The author presents the different stages of the culture shock experienced when going abroad during her High School.
When I was 17 years old, I boarded a Lufthansa airplane at Zurich airport with destination New York City, waved anxiously goodbye by my family and there was not one tear in my eye.Full of anticipation I was finally able to get off the beaten tracks of my teenage life and I was longing to feel adventurously free. What better a place could there be than the „Land of the Free“?!
My American host family picked me up at J.F.K airport. A damp, sticky wave of humid summer air took my breath on that bright sunny August afternoon when I stepped onto that „even-sleazy-when-clean“ New York pavement outside the airport not speaking a word of English.
It was fantastic! The hot crowded city streets, the hustling energy and this breathless speed within people; this dry, direct, and pragmatic way of dealing with each other was just about the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced. The typical American beaten-up station wagon with wood imitation on the sides was seesawing us over the hill-meandering turnpike one hour north into the New England woods – the refuge of people being, but not wanting to be connected to New York City and its economic opportunities.
This was how I arrived at Wilton, Connecticut, my new home, which was in fact less a town nor a village, but rather a few very expensive houses of a few very rich people scattered over a wide enough tree-covered area to still see – and in case of emergency reach – but otherwise comfortably ignore the respective neighbors.
After that day it was going down, my enthusiasm that is, and over the coming weeks and months I was confronted in regular intervals with a certain estrangement, bewilderment, surprise or consternation about this American way of life and my disillusionment with it, be it in family, acquaintances & friends, sport, work, education & the various cultural and social activities often coordinated in clubs within the school or church frame. Being a very curious and energetic young woman it was my decided intention to experience everything possible to the full and I did – which was mistake number 1 and 2.
Mistake number 1 was „everything“ which means the decision not to restain to the most promising areas in terms of future prospects. Mistake number 2 was to actually do all the things I found new and exciting irrespective of what other people might think because I always found my interests within common limits. Going frequently alone to New York City for the weekends – which was mistake number 3 and one of the major factors causing huge confusion to almost everyone around me – offered me a vast practicing playground and field of observation; between the skyscrapers of Manhattan I became invisible and everything else came to the fore.
Thing Called Culture
During the course of the year I put about another 1001 further mistakes on my unwritten list of intercultural „oopslas!“ and learned by reoccurring mutual irritations and discussions that even if it looks the same, there is something called a cultural setting ruling mysteriously within every one of us influencing our thoughts and emotions, our words and actions.
Slowly I realized that these cultural aspects being woven into our individuality make – above all benevolence and goodwill – a fundamental difference in how we perceive and judge the world, make decisions, find confidence in ourselves and build trust for others, create our individual set of values in terms of so-called „universal“ topics as life and death, the facets of love, the setting of gender roles, the importance of respect, the meaning of friendship, the interaction between different generations, the functioning of society, the different views on individuality and responsibility and many other subjects. I also developed the persuasion that these differences can be analyzed and understood, communicated and negotiated, at least most of the times.
Becoming Aware of the Own and the Foreign
Looking at that year afterward I realized that the end was very different from the beginning. After 10 months I had succeeded in offering to literally anyone around me a balanced amount of very welcomed and instantaneously very confusing behaviors, which positioned me controversial as side spectator in the center. My individual relationships and my judgment had shifted as had the judgment by others of me. My being a part of the family had become me simply living with them. At school, I had been gone from an exotic bird to a funny bird to a strange bird to a familiar bird. True friends, I found in those challenging the absoluteness of their own views helping me to understand my own absolute setting and the dynamics between theirs and mine. The views of myself, of other people and of the world had profoundly changed and so had my values regarding respect, loyalty, tolerance, communication and emotion, individuality and society.
Most entries in that table are not very surprising considering the situation of strangers of different cultures getting familiar with each other. Family life, for example, was intended by my host-family to show me their way of life. Therefore I was due to fuse into the family setting, try my best to live up to their expectations and comply fully to the rules already in place (which were mostly unconsciously lived and not openly communicated nor explained). Developing other interests beyond theirs, being very active, taking walks alone (jogging would have been acceptable), riding a bicycle, having a different daily rhythm and getting along with 4 hours of sleep, working and rumbling until late at night was not intended to happen and left them stumped. On one side I was not aware I was breaking rules until it had already happened and caused disruption in confidence. On the other side, I found it unthinkable in some aspects to let go of my own expectations and to do less than possible. Although my host-family knew that I was practicing martial arts and had been a competitional sailor for years (being mostly the only or one of the very few girls amongst large fields of boys) they had hoped for a more feminine less determined person. My ability to comply alternating with a creative independence and the ability to say „No“ to certain offers came as a surprise to them and did not match their picture of a 17-year-old female.
The family setting, on the contrary, was quite conventional. My host-father was Chief Financial Officer of a big company owning one of those multistory buildings at 6th Avenue in Manhattan. My host-mother, a very kind, gentle, harmonizing, proactive and in a pragmatic way caring lady, had hoped for a „daughter experience“ as they had three boys. My three host-brothers – the two elder-ones not living at home anymore – were following their father's trail in character, targets, and values, focusing on competence, hard-work, and material success and were comfortable with the proposed male gender role of a dominant but quiet patriarch.
Being in so close and frequent interaction my family life reflected most areas of differing individual choice and cultural or communicative deviations. It was the focal point for the discovery of differences in view on economic, social, political, religious, gender and educational matters and was therefore for both sides a true challenge and not always in the comfort zone.
Furthermore, it is also not surprising that the freely chosen relationships (the column on the opposing side of the table) which developed during that time were on the other end of the range in handling differences. It can be taken as a consequence of an apparent and natural selection from both sides. Neither them nor me would have chosen over this lengthy period to spend time with each other without necessity, if it was not only for common interests and certain shared traits, that inspired and fueled increasing exchange but also because of the awareness of the cultural constellation that required us to be careful, benevolent, constructive, self-critical and very inquisitive.
The only dynamic that started from the same end of the range as the interaction within the other spheres was the handling of emotions. Still backed by this very positive interpersonal background, I perceived positive emotions for a long time as being fake, not originating from a genuine feeling, but from an intention or motive with manipulative, hypocrite or dishonest elements. Addressing and handling negative emotions was even more difficult and took longer to appear at the surface. Showing negative emotions was uncommon in all spheres and communicating or negotiating them even less. This was the area where both sides needed most time and effort to get in sync, where I found least differences in handling between the spheres and where the mutual determination against avoidance or ignorance would create the most substantial connections. This was also the part were my swiss culture provided me with the most similar difficulties and reactions.
Birds of a Feather
Also, the fact that the relationships already given by circumstances were in characteristics closer to my family experience is understandable for two reasons:
a) the „birds-of-a-feather-effect“ through the given choices of living and working circumstances appeal to similar mindsets and strategies of avoidance.
b) the family’s attitude towards me would unconsciously be taken as a role model.
My host-brother for example - having the same age, being also in his senior year at High School and working very hard to increase his chances of acceptance to a distinguished university - introduced me at the beginning of my stay to his circle of friends. Everyone treated me very kindly and cordially. They were the first communicative contacts representing the undistorted mix of language, behavior and knowledge requirements. Already knowing them would make me feel part of their world in those early days and seeing them at school, passing them by in the hallways, meeting them in class, in the library,
joining them at the cafeteria was important and very pleasurable. In the course of time, the contact to my host-brother chilled because of the before mentioned conflicts, because of a certain annoyance that I was not under the same pressure and due to a natural competition within the situation. Parallel to him chilled the connection to his friends. Of course, I also offered them a wide range of potentially confusing behaviors but most of all, it was hard to talk to me at the beginning of my lack of English skills. Also later I found it challenging to participate in the conversation as much of the content was coined by sports, TV series and commercial goods typical to the American economy. This kind of specific knowledge was required to fuse in, to indicate individuality by consumer choice and express and understand humor. Furthermore, the reaction of taking distance seemed to me as if it would have been regarded unloyal to him maintaining the same quality of contact with me.
Keys to High School Survival
Loyalty or the establishment of alliances appeared to be a strong underlying theme throughout the different social constellations. In school, I encountered a very open and pragmatic way of dealing with each other, be it between students as well as between teachers and students. Only after breaking again several rules – as for example talking to all kinds of people with no regard to their social affiliation – I learned of a rather strictly implied judgment of who one is, to which group she or he belongs to and how he or she is supposed to behave. Pragmatism created in this respect very narrow limits. One effect of that common underlying judgment was that one was only supposed to talk to people considered appropriate to have contact with. There were the cheerleaders and the chocks (those on the football team), the nerds (in math-club and in special natural science classes on university levels) and the geeks (computer freaks), the gothics (those showing their desperation about the state of the world and the universe by dressing in black wearing scary make-up), the future stars (preparing their career in fine arts, music, artistry or acting) and the hang-outs (smokers of cigarettes - and secretly but generally known marihuana - hanging-out most of the time outside the building in the smoking area).
The black-and-white-question, usually being a stereotyping issue in other American schools, did not exist in Wilton. There were some black people, six of them in the senior class. This school of roughly 900 people had altogether 15 black students, and about two-thirds of them were coming on scholarship
terms from the community of Norfolk. The year after I left, the program was canceled for financial reasons. So besides talking to everyone, I confused every group by fitting-in in some ways, and not-fitting-in in others or behaving on occasions completely inappropriate in their eyes as a third possibility. I would, for example, be interested in cloth and make-up questions, but not in shopping excursion. I would discuss environmental or political problems but not participate in demonstrations or action groups. I would come from the land of snowy mountains and be part of the ski team but would lack the enthusiasm to drive 8 hours and spend 60 USDollars on a day pass to be able to ski on a short, flat, icy slope in Vermont having to wear a neoprene face mask against the chill. I would display all aspects of decency but go alone to New York City. I would make good friends in school, but also cultivate friendships outside of school, outside the community and outside my age range. I would prefer to ride my bike on those 10 miles to school instead of being picked up by friends in cars.
I would play Lacrosse for the junior varsity team, but smoke. I would smoke cigarettes but not marihuana. I would provide alcohol for my friends, with a foreign charm on a fake ID, but not drink it. I would enjoy dressing up for balls and proms but refuse to wear fur. I would do babysitting and home shop work without financial necessity in my spare time instead of hanging out with my friends. I would play clarinet in the marching band and take singing lessons, but show only moderate interest in football games or musical events at school. I would have great fun with the other foreign students but spend most of my time with Americans. I was having effortless good grades in Latin, French, Russian and other courses considered important, but would focus on making jewelry (and also fail spectacularly in other subjects). I would be open and interested in anyone, not showing a visible system of preference and
enjoying the company of freshmen, sophomores, junior and senior students alike. Things like that would make me liked but at the same time suspicious to everyone in one way or the other.
High Pressure for Personal Excellence
There was another upfront dominant topic - of which this stereotyping alliance-building was part of - commonly called popularity being equaled with personal success. Being popular at school was most important – either by achieving it directly or by becoming popular in rejecting it conspicuously. Often both strategies were applied at the same time taking turns. Being popular with teachers seemed to promote academic success by reference and being popular with students was necessary and the stepping stones to attain particular functions or tasks in those various social clubs or sports. It was crucial to be visible, liked and promoted by supporters and friends because all details were part of the individual application curriculum sent to the universities. Social engagements, functioning as president of some club or interest group, as captain of the football team or being the leading cheerleader, basically any achievement out of the ordinary was regarded an asset by the decision making university authorities. The competition to high-profile institutions by grades alone was (and still is) unsurpassed and therefore small details had the potential of being the tipping point into the University of one’s choice or not, maybe even into an ivy-league house or not. This – is the US-economic system - was considered to determine to a very high degree the rest of your academic and professional career path, the potential level of income, offered opportunities and the suitability for future promising and profitable alliances.
Failure in this respect could close certain doors permanently. The sad back-side of this requirement in American society – which is to be number one on some list whatsoever – can be seen in Michael Moores film about High School massacres, interviewing one of the high-risk students saying openly that this was his core motive and the only possibility to get this kind of profiling. Completely detached from the original purpose to conform society members to the highest possible degree of individual effectiveness for the sake of society as a whole, the simplification of the standard to enhance accessibility for all, the lack or loss of meaning and therewith deeper understanding of its benefits proves to have a high potential for destructiveness and seems to turn on some occasions into Faustian nightmares like Columbine or Oklahoma City.
This high pressure for personal excellence from all sides was at Wilton High School luckily balanced with the standard of personal responsibility. Coming from the Swiss system, being used to a higher degree of unquestioned authority executed by teachers and bringing along the attitude of an inferior, I tried, for example, to cheat on my first exam – something that was almost considered a sport in my swiss school. The reaction by teachers as well as students was completely baffling and contrary to my experience. My student colleagues showed open despise or rebuked me, my teachers clarified and explained pragmatically and non-judgemental that if I had no time to study, I should tell them by when I was ready and take the exam in the teacher's room. Instantly my mind produced the additional 100 ways of possibilities to cheat until my thinking adjusted and I came to understand that even with this tremendous pressure on grades, cheating your way through was not considered an option by anyone, that the violation of this standard was intolerable, but also that the student was actually given the space and choices needed to develop and learn to execute this responsibility.
Turning the Wheel - Conclusions
Having been socialized in a rather similar European-culture-based and strongly protestant influenced environment as the Swiss, the elements and choices I met in the American environment were not unknown to me, but the amplitude of them and the variations between them were bigger. The individual constellation was on both sides rather particular. With my childhood rich in inspiration and challenge, I was not a typical swiss teenager and the people I encountered in that New England area were not representative of the majority of the US population. In fact, to me, there are very few criteria available depicting something called American Culture. There are many standards, stereotypes, and cliches, and many of them apply on one occasion or the other, but in my eyes, it is foremost the land of extremes and a country that offers the opportunity to any way of living. The success of the American social system is not to melt the differences as often said, but to give space to them, and space there was. Taking the Wilton school environment as a mini prototype of that social system, almost anything was thinkable, when it included a group of relevant size when it was evidently homogeneous in itself and heterogeneous to the other groupings.
Clear visibility and corresponding predictive behavior that allowed quick orientation and classification was essential for acceptance. Historically seen these rules of alliances, competition, relentless mind to succeed and the accent on personal responsibility make much sense. The United States was created as a nation of immigrants. Many of them arrived with nothing, all of them took a high risk of losing whatever they brought because no one knew if the assumptions were met by real development. Fast recognition and good judgment of the cooperating counterparts ensured a higher degree of safety. Alliances were needed in order to survive and to sustain the material base, to build functioning communities and its necessary services, to promote an above-European quality of life, to maintain law and order to secure the assets and the profits.
In the nineteenth century by the winning of land, the opening of the west, technical innovations like the railway effectuated the economy getting ready to boom. Cities were planned and property sold even before they physically existed. Different towns located right next to each other would compete against each other in order to attract business and commerce, workers and capital. Private letters were written on paper displaying pictures of the fertile landscapes, geographic advantages, progressive lifestyles or economic growth rates. There was advertising used, public relations work done and the media newspaper became an influential partner to gain attention. Popularity and the right alliances often tipped the scale of destiny about the existence of towns and its inhabitants as it happened for example regarding the reconstruction of Chicago after the Great Fire in 1871.
Like for many immigrants to European countries today, failure nor return was an option. They had received often much of the family possessions and were expected to provide for them in return. For them there was no safety net in the new world, no relatives to fall back on, no influential supporters feeling obliged to step in. The immigrants that built the United States over the centuries had no choice but to take full responsibility for the consequences of their actions. They had freed themselves of the many ties and constraints of European societies and paid a high price in sweat, tears, and uncertainties. But they also developed effective reactions to cope with and overcome the challenges.
The tome bestranging elements of the American way of living which I met during my year in Wilton can be seen as the remains of these historical developments, handed down from one generation of immigrants becoming residents to the next generation of immigrants becoming residents. These particular values and attitudes towards hard work, fast money, instant recognition, profitable alliances, ruthless competition, popularity and individual responsibility were absorbed into the cultural setting, changed and adjusted, sometimes biased, blurred or taken to extremes. They became for the institutions and social groups a means of justification of existence and guideline for action. They advised the individual physic and psyche as a frame for generally desirable development. Institutionalized and standardized these elements are still in function today and can be seen as the cornerstones of what we might perceive as American Culture. Coming home from my year in New England’s woods, I returned to my own family, my yearlong friends, my well-known school, my usual spare time activities, but although everything looked the same it was from then on different – it was bigger, more beautiful and much more exciting.