling, sticky-hot Virginia sunshine. Amidst all the immediate ”oohs” and ”aahs” and ”gees”, we enthusiastically started our year of exploration of a vast new continent.
Daily we came across phenomena so new and exhilarating: the sound of, what we thought were noisy telephone lines, but were told bemusedly later were cicadas, the incredibly abundant choice and supply of food at restaurants, the enthusiastic service everywhere (“Have a nice day!”), all those cute American expressions, never-ending TV entertainment, the ultimate ‘shop till you drop’ experiences (I still remember the first time at the cash register: ”Paper or plastic?” and me frantically wondering whether it meant ”cash or credit card”!), the first time driving on the buzzing beltway around DC with the car radio blasting genuine country ‘n western…
And yet, at other times so strangely familiar – after all, we’d seen much of it in the movies or on TV. But it is true what we were told – everything in America is BIGGER, and even then, I’d say magnified by thousands! From such mundane things as the fridge and the garbage can to stretch limos, everything seemed giant (even our new local supermarket was aptly called “Giant”, can you believe it?). Once driving in from New Jersey, catching the first glimpse of that stunning Manhattan skyline – well, even the blue sky seemed huger.
Diary entry during the first couple of weeks: ”Even the ants here are humonguous!”
STAGE 2: HOSTILITY
Soon though, the little hitches began to appear in our consumer and tourist paradise.
For example, little did we guess that all our laboriously acquired medical certificates and child’s extra vaccinations meant diddly-squat in our new home country. Apparently, it was a pink form they needed (not the light blue one our Finnish doctor had provided). Another slight problem – you can’t enrol a child into school if her birth certificate doesn’t have a number and worse, doesn’t list her father’s name, let alone even the child’s!
Once that was all figured out, there was another line up around all different administrative offices in DC to straighten out a problem that, unknown to us, happened immediately we had arrived at the airport. The immigration official there had automatically assumed that the man would be the provider and the wife a mere dependant, and so, naturally, entered MY work permit in my husband’s passport. This now meant I didn’t have a social security number. As I later found out from my students, having this is the key to living the American life. Nothing can really start without it. I tell you, standing in line in an INS office in DC and eventually ending up at the ”deportation booth” is no fun!
Added to all this frustrating red tape, next the stress of actually starting a brand new style of work! My assignment in Falls Church Transitional ESL Center and my job in Finland were literally as different as day and night. Not only did I change from a regular day school into an evening program, for a teacher used to a national curriculum and set course books, it was a shock to end up being more like a freelance entertainer. Instead of having some time every day to team-plan with colleagues, I was literally locked into my classroom with my students for almost six full hours every night. Seeking help from my new colleagues in lost and lonely moments, I was told “just smile” and later hushed with ”we don’t talk shop during dinner breaks”.
Little by little, American peculiarities began to be less charming and started to irritate!
Even the cheerful greetings in shops – “How ya doin, you guys!” – soon sounded downright intrusive. ”Leave me alone, I don’t know you, please don’t say anything to me!!” Now why, oh why, wasn’t America more like good old silent and sensible Finland?! Even our little kindergartener daughter started to show symptoms. During the daily ’Pledge of Allegiance’ with the customary singing of ’God bless America’, she chose not to stand up with the reasoning “but it’s not my flag nor my country, teacher”.
Rock bottom came just two months in: the brakes in our borrowed car let us down one morning and resulted in a brush with law enforcement! What we saw as a really minor bump – just a common beltway fender bender – led to us naively using our European instinct to explain things to try and sort it out. WRONG!! Soon after we were advised: never admit anything, say nothing! We were just totally oblivious to the litigious US approach to any problem.
Already, it was all beginning to suck!
Diary entry: ”Love it, or leave it… Help, I want to go home!”
STAGE 3: GRADUAL ADJUSTMENT
If it wasn’t for our lifeline network of wonderful Fulbright friends we’d made at the orientation (Hilkka, Terttu, Ismo and Anikka – thanks a whole bunch to all of you!) and especially Anneli, our dedicated motherly confidante at the Helsinki end, plus our own stubborn perseverance, we might have easily packed our bags there and then.
But we had our mission to accomplish – to complete the Fulbright assignment and exchange philosophy bestowed on us.
Settling in at work and interacting with my multicultural immigrant students steadily became more of a daily delight and an inexhaustible learning experience for me. Through discussions inspired by poetry, song lyrics, folktales, and legends, I learned such touching details about their lives, feelings, hopes, and fears. In fact, I began to realise that really we were rather like allies and friends, together adjusting to our new environment and gaining invaluable insights into diversity and tolerance and each other’s fascinating cultures.
Further, juggling the roles of a teacher in a challenging new job, being the wife of a Mr. Mom (or as he preferred to call himself, ”Survival Organiser” – to impress Americans incredulous at a man staying at home!), plus a parent of a just turned 6-year-old ”exchange student”, gradually got easier. We began to meet real neat people, routines were established, and we learned the ways to make life run smoothly (coupons really stretch a budget!). Even our daughter’s regular ”OH MANNN!” exclamations, started to sound cute, and reassuring.
America was beginning to reveal to us its fun side.
Diary entry: “Trick or Treat, Thanksgiving turkey and Happy Holidays! Yeah, we’re getting a handle on this now!”
STAGE 4: ADAPTATION
America really is the ideal continent for travel and discovery.
The on the road culture of the States became so understandable. We decided the only way we could handle this was to “collect states”, and so we embarked on the road movie experience by travelling the 3,000 miles from Coast to Coast (and then back) plus a few more North and South. Well, we got to 40 states (out of 50! – that ain’t bad in a year!). Memorable experiences? Wow, countless.
Just a few of the amazing? Here goes… As well as all those famous places in New York … Grand Canyon (one day hike into, and still only got one third down!), desert to snow in one day (those Monuments and Arches up to the Rocky Mountains), San Francisco (Golden Gate Bridge – walked across 3 times), Graceland (plus Tupelo for the birthplace – ah huhhah), Las Vegas (no big bucks for us!), Route 66 (for the kicks!), Hollywood, Miami Beach, Disneyland, Niagara Falls, Kitty Hawk, Indian reservations, Amish folk, nearly everything in DC, like the White House (even the kiddies’ Easter egg hunt on the lawn!), and more…so much more…and all through it the ubiquitous motel stay (or even a tepee, one time).
To top that all we even got the year of a Presidential election. Wow indeed.
Diary entry: ”Been there, done that!”
Only with hindsight did we realise that not only had we not avoided it, but surprise, surprise we had actually been a textbook example of going through all the stages of culture shock.
So, is there any lesson here? Well, perhaps that no matter how well you prepare yourself and are prepared by others for ‘culture shock’, in reality there’s no avoiding it. Everybody just HAS to go through it personally, in their own individual way – it’s like any initiation ritual in life, one way or another you have to work your way through them.
I don’t think you can fully adapt to a new culture in just one year. Despite all our daily triumphs we still remained legal aliens, although possibly well functioning ones. And anyway, for us, the purpose was different. Interaction and enriching our lives through mutual learning and experience were more important. I must admit we left America wistfully. Just as we felt we’d got the hang of Stateside living and culture…it was all too soon suddenly finished. We sure would have loved to stay on for another year.
And no sooner had we arrived back in Finland than it was time for ”re-entry shock”, and that in itself is a whole new ballgame……
It is now close to 5 years since we returned.
The spirit of Senator Fulbright’s original inspiration was: ”promoting understanding between people and their cultures”. In this respect, for us the whole time was totally successful and deeply affecting. After all, put a Finn to teach English to Asians and Hispanics in the US, and you can hardly get closer to that ideal!. Any problems or difficulties we ever encountered pale alongside our experiences and recollections, which are all still so vivid and truly treasured; not only the sights, but also the few lasting and dear friends we met.
But of course, the experience also significantly impacted our professional lives. It became a catalyst that ignited unexpected shifts in our mindsets. In particular, the characteristic and inspirational American ‘can-do’ attitude really got to us. Since then, I have stepped onto the lifelong road to study and learn about intercultural communication and have also become the coordinator of several international projects in my school. My husband also finally got around to setting up his own company on return (based very much on intercultural experiences, too). Even for our daughter, interest in other lifestyles has led to her now having her own sponsored little god-daughter in India.
To wrap then: as well as allowing us to realise the American experience of travelling on the road, the Fulbright exchange and opportunity also set us on the road to become more enlightened citizens of the world. Quite simply, we feel privileged to have been part of Senator Fulbright’s vision.
Diary entry: ”Was it worth it? You betcha – it undoubtedly was REAL COOL MAN!”