I have spent much of the last decade making a living by helping people think through stress, resilience, and how to undertake humanitarian work without burning out in a spectacular (here, insert one or more of the following: angst-laden, guilt-ridden, ideals-flagellated, faith-battered, self-destructive, passion-and-energy-depleted) blaze of non-glory.
As part of this, I have occasionally run workshops on cross-cultural adjustment dynamics. I’m well versed in the relevant lingo – culture shock, the differences between surface culture and deep culture, and the cultural competency continuum. I’ve shown pretty graphs that help chart the cross-cultural adjustment process, and beautiful pictures of icebergs that illustrate the “hidden” culture of assumptions, habits, and beliefs that lie below the surface of the water and our own consciousness.
“Culture shock is a natural process,” I may have said, serenely, in a former life. “Feeling lost, confused, and out of the loop will be the new normal for a while after relocating to a new country. Feelings of competence and achievement will temporarily become distant memories.”
(No, no one has yet come up to me after a workshop and told me that I came off sounding like a tosser. No, I’m not quite sure why not, either.)
The point it, I know a lot about the theory. But theory to practice… theory to practice… Therein lies the rub.
Friday was a Bad day. (Please note the capital B in the previous sentence; it is there for a reason.) It didn’t start out that way. In fact, things didn’t start to go pear-shaped until after I had put in a good, solid, morning of writing. After six months of writing abstinence due to moving logistics and general life chaos, I’d been extraordinarily authorially productive and remarkably cheerful all week. But, after almost five days of happy buoyancy, I was starting to suspect that I was in for a bit of a dip.
I hoped that I was wrong about this.
I was not wrong.
By Friday at 2pm I’d completely run out of creative energy. The rest of the afternoon stretched out in front of me, hot, humid, and empty. I tried all the quick fixes I’d amassed during the previous two weeks. But the lemon-mint freeze up at Joma just reminded me that what I really wanted was a glass of sauvignon blanc. And the book I read reminded me that I was more than halfway through the stack of books I’d the foresight to pack, and that our shipment bringing fresh supplies had not even left California and may not arrive for another six months.
I started to slide.
I had a shower. I washed my hair. I noticed I was running out of shampoo. I shaved my legs. I lay on the bed and thought about the beauty of having time on my hands – the luxury and gift of slow. I thought that this would be an interesting blog post, but I could not be bothered to write it. I thought about inertia. I pondered, staring at the ceiling, whether what I was doing was understandable, or merely lazy and self-indulgent. I felt the first internal tickle of self-loathing.
The downward spiral accelerated.
I waited for Mike to come back from work.
6:45pm. I phone Mike. Mike says he is drinking beerlao with Kapono. He says he will be home within half an hour. He calls me sweetheart.
I hang up. I am furious.
[Side note: In all fairness, I must pause here and alert you to two facts. One, I had my mobile phone turned off until 6:45pm, so Mike, who had diligently been trying to call me periodically since 5pm, was unable to get through. Two, there turned out to be very good reasons that Mike was drinking beer with Kapono. In this highly relational culture it is usually during eating or drinking together that truly important information is communicated. And truly important information was being communicated.
I, however, did not know about the important information. And in the moment, I may not have cared anyway. Because, in the moment, I was in an emotional freefall. I hated the fact that I was sitting alone at almost 7pm on a Friday night. I hated highly relational cultures. And I wasn’t too fond of my highly relational husband either. End side note.]
Mike was back within half an hour. By that time I was trying to talk myself out of pissy territory by reminding myself that Mike had had a long week, and that he was doubtless very tired. It was not working.
I ventured a half-hearted smile. Mike looked a little nervous.
“How as your day?” he asked.
I shot for a positive take.
“Really crappy,” I said.
“Lot’s of things for you to write about then,” Mike said cheerfully.
That was the last straw. “Don’t you joke about that!” I said. Then, much to my angry mortification, I burst into tears.
Some people cry gracefully – with cute little hiccups and delicate swipes at the perfectly spherical tears sliding down their cheeks. Their nose doesn’t turn red, or run. They seem unconcerned by their overt and uncontrolled display of emotion. Some people, while crying, are even capable of using words to express what they’re so upset about.
I am not one of those people. I do not cry easily, or openly. By the time I reach the tears stage (once every six months or so) I am usually totally overwhelmed, ashamed and surly about my meltdown, and mostly non-verbal. I do not want Mike to ask me questions and try to understand why I’m upset. I usually want him to just go away until I stop crying. The major problem with this (apart from the fact that it goes against Mike’s natural instincts to abandon me to my misery) is that if Mike does go away, I generally end up feeling even worse. By most indices, I don’t think that I do tears well.
I tried in vain to stop crying while Mike drove down the street to the restaurant we’d planned on for dinner. After Mike parked the car, I didn’t move.
“I don’t want to go in there and sit down and eat dinner,” I said.
“What do you want to do, then?” Mike asked.
“I want to go for a walk somewhere,” I said. “But not on these roads, with motorbikes and cars everywhere.”
“OK,” Mike said, “let’s drive down to the other end of the peninsula and walk around there for a while, and eat at one of the cafes along the river.”
“Do you want to talk to me now?” Mike asked. “You don’t have to talk to me now, or tonight, but you do have to talk to me at some stage.”
“Not now,” I muttered.
So we walked around in darkness, along quiet streets out on the peninsula. We found a riverside café. Mike did most of the talking. I concentrated on not crying again.
In bed the next morning, Mike asked me what had gone wrong.
“I’ve just been in the guesthouse or Joma all week,” I said. “And I know it could be worse. We could have no AC, or we could…”
“Nope,” Mike interrupted. “Stick with the negative this time. No positive reframes allowed.”
“Fine,” I said. “I hate the tile cutters and drills and saws and cement mixers across the street.”
“Good,” Mike said. “What else?”
“I hate roosters, and I hate dogs that howl before dawn.”
“Two and a half thousand dollar plane tickets to Australia.”
“It’s five thousand and forty three degrees outside and I’m stuck inside all day.”
“A husband who works five thousand hours a week,”
“That’s sounds right,” Mike said encouragingly. “About one hour per degree.”
“And all we ever talk about is work.”
“Yes,” Mike said. “That is so true. That’s all we ever talk about.”
“And there’s a ‘Welcome to Asia’ party in my digestive tract.”
“Well,” Mike paused. “That one is actually true. Plus, there’s the uterus.”
“Yes,” I agreed fervently. “There’s the uterus. And PMS hormones. And I’m running out of books. And I just want to drown myself in the Khan river,” I finished in a rush – giggling a little by now, but leaking a few more tears, too.
“The Khan now, is it?” Mike asked. “That makes a change from the Mekong.”
So we laughed a little more, and then we got up and tackled the weekend…
I wasn’t going to write this post today. I worried that posting about Friday’s meltdown would come across as a cry for pity, or a desperate plea for friendly cheerleading along the lines of “hang in there, things will get better.” So I was going to write instead about our house hunting adventures and disappointments during the last couple of days, or the tensions inherent in trying to find a new routine while fully embracing exploration mode. I was going to write about the definition of fun in during this time, or the luxury of slow.
But I’m striving for honesty in this experience of moving to Laos, and transparency. And that means not omitting all of these low points, or putting too much varnish on them. It means acknowledging and accepting them for what they are – raw moments, hard times – even though I know even as they’re happening that things will get better and easier, for the theory says it will be so.
Of course, the theory also says it probably won’t get consistently easier for a couple of months at least, but let’s never mind that right now. Because, right now, I just need to focus on practice, today.