It was the pedestrian crossings that freaked me out the most. I would stand at them for minutes, waiting for a clicking sound to indicate it was safe for me to cross the busy LA streets. After being awake for more than 24 hours and having travelled to a foreign country, I just wanted to find my way to the nearest grocery store. Yet the clicking sound never came, and when I eventually looked ahead I had my first experience of culture shock: the pedestrian crossings were silent. The little running man laughed at me for an unknown amount of cycles until his timer prodded me to sprint across the traffic and make it to the other side.
Fast forward three years and I’ve added numerous days of travel to this overwhelming initiation into US culture. I’ve walked the streets of San Francisco, revelled in the history of Boston and explored Times Square. I could list off the cultural differences I’ve discovered between Australia and the USA; From the prevalence of homelessness to the overwhelming sense of patriotism, the art of tipping to the wide variety of churches I have visited, it quickly became apparent to me that it was far more beneficial to embrace the difference than be perturbed it.
Travel is an extraordinary adventure. Many people have been quick to point out that this is an opportunity distinctive to my generation. Prior to this, my parents would go into detail about their adventures around the Australian bush and their holidays to small, rural towns. Yet now, with a bit of hard work and copious saving, I am able to find a destination on the internet and be there in a matter of days. Frequently, I have found that my travels have been a ‘Narnia’ experience. I walk through a wardrobe (or fly cross the ocean) and enter a magical new land full of new things to discover.
Much like Lucy Pevensie, I am drawn to this ‘magic’ land. Yet once I am there, I can find that it is far less beautiful than I anticipated. It’s the struggle to navigate public transport, say “no” to insistent buskers and the fear I experience as I walk back to the hotel from the bus stop in the dark. The small things that naturally occur when you travel all play a part in culture shock, and on a bad day they seem to taint the picturesque vision you had of your dreamland. But as the days progress and you see sights you had only ever dreamed of, smell the Atlantic ocean for the first time and meet people who immediately take up residence in your heart, you are given back your Narnia. But it’s not the land of perfection and opportunity you dreamed of, it’s a better place. It’s better because it’s real.
The America I once dreamed of visiting was bold and new. It was full of people to befriend and a culture to change. It was a place of exploration where I was a tiny traveller in a land full of giants. Three years later and having lived there for a brief period, I feel like I am travelling to the same land of adventure and opportunity; but I am also traveling to a land of brokenness, of struggle and passion.
The moment you step outside your country, you see the world with clearer eyes. Your significance in the scheme of things wains because you realise how small you are, but your perspective deepens, because you see the great things people have been able to achieve. Even more than the sights and sounds, you discover that it’s the people who really change you. Languages and accents change. Ethnicities vary and values and belief systems will look vastly different. This is all part of culture shock, and these dramatic changes will often challenge your perception of life. They are scary, but they are wonderful.
Because I have met these people, I can say that I am a different person. I am stronger, I am braver and I am more vulnerable. I am able to empathise to a greater extent and my knowledge of the love of God is broader than I would have believed. Culture shock changes you; it is like a semi-trailer backing over all your preconceptions and ideals about life. But when it begins to clear and you pick up the pieces, you are left with the opportunity to rebuild yourself. And as you rebuild with the inclusion of these new people and experiences, you are made better for it.
Lucy Pevensie is devastated when she has to leave Narnia and return home. Yet in her final days, she learns that this Narnia was just a shadow of the real Narnia. This is much like travel. The beauty of the situation can fade as culture shock sets in and you miss home. But when you step into this place of melding your home with this new land, you enter the real Narnia. It is here that you learn God is bigger than you ever thought possible.
This article was published on Apropos Walk. You can read it here.