Thursday, September 10, 2009

Culture shock is always fun.

So I culture shocked real hard when I left Syria. This was to be expected and I sort of went through it in stages; one phase when I got to Beirut and they had (gasp) more than two kinds of restaurant and (gasp) tall buildings and (gasp) women wearing tank tops and (gasp) fashion and (gasp) Dunkin Donuts.

But I got over that pretty fast; it was still an Arab country and people still spoke Arabic and I could more or less make my way around as not-quite-a-tourist.

Then I got to Istanbul and the world sort of exploded around me. I did not speak the language, I could not find my way around, and I was definitely 100% a tourist. On top of this I was on my own; I left my travel companion in Beirut. I can't remember the last time I've been that disoriented.

It wasn't just the disorientation of being in a new place; it was the disorientation of a complete change of role. I had been very definitely Not A Tourist in Damascus and invested a fair amount of energy in making that clear: when you're Not A Tourist people don't rip you off as much, they treat you better, and it's much easier to fend off inquiring men. In Istanbul I had none of the necessary tools for Not A Tourist vibes and as a result became fair prey for everyone. To be frank, it was horrible. I clung to Arabic like a safety raft, constantly searching for Turkish cognates and on occasion replying to people who addressed me in Turkish (apparently I look potentially Turkish enough that people got confused a lot) in Arabic because I felt better about that than English. Somehow admitting to being an English speaker without language skills made me feel less safe, possibly because the first thing to do in an Arab country to get someone on your side is to show that you speak Arabic.

I did notice, in my defense, that I did have a much easier time if I spoke only Arabic and pretended not to speak or understand English, if only because many Turks speak English but none that I encountered spoke Arabic. This made it much easier to fend off shopkeepers, tourguides, and enquiring men (though some of their persistence in the face of apparent total noncomprehension was rather impressive).

Finally I got back to the States, where I continued to suffer from culture shock somewhat but got over it fairly fast--at least this place is familiar to me, just less recently.

But what I find interesting is that the longest-lingering aspect of culture shock so far has been my perception of my own appearance. In Damascus, there weren't a lot of mirrors around, diet culture is more or less nonexistent if you're me and hanging out with boys all the time, and we were all more or less equally scruffy and resigned to looking, well, like students abroad. I got back and all of a sudden realized how much weight I had gained, how completely not used to thinking about, oh, outfits and accessories and such I am, and how (seemingly) effortlessly everyone around me is in a completely different sartorial mentality--that is to say that they have one.

In reaction I basically feel like a sort of poor FOB and eternally, inescapably scruffy. This too, shall pass, of course, but of all things I did not expect beauty culture to be the last and in some ways most difficult hurdle.

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