“You must be in culture shock, right?” Miss Hass’s teaching intern meant well. My steely look somehow convinced her to go on: “I mean coming to this place must be so different.” She knew I had just arrived from upstate New York the month before to sit in the first class of my senior year at San Bernadino High School. Picture Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club anticipating Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice— that was me. Grim. Disengaged. Pissed at the world.
When our rust-belt poverty resulted in a second eviction notice in 4 years, Mom read this as an invitation to southern California’s sun-belt opportunity. So we packed what we could into a UHAUL (sleeping accommodations on the roof), and we drove the 2673 miles from Corning, New York to 29 Palms, California. My brother, a Marine stationed there, put us up until we could get on our feet. Mom found us a home in San Bernardino a few months later, and I began my senior year of high school, the only white-looking, punk girl in my English class. These superfacial differences aside, I was checked out of school, felt under-challenged, and dropped out for a month or so before eventually going back to finish.
I began to resolve my culture shock after two years of working at the Jack in the Box on Baseline and Waterman. I enrolled full time in California State University, San Bernadino, an open enrollment university, and worked my way through, mostly in fast food and retail for 25-30 hours a week.
When I did get into classes, my writing was awful: fragmented thinking led to equally fragmented writing. Ideas dolloped on the page like layers of a bean dip. With similes about that bad. But I loved reading, and words helped me make sense of my experience. So I began paying attention to the writers who were turning phrases in ways that made sense to me. I went through more writing styles than Madonna identities. Eventually, during my junior and senior years when classes got smaller, a few encouraging professors listened to what I was trying to say and I began to improve.
More importantly, culture shock as a theory, can help us make sense of the struggles that come with loss and migration. It can help us put words to the foreignness of coming to a new country, region, or college. It can help us tell the stories behind the steely looks. Professor Cheryl Caesar developed a site that does just this. Students writing for this site voice their struggles when coming to a place like Michigan State University, help each other find resources, and share their stories. Visit: caitlah.cal.msu.edu/divein for more stories.
Visit Ellen’s website for the full post: “Culture Shock“