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Friday, December 16, 2005

Culture Shock

I spent half of my Junior year at college in Mexico, living with a host family in the very large city of Puebla, which is situated approximately 2 hours southeast of Mexico City.

I still see those months as the best and most valuable time of my life thus far. Three months out of thirty-one years and counting.

They provided much preparation for the differences in culture before we headed down...we discussed the weather, appropriate dress, "Mexican time", class and OUR duties as students, our the culture shock we would experience when we re-entered the atmosphere of the United States.

We remained in Mexico City for three days, during which time it rained on us and we thought we had left the sun behind. But we did see the sun again on the day we visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Amazing how she always points to her son...and that day was no exception.

But I digress. I remember our arrival in Puebla, sitting in the classroom after taking our Spanish placement exams, waiting like little orphan puppies for our host families to claim us.

"Who belongs to V.R.?" came the call. I stood nervously and left my new group of friends, still waiting to be claimed.

My host mother greeted me with a hug and assisted me in getting my baggage to her car. She asked me how much Spanish I had studied an explained that the girl who had stayed with them 2 years prior spoke very little, so she got used to using hand signals to convey what she was trying to say. I was actually grateful for this, for although I'd studied for 6 years, I was so lost and confused, my American brain so muddled, that intellectually I felt I had regressed to infancy.

She drove me to their home, chatting all the while...I barely understood a word. She was careful to enunciate, she pointed when she could and patiently repeated questions, words, or whatever I didn't understand. I was terrified and she knew it, God bless that dear lady!

We arrived and she showed me to my room, and around the house. She asked me if I'd eaten. Yes. She offered me food anyway. I had learned that I really could not refuse...this was their hospitality and if I didn't eat she'd think I was sick..or worse..rude. So as stuffed as I was from 2 Ham and Cheese croissants, hot chocolate and churros, I agreed to a...ham and cheese sandwich. (sanwich de jamon y queso). And bottled water.

Over the next few months, I came to call Mexico "home" and barely even remembered the conveniences and comfort of my American life. I didn't miss the things I thought I would miss and quickly became used to using the language...and excelled. Of course, I HAD to family didn't speak English and they wouldn't let me get away with fudging answers when I clearly did not understand the questions.

While I was there we traveled on study trips and I had to give a report on tomb 7 of Monte Alban in Oaxaca, all of the material for which was in very difficult Spanish...but somehow, I managed. I worked with women and men in prostitution as my practicum, a social services ministry called "Municipal Program for the Defense of Human Rights".

I saw cops who carried sawed off shotguns and learned from an ex-cop, as he told me very matter-of-factly that it was for shooting into crowds so they could kill more people with one shot.

I obtained a whole new view of the world and of the people contained within...and I rejoiced at every turn at God's creation. Although the trip was often difficult, it was also rewarding.

When it came time to leave, I did not want to go home. I had converted to Mexico..and in spirit, I was Mexican. I loved the country, I loved the people. I found God there, although I really didn't initially recognize this.

They had warned us about re-entry to the US, but it wasn't enough. There was no way to really tell us how to handle what happened upon our return.

Yes, we were greeted at the airport with open arms and smiling faces. We were welcomed to family gatherings and greeted with "Welcome back stateside" by relatives in military forces.

But the hardest question to answer was "How was Mexico? How was your trip."

The ONLY way to answer was, "How much time do you have and how open are you to a different culture?" But that's not what I said. I told them, "It was home."

Initially, I hated the United States. I hated the materialism and longed for the simplicity of the life we lived down south of the border. I was quickly bored with the sea of white faces, and blending in again to this culture that matched the blandness of the color of our skin.

Where was the color? Where was the understanding? Where were the people I left in Mexico, and how were they doing?

You may be asking what had happened to me?

I'll tell you. Some of it was frustration. I thought that when I returned to the US, everything would be the same and there would be things to catch up on. I thought the world would have moved on somehow. I thought things would have changed in three months.

Nothing changed. It was like coming out of the wardrobe from Narnia back to the spare room ("Spare Oom in War Drobe). Nothing changed. Nothing changed.

NOTHING changed.

Everyone was the same that they had been...but I had changed. I had come to see life with new eyes. I had come to understand things that I had never before understood. I had come to learn that the world is smaller than I had thought...and that my town and state were still smaller.

I had seen glories of creation I never thought I would see, and I discovered doors that I never knew existed...but I had no way to convey this because it is not just intellectual and experential social, or political, but spiritual.

I saw clearly what I had left...and had I not had to finish college, I would have immediately returned to that life I had so recently flown from.

For the longest time, that itch to return to Mexico burned within me, to minister to God's own children...but I had to bide my time.

And the longer I bided, the further I re-entered into American life.

But every so often, I long for Mexico, I long to return...not just to Mexico, but to other countries as well.

So I have to I a missionary in denial all these years? Did I miss my calling, or is God's time different from my own?

And when I remember those three months, I realize that I am still suffering from culture shock...and still...nothing has changed.

Or has it?

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