A Funny Little Thing Called “Culture Shock”
Whenever I heard the term “culture shock”, I naively assumed it referred to someone who was ill-equipped to deal with their new cultural settings while travelling. I thought that if you did enough research about the place you were going to, or tried to learn a little about the history, language, and customs, you would be immune to this “shock”. I certainly never thought it was something I could experience within a Western English-speaking country, let alone the country I grew up in.
This summer, I was on co-op in the little town of Drumheller, Alberta. I worked at the East Coulee School Museum that was located in the hamlet of East Coulee, about 20 minutes outside of Drumheller.
Drumheller has a population of five thousand people, and East Coulee has a population of roughly 120 people. Needless to say, the area had a very small town atmosphere. I grew up in Calgary, a city of over one million people, and have lived in Victoria for four years. City life was the only life I knew.
I first arrived in Drumheller on a gloomy Sunday, and I was terrified. As I strolled down the empty streets lined with massive Dodge Ram pick-up trucks and a variety of vacant dinosaur-themed souvenir shops and liquor stores, the town had an eery, desolate, abandoned feeling. I felt like the last person on earth as I roamed the empty road towards the grocery store where I wandered alone down the aisles. I thought I had entered the set of a post-apocalyptic movie, not a small town in rural Canada.
Though I had this creepy introduction to the town, it later came to light that Drumheller was always deserted on a Sunday when it wasn’t tourist season. All the boutiques close on the one street that constitutes “downtown”, and restaurants close early (except for Boston Pizza, which was THE place to go for a night out in Drum). Even during the week, most of downtown was empty by 5 pm, making it the perfect time to explore in peace.
Besides the setting of the town, I had to get used to the fact that locals would notice and comment on my newness to the area. At the grocery store, I got to know a couple of the ladies working the cash registers and we would ask with genuine curiosity about each other’s days. At the Shopper’s Drug Mart, two employees a couple of years younger than me asked where I was from and were shocked that I had moved to Drumheller willingly. When I asked what there was to do for fun, they said most people just drove around, waiting for something to happen.
It was odd coming from a city to be recognized and greeted by name while wandering around town. Suddenly the anonymity of the city seemed simultaneously appealing and bleak. It was nice to feel like I belonged to the community when locals began to recognize me. But that also has its pitfalls.
In the city, I don’t care as much about what people think of me because the chances are that the people passing judgment are just passersby that I will never see again. But in a small town, people will vocally judge you, make comments, or in some cases even spread rumours. I did not have to worry too much about this because I was just the “BC summer student”, but some coworkers had had some challenges with the more traditional and conservative views of the locals.
Within a week of completing my co-op in this small town, I moved to England to embark on an exchange at the University of Leeds. Leeds is one of the largest cities in England, and the university campus is moments away from downtown.
I was suddenly thrown from the sleepy streets of Drumheller, into the bustling, rapid moving core of Leeds. At first, I was relieved. It’s refreshing to be in a place with so much life and energy, and to be with people within your own age group and with similar interests. I felt like I was truly thriving my first week, meeting new people, exploring new places. But then I began to miss the familiar.
In Victoria, I relish the green spaces on and around campus. A walk to Caddy Bay or Finnerty Gardens is enough to clear the mind and lighten my mood. I took for granted the multitude of isolated beaches, coves, and lush parks Victoria has to offer all year round. These were the places I always sought solitude in when life got overwhelming.
Even in Drumheller I took nightly walks along the banks of the Red Deer River. But in Leeds, I couldn’t just find a forest to wander through, or a place to listen to the birds or wind without the overlapping roar of construction and traffic. Although, I stumbled across a lovely green field with beautiful, big trees on campus called St. George’s Fields. A former Victorian era cemetery, this field is the closest a student can get to nature in the middle of Leeds. It’s a bit spooky to wander past some of the tombstones clustered around the field, but there’s something fascinating and distinctly English about the park as well.
There were also more obvious changes I had to get used to in England, like cars driving on the opposite side of the road, the heavy Yorkshire accent of the locals, and being asked “Are you alright?” as a greeting. The first time a clerk at the store asked me “Are you alright?”, I answered “Yes I am. Why?” thinking that I looked off and that’s why she was asking.
I also had to acclimate to the chaotic ways that pedestrians cross the streets, dodging cars and jaywalking as they please, and the indecision of which side of the street to walk on. I’ve become rather good at weaving through large groups of people and using my elbows when necessary (I’m only partially joking about the elbows).
If the last six months have taught me anything about culture shock, it’s to approach new places with an open mind and with humility. Even when you think you know a place or you expect it to be a certain way, it’s a completely different experience once you’re actually there.
It’s important to understand that even though a place is different, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad. The more places you visit and live in, the more easily you can adapt to knew situations. I found I’ve learned a lot about my likes and dislikes, my confidence level, and my comfort zone through my experiences with culture shock.
I feel like I can take on challenges I never thought I would be faced with, and that I’ve gained a better understanding of why people think and act the way they do. If anything, I think culture shock has made me a more empathetic person, not only to the people in the places I’ve been living in, but also to those people that come to Canada and Victoria and feel the same sense of disorientation that I have experienced.
Culture shock feels exactly as it sounds, shocking. But it’s also one of the greatest life lessons I’ve had so far.