Culture stress is a somewhat general term used to describe the stress that arises when one is trying to assimilate to a new way of life in a place foreign to them. At least that is how I would describe it.
The other day I needed to pay the children’s school tuition. We heard that if you do not pay before the start of school, then the children will not receive their textbooks. I didn’t want my babies to be without their books at the start of school, so off I went. Mike was traveling, so I needed to do this by myself.
The three oldest attended a summer program that day, which just left me with Mister B, so at least that was helpful. I wouldn’t have attempted this with all four of them, oh my!
So here is where the culture stress began, before even stepping foot out of our apartment…
-As I was getting ready to leave the house, and I was already struggling with my outfit. It was such a hot day and I was frustrated with the amount of clothing I needed to wear. I decided to cover my arms by throwing a scarf around my shoulders, so already I was feeling so hot! I walk out of the house “I’m sweating already and this outfit doesn't feel like me” … the stress began.
-Driving on the way there: There are no lanes here and cars are swerving everywhere. This I’m used to and it’s no problem. It’s even kinda fun. But then a mini bus comes behind me and rides my tail and lays on his horn. He wants me out of the way. But there is a mini bus on my right and a curb on my left… so what am I supposed to do?! “Why make me feel like I’m being an annoying driver if there is no where I can go to get out of the way?!” His honks continue, I find a way to get over eventually and he flies past. As he passes me I lay on MY horn cause I feel angry towards him (When in Rome do as the Romans, right?!…)
-Pulling up to the school: No proper parking… “I guess I’ll just park on top of this pile of re-bar in front of this construction site?”
-Walking in the door: “Is this a push or a pull door? I can’t remember and they’re rarely marked. I always get it wrong and everyone inside sees me crash into the door and it’s embarrassing.”
-Entering the hallway of the cashier: People are seated in mis-matched chairs lining both sides of the hallway. Nobody is talking. I am carrying Bridger in his infant seat and have to walk through the center of the seated people to get to the door of the cashier. “Oh man, I am the only woman without my head covered. I am the only foreigner. I am the only one with a child. I’m so different!” I stand awkwardly at the door to the cashier knowing I can’t enter because all these other people are waiting their turn. I know I should be able to put my name on a list or get a number or something but I don’t see any obvious place or any obvious staff so I walk one way and then another for lack of a better option. No one helps me and I stand at the end of the hallway until I see a young woman come out of the office with a stack of small papers. I think that’s who I am supposed to go to. I walk between all the seated people again to get to her.
-Getting a number: As I reach her, she scribbles a number on a scrap of paper and hands it to me. But it’s really messy and I don’t know even which way is up. “I can’t read this, what am I going to do now?”
-Taking a seat: I walk back to the end of the chairs and take a seat. I study the paper for awhile and decide my number is 24. I text Mike a picture (gotta love technology) and ask him what he thinks. He also says 24, so I feel confident. I could ask someone sitting near me for help, but no one seems friendly at all and I’m feeling so self-conscious and intimidated that I can’t bring myself to ask anyone.
-Waiting: We wait for a long time. People go into the cashiers office and people come out. I don’t know what number we are on. “I hope someone tells me if it’s my turn.” I catch people staring at me.
-Announcement: Some lady comes over and makes an announcement to all the parents waiting to pay. A couple people ask questions and a couple people seem unhappy, but no one gets up to leave. I have no idea what was said by anyone because they all spoke in Arabic. No one offers to translate for me and I am feeling so self-conscious and intimidated that I can’t bring myself to ask anyone.
-People Watching: As I wait (for an hour), I am watching all the people around me. Mostly the women’s clothing. Not a single woman here is wearing short sleeves, although I often see it. Many women do not even wear sandals. “Is it immodest to wear sandals and I totally missed something?’' I start to worry as I look at my sandal feet that are in serious need of a pedicure. “What do people think of how I am dressed?” “Is my outfit all wrong?” Do they think “She’s a foreigner, look at her nice clothes, I wish I had clothes like that”? or do they think “She’s a foreigner… I would think she would have nicer clothes than that?”
Aaaahhhhhhhhhh. So now I’m basically obsessing about the clothing thing and I’m making myself crazy. I need to stop.
-Someone sits by me: Finally a woman sits by me because it was the only remaining seat (Last picked for the team is not a nice feeling). She is near enough I feel comfortable quietly asking her about the numbers. She says they are on number 33, glances at my paper and tells me that I have number 47. Oh my…. 47, not 24! Wow we were way off. Am I seriously that bad at reading numbers?! So discouraging.
-Lots more waiting: Starting to reformulate the rest of my morning’s plans because this is taking so much longer than I thought.
-My turn: The helper lady walks over to me to tell me I’m next. That was helpful and I could even understand her (between the Arabic and the body language).
-The Cashiers: I grab B’s carseat and walk through the people into the office. I have no idea what to expect, but I find two ladies sitting behind two desks that seem friendly. They rattle off at me in Arabic and I catch some of what they say. They don't speak any English. I tell them that I speak a little Arabic, but please slow down. I give them my children’s names and ask the price. We figure out how much H’s fees would be and then I ask about N’s because I knew there would be a discount for the second child. I hear them say something to each other along the lines of “Well, why can’t we finish the first child before we start asking about the second one?!” I didn’t realize they write different receipts for each child. I don’t know how things work, but I felt they were mocking me. Eventually we reach the grand total and I pull out my wad of cash. At home, I had folded bills into sections of 1000 pounds each. That way I could count by thousands rather than 200’s and take less time counting bills in case the baby was fussy at the time. But when I hand the money over, the woman laughs as me. “Look at what she did the money” She tells the other lady. “Why would you fold the money?” is the jist of what I catch in Arabic. I don’t have enough language to explain myself, so I just let it go, but now I feel even sillier for doing what I’d done. Ugh.
-All done: I take my receipts and leave. I get B back in the car and text a friend to cancel what I had planned to do next. That ordeal took so much energy. I paid tuition and it was exhausting.
I came home and spent some time thinking through all the emotions I had gone through and all the mental energy I expended to do a simple thing like pay a bill. I thought writing might be a good debriefing process for me.
In the U.S. we likely would have paid tuition online with a few clicks or dropped a check in the mail. It was a task that we expect to be straightforward and easy and it had become an ordeal that was draining and uncomfortable for me.
I’m not saying that uncomfortable is bad. It’s just culture stress, and it’s everyday life here. And today I felt like ‘unpacking’ it a bit with words. Learning to deal with these sorts of things is key to learning to thrive in a place.
As I’ve reflected more and attempted to learn from my experience one thing I’ve identified about myself is that I am much more comfortable in one-on-one situations than I am in group settings. Yesterday I spent a couple hours visiting with a local friend in her home. There were umpteen opportunities to feel awkward and uncomfortable (believe you me!), but I did not. I am much more confident and feel much more natural in this type of scenario.
So that’s that. Just a couple hours in the life…