Culture Shock

“There’s a dog under your seat,” I helpfully alert the woman who has just sat down next to me on the bus.

“Oh, sorry!” she exclaims, as if this were somehow her fault, or a thing to apologize for. “Should I sit somewhere else?”

“You can sit over here,” another middle aged woman across from us suggests.

“It’s all right, you don’t have to move,” I explain, “I just wanted to let you know.”

“Well, the dog hasn’t touched me, and I haven’t touched the dog yet, so I didn’t know he was there. He probably hasn’t sniffed me because I’m wearing clean clothes and don’t smell like a dog.” Because, obviously, him not sniffing you has nothing to do with the fact that he’s a working dog and is, for once! Behaving, I think to myself, before adding the thought, was the cleanliness of your clothing in question? I decide I never want to find out, because someone who makes a great point about having clean clothes today probably doesn’t wear clean clothes often enough for this to be normal.

I now go back to almost falling asleep while sitting up straight. Besides my closed eyes, I appear very alert. In fact, if I were not on a bus I would definitely fall asleep sitting up and wake up to find I haven’t moved in the slightest. I know there are a lot of strange traits people can inherit, I’m really happy about having this one, though it’s more amusing than practical at this point.

I’m still tired when I get off the bus. I’ve gotten off at a stop before the one I usually travel to, so I can check out a restaurant that has apparently wonderful sandwiches and is seriously inexpensive. I’ve decided not to take out my Braille computer with the GPS as this will only confound me logistically once I’m ordering inside. Nothing on the nearby buildings screams restaurant at me. I pass an alley but decide I’m definitely not going down there. That couldn’t be it! Besides I am now getting a picture from Caoilte who is hanging out with me in pure energy form that the alley doesn’t look at all inviting to him when considering it from my point of view.

I ask directions. I patiently correct the college undergrad who insists I have to keep walking several blocks in the other direction. I know this as much is false: I looked it up with a sighted person on a map yesterday. Finally the woman says, “Oh it’s right here! I’ll walk with you.”

I decide I’m very grateful for the offer. But my excitement ebbs substantially as we turn left down the alley. “It’s down here?” I ask, as if asking the question might change its truth value. “I noticed the corridor earlier but immediately ruled it out. I would have never found it down here, even with a GPS.”

“Yeah, it’s this way,” the student replies, I think a bit sympathetically. Allegro and I walk down what would be a narrow tunnel if only the roofs of the two buildings we pass between, already too close to us, were to meet in the middle. I would be able to touch the walls of the buildings if I were to stand in the middle of the walk and hold out my arms, I think glumly. Have I mentioned I sincerely dislike tunnels… and alleys… and any underground or almost underground place? This better be one marvelous restaurant.

The situation gets even more precarious as we descend a winding set of large, unevenly spaced steps which in their entirety make a U-turn. We *are* going under ground. In an alley. On not the most particularly safe street in Berkeley. This isn’t good.

Caoilte, of course, had the right idea, and I was too determined to see for myself anyway. At least I am being curious and optimistic, I tell myself, searching for at least one redeeming quality in my decision.

But I’m not feeling optimistic—okay I am curious—but increasingly wary, out of my comfort zone. “It’s just right here on your left,” announces the student cheerily as she leaves me near the doorway. Allegro tries to follow her. I steel myself before going inside. I already began this morning feeling tired and like I might not be up for a mission impossible episode. I am now not only concerned but feeling like a stranger in a strange land. In fact, the more this day has gone on, the more I’m feeling like an alien.

My alienation only increases as I step through the restaurant door. I ask a man if he’s at the end of the line, and getting the affirmative, move to stand behind him. He then asks me if I can move farther right, apparently I find out after complying, because Allegro is blocking the rather tiny entrance. I might be helping people leave in my new location, but am officially out of line now, no pun intended.

Still, I have a moment to take in my surroundings: a motley crew of diverse people coming and going quickly and talking surprisingly quietly considering, all against the backdrop of some rather offensive rap music which is spiced up with more epithets than dogs have flees (with the exception of service and other well looked after dogs of course, who all dress in clean fur.)

I can see Caoilte standing next to me. Thank goodness, even though I swear he looks a bit crestfallen and out of place. I send him a picture in sympathetic agreement that, were he me in the modern world, his feelings might not be all that different. I am increasingly feeling like I don’t belong here. I keep looking around to make sure I have a good handle on what’s going on, but am simultaneously berating myself for being hyper-vigilant just because of the presence of gangsta rap. And the fact that I’m in an alley. Underground. These are not the details of a place you get while virtually walking down the street on your computer screen. Modern technology is not helping me feel comfortable, or like I belong, or know what to do, or give me the confidence that I’m safe.

I have barely moved in line. But a woman with an accent I can’t place walks up to me and says in a voice that makes me feel sick before I can help myself, “I’m here to help you, dear. What can I put on your sandwich?”

“Thank you for the offer,” I say through proverbial gritted teeth which are incredibly still plastered into a smile, “It’s not my turn in line yet. I don’t want to cut in front of anyone.”

However, about sixty or more seconds of me repeating various forms of this protest and her repeating various forms of patronizing attempts of assistance later, along with further primarily four letter lyrics from the overhead speakers, I feel myself give up. That is not a strange way to put it. I literally have the feeling of giving up, it feels like being dropped down a few of those stairs outside the door, and landing, not hard on the ground as one might expect, but on a very thin barrier between me and an eternal abyss which could give way at any minute. It is at this moment that a single word, precarious, flashes through my mind.

I continue to feel this way as I stumble blindly, pun intended, through the motions of finishing my order, getting the sandwich, and leaving. I can tell I’m not that present. Most of me, who was wishing to be anywhere else but here for a long time, sensibly left, leaving my very small self to handle it. This small self feels and acts a lot like she’s thirteen.

With a sense of detached dismay and the dread of impending familiarity which only comes with reentering patterns you thought were long gone, I watch as a Tongue-tied, awkward, clumsy version of myself plays the summarily given role of the helpless blind girl, exhibiting the confidence of a toddler about to skydive solo with a parachute. Oh. No. I think despondently, and then suddenly hit with the horror of the situation the thought changes to a much more authoritative, oh no you don’t!

Shortly thereafter, I get myself and Allegro out of the restaurant and moving up the stairs as fast as possible. I’d like to say that this is when my journey to the sandwich underworld ends. I can say, fortunately, that I’ve succeeded at not catering to my inner teenager again. However, the whole rest of the day has been fraught with an inexplicable sense of displacement which I can’t figure out how to eliminate, and not for lack of trying.

It is as if the whole of the modern world has been slightly unintelligible to me, so that engaging in conversation has taken way too much energy while I consciously assess and recall the right social norms in the way I imagine an anthropologist would while visiting a different culture. I have to say that spending most of the day in the library has been an enormous relief. And I have no trouble at all continuing sending pictures to Caoilte. Alienation of this kind, unlike dissociation or general disconnection, doesn’t seem to impact otherworld relationships and I am in profound gratitude for that. It means that I am not disappearing, merely experiencing culture shock. I can handle it in small doses.

It is only when I step off the return bus in front of my building that the strange, physical world effecting disconnect dissolves back into the mysterious nowhere from which it comes. It is a bit like waking from a dream. Everything is clear and vibrant and hopeful. The fog, that retrospectively I think might have been there, possibly, is gone now. I bound up the stairs with Allegro telling him excitedly that he’ll get to eat soon, and picking up on my refound joy, he wags his tail all the way to my front door. I gratefully return back to my familiar surroundings and my ancient family, and myself.

In the future I’ll pay more attention and listen the first time.

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8 thoughts on “Culture Shock

  1. You have what we sighted don’t, of course – an awareness of self such as we will never achieve. And this must lead to all manner of … feelings ? awarenesses ? of which we are entirely ignorant. To our misfortune.
    But it must contribute to the angst caused you by this quite weird outing ….

    1. Yes, it most certainly does! It’s part of why I feel like I don’t fit in. Were I sighted, I feel I’d not have so many moments of alienation. But I would not trade my connections with more than the eyes can see for anything. 🙂

      1. I know. All blind people say that, and with deep, deep feeling !
        As for “were I sighted I’d not have so many moments of isolation”, Éilis – I’m REALLY not sure about that. By which I am not referring to you, but to the fact that so many sighted people experience the same … and possibly more often. Because, you see, they don’t have that ‘excuse’ ! – does that make sense ?

      2. Yeah, it does make sense, actually. I doubt the statement I made is true all around, it is however often how I feel. I know lots of people who feel alienated, sighted or not. I think perhaps the deeper truth is that the more we question what our current culture values and live by our own lights instead, the more likely it is to feel like we’re strangers in our own place and time. That’s certainly what happens to me! I take it on good days as a side effect to growing which is ultimately a good thing. 🙂 You know, sometimes I feel like an outsider for reasons like those on Thursday, sometimes the why is quite obscure and mostly lost to me. Sometimes I feel very much like I belong, but not in the way most people would expect. When I can be reflective about it I realize I’m certainly not feeling alienated alone, all by myself, and what counts as outside or belonging is all a matter of perspective and definition, and I can choose how to frame it in any moment. Fortunately!

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