Culture Shock

Super-Size Me. I’m sure many of you are familiar with Morgan Spurlock’s world famous documentary about little acts causing big changes. This film didn’t intrigue nearly as much as his other brainchild, 30 Days. 30 Days is a documentary-like reality show that takes an individual from one upbringing and inserts them into another culture, religion, or profession for the course of one month. One of my sociology classes required that I watch these shows to gain a new interest in different cultures.

I found these episodes extraordinarily fascinating because they explored new cultures and explained, in simple terms, how they were different from my familiar habitat. While watching these, I have to admit that I was a little smug. The participants who took the challenge all looked like a cat being dragged through a bathtub. They were scared that they would, somehow, be corrupted by experiencing a new culture. I didn’t understand what the problem was. No matter where I would go, I would still be me. A temporary change in address shouldn’t be enough to overhaul my persona. I felt confident that if I was placed in the same circumstance, I could handle it with no problem. Soon enough that ego would come to bite me in the butt.

Sociology was a class designed to dissect human culture in the U.S. What impressed me the most about this class is that it forced me to take a close intellectual look at human society. It allowed me to analyze the world and see it through a lens that was clearer for me. I could finally understand all of the unwritten rules of the world that have eluded me in Elementary School. I was looking for logic and order in the game called Society, but I was consulting the wrong profession. Now that I had a system to abide by, human nature became a subject of intrigue.

This was the first of many cultural events that would come with my new classes and profession.

Meanwhile, on the other side of campus, I was taking American Sign Language (ASL) to fulfill my foreign language requirement. Why take ASL instead of Spanish or French? I stutter, I clutter words, and it takes me awhile to think of the right words for spoken languages. In ASL, the class converses by using our hands and facial gestures. I thought that this form of communication might provide a better fit for me than a verbal foreign language.

While taking the class, not only did we study non-verbal communication, we also learned about the culture of the deaf community and others who practice ASL. These lessons of the deaf culture became my first real active interest in cultures and human nature. While reading and interacting in the world of silence, I became more and more interested in how the world of someone else was different from my own world. I hated taking tests over it, but was still intrigued by the content and the natural world of ASL and the deaf.

In the second half of the year, the arrogance from my sociology class finally came back to bite me. In my first Social Work class, one of our main assignments was to venture into a culture with that we were not familiar with and write down our experience. The idea behind this exercise is that all types of social workers will be expected to interact with individuals from different ethnic backgrounds and this assignment is to help the students venture outside their familiar territory.

Choosing a culture to explore was the easy part. It so happens that my family is good friends with another family that was of both Muslim and Jewish descent. So I asked them for their advice, and they advised me to visit a mosque for my project. It was a culture that I knew only from hearsay and stereotypes. I thought that it would be an ideal place for my project and one-up the guys how on take to part in the 30 Days challenge.

As the day of my first mosque experience came closer, I went from ‘next in line for the rollercoaster’ excited to ‘cavity filling at the dentist’ anxious. Finally, the day of proving came, and I was scared out of my wits. My dad came along to help me with my project, but he wasn’t any more prepared for this endeavor than I was and he was just as nervous. I finally understood why the people on 30 Days were so scared.

As we slowly approached the front doors of the mosque, countless questions shot through my head. Should we wait five more minutes? Should we have brought some kind of peace offering? Who do we talk to? What do we do? What are the people like? What was the polite thing to do? What was the impolite thing to avoid?

This series of senseless inner questioning came to a halt when we shook hands with the door’s greeter. In a flash, my worries lifted, my preconceptions blurred, and my media induced stereotyped image of the people laid dead behind me as I walked through the door. The people I had feared to meet were a kindly and helpful bunch.

The moment my dad and I stepped into the mosque, many of the local parishioners practically rolled out the red carpet for us. When they learned that we visiting and we were interested in their culture, the practitioners were overjoyed and were eager to show us around. They showed us what to do, when to do what action, and explained the mechanics of the faith. Afterwards both my dad and I felt very relieved that our worries were groundless and we were grateful for the experience.

In a way, I’d spent my “30 days” by exploring a different career path.

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