Tag Archives: culture shock

Hill of Tara Part 1, Ireland, 2015

I step off the large tour bus. Mom, very tired, stands to my left. In front of us the hill of Tara rises, and even closer than that, clumps of tourists, families and groups of friends, mill about. We are an odd blending of strangers and companions, all with stories of our own, dropped here from around the world to visit, for all our myriad of reasons, a part of our heritage.

It is a beautiful summer afternoon, the sun shines radiant but unobtrusively through the clear, blue sky, its rays dancing a compromise on the cool breeze, as if seeking, in midfall, to defer deferentially to already ensconced patches of shade.

A cacophony of conversation drifts up the hill over endless neatly mowed grass. Grass? At Tara? When did this happen? The question intrudes on my thoughts and I’m not sure who it’s from. All I know is that, when I was here before long ago, the place was mostly dirt, and grass in the form of neatly kept lawn was conspicuously absent.

To see the place once more, but without eyes, haunts me, taunts me with visions which will remain unconfirmed, cheating me out of an intimacy I once shared. I can walk but cannot trace the contours of the landscape with my eyes, and for a moment I am grief stricken, like someone who can behold but never touch the one she loves.

The metal gate would have been absent of course. so would the bus that dwarfed the distances I might have once traveled by foot. Would I recognize those footpaths now, or would they be permanently lost to me, covered over by time and transformation, deforestation, and fresh green grass? I have little time to ponder, for now the woman with the calm, high voice who will be our guide for the next hour issues us through the gate and we begin our ascent.

Part of me recognizes what I am doing as quite normal and routine, exactly the kind of sequence of events that occurs during a mass tour of an ancient site. And we had had no choice about the large tour group, either. Our trip to Tara is part of a larger tour of the Boinne Valley, including Newgrange, which we visited earlier. The neolithic stones are only accessible through booking a tour with the visitor’s center. What else might I have expected?

The answer comes unbidden to me, unannounced, almost a surprise. For we entered Tara without challenge or ordeal, no statements of pedigree, degree and right, status or reason for business. And I remembered, from somewhere deep within, how such a display of worthiness was required if a person wished to even remotely be considered for the welcoming. And here we are, without trial or travail. My surprise, I realize, is not at the details of the memory, but my unnerving feeling of culture shock.

And “Now watch your step,” warns our vigilant tour guide, in a tone of voice that conveys her desire to avoid a repeat of some prior mishap. “The grass is slippery and wet, and the ground is uneven.”

Of course it is, I think to myself. The first thing I notice, with a pang of sadness, is the absence of the great wall. The open grassland unsettles me, any trace of a protective embrace now long since eroded away. We walk past two stones, which our guide explains are all that remain of an ancient rite of kingship. It was said that these stones were placed a specific distance apart, and that a potential king would only be allowed onto further initiations if he could drive a chariot between the stones without touching them. I felt the two stones, the aspiring king would have had to be very skilled indeed to accomplish the challenge.

I am grateful when mom is too tired to walk with the rest of the group, and we fall behind. I need distance, and badly. Besides our feet upon the now grassy earth and the birds chattering in sporadic song, the occasional caught phrase from a fellow tourist up ahead, the wind whispering its opinion now and again in low, hushed tones – the place is silent, silent.

No one lives here. No horses whinny impatiently in a stable, no king’s servants hurry by with provisions, wash buckets, hay bundles, or cooking pots. No last minute commotion to repair a building. No children hollering and playing in the dirt. No pits for fires, no conclaves of brehons, no bards with their harps, no druids preparing the ceremonies of Samhain. No shouts from the now absent walls. No buildings in fact, except for a church, constructed in 1822.

It’s a very interesting church, but while I am appreciating its existence and contribution to the long history of this place, I am left grappling with the elusive transience of uncertainty forged through the passage of time. Time and its remnants seem to emanate from this place from every age, from the stone age to the present, clambering for their own share of loyalty, of recognition, of honor. In the midst of the iconic passage tombs with their transparent mystery, the allure of the Christian era crossing the minds of those from the middle ages to modernity, casting its shadows over the past, Tara from the second century CE seems to have fallen into obscurity. To the hand or the eye mapping the surface, the time I walked this world as Mairin is almost forgotten, or else shrouded in the misunderstandings and messiness of myth.

We walk on. My feet take to the landscape almost effortlessly. True to our guide’s word, the ground is quite uneven and slippery. Mom stumbles, and instantly I catch her fall, perfectly poised on the ridge of a dip in the landscape. Farther on she trips again. Again, I compensate without thinking, immediately placing us solidly on the furrowed plane of the hill. “Don’t worry, this is what sighted guide is for,” I joke, grinning at her, “So that I can ensure you don’t lose your balance.”

We laugh. “You’re doing pretty well,” she admits and I wonder, should I tell her that I am fairly convinced that I know my way around?

I decide against it. Mom is pretty tired after all and I feel she might need a break from conversation: she’s been describing landscapes and standing stones to me all day. Besides, I don’t know where my brothers are, and if either of them overhear, I’ll be hard pressed for a decent explanation. In fact, I’ve yet to figure out an adequate explanation that satisfies myself, though I can feel myself teasing out the story from my bones, as if patiently completing a one thousand piece puzzle.

Just before we crest the top of the hill, it is plain to me that I do in fact have some sort of instinctual memory of the place. Toward the top is a very steep portion, and forgetting mom’s fatigue, I bound up the steep incline like a dear in the dark, slowing down only because I am still holding onto mom’s arm, and I can’t as well drag her with me.

I want, so badly want, to run, to race up the rest of the hill, then race down again, several times, until I’ve exhausted myself. But I don’t have Allegro or my cane with me, and I can’t run with a cane anyway, doing so is the equivalent of sprinting with a big stick, and that has other potentially hazardous consequences (usually for other people.)

So I do the next best thing, what I have always done when I long to be able to move gracefully in a world that doesn’t allow that without vision: I take a moment and imagine, in vivid sensory detail, what it would be like to move fast on my own. Then I let go of the desire. I’ve done all I can with it.

Mounds within mounds. Age packed onto age. Standing atop it all at the summit, where everyone with the eyes for it are looking out over three fourths of the whole country, history sings to me from far beyond who I was, far before who I am now. As I stand, the energy of this place captivates me, courses through me, a raw reverberation of remembrances. I am centered in their radiance. As if a tree, rooted, I pull up a current of change that seems to seap out of the ground through the soles of my shoes, traveling like sap through a tree trunk, until I am not sure where the soul of the land ends and my spirit begins. That is when I remember.

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.

Wanderer of the Desert _ When Two Worlds Meet: Part 1

It is the spring of my fifth year at Stanford, and I am engaged in the highly stressful endeavor of applying for, and then receiving acceptances from graduate programs in philosophy. It is a time that now I am thoroughly relieved is in the past. The culture of the aspiring undergraduates in our program is, retrospectively, much more like a fundamentalist religious cult (with the strange difference being enforced critical thinking) than a typical academic department. The six students applying for graduate school this year, of which I am one, have formed a tight knit if competitive cohort, fervently engaged in an almost obsessive solidarity that I find familiar enough to not question (and I still don’t want to know why.)

My peers and I routinely discuss things such as how the search for truth is the most superior calling and that we would die for our ideas. We unfortunately mean this literally. (I am glad my past self was not tested on this.) We hold that the absolute worst thing that can happen to an undergrad is to not get into grad school. We frequently proclaim our slogan “Don’t get left behind!” While outwardly we pretend to be rational autonomous agents who are not at all conforming to a bizarre conception of the world, inwardly we grapple with our fears and insecurities that we will never be enough. Admittedly, I now tend to cringe at how ridiculous we were and can’t quite figure out what came over us. But this is particularly true concerning one of my fellow cohort members who proudly confided to me that she routinely quoted Plato during sex. This, I tell her in the moment, is taking things too far, even for me, and I ask her to just keep that to herself from now on. Please?

As it happens, I am one of the five out of six fortunates who do not “get left behind.” I get into two graduate programs. My fate is secure. However, the letter offering me a place at the University of Anonymous Desert, comes only two days before I must send in my acceptance. Two hours later I’ve booked a flight for seven AM the next morning to visit the school. Despite my culture shock (which I discount as I have experienced culture shock at every grad school I’ve visited,) I decide after my whirlwind encounter that the people at the school are nice. Speaking of the wind, I also notice that I can literally hear voices on the wind that tell me which direction its blowing, and this fascinating phenomenon helps persuade me to return and investigate further. After much anxiety and tears and irritating my parents, I commit to attend the school in the desert in the fall.

Around this time, my parents sell our family home, the one I’ve grown up in since I was three years old. Then, weeks before I move to an unfamiliar state to begin my program and live self-sufficiently for the first time, my parents separate. The death of their marriage has been a slow and painful one. Though part of me recognizes their separation is probably the best thing to ever happen to our family—they brought out the worst in each other—I am also broken-hearted and devastated. Part of me wonders whether, had I never been shaken as an infant, the marriage would still be intact, though I know this is as far from the truth as the assertion in a scene of Monty Python, “The Holy Grail,” that small rocks float.

It only takes a month or two in my graduate program before I realize, my family situation notwithstanding, that I have made a terrible mistake. I can’t stand feeling like a number rather than a person. I can’t stand the three digit temperatures. I can’t stand mustering up the courage to speak up in class just to have my ideas unceremoniously dismissed without even the courtesy of an argument, and in front of my colleagues besides. I am displaced, not just from my childhood home, the security of a two-parent household, and the only state I’ve ever lived in: I also, slowly, begin to become estranged to myself. I do not recognize this woman struggling to be seen and heard, who is not respected for her ideas, who is barely surviving without sight or assistance in a literally hostile environment.

Still, I do not think of leaving, regardless of how much it is, and it really is, killing my sense of self-worth and breaking my spirit, delighting in making me small, molding me into a “presentable vegetable” courtesy of the Logical Song.

First, there is the fact of my commitment and that leaving would be to break it, and that, I am convinced, would be giving up in a shamefully dishonorable way. But secondly, where would I go? My time in the nest is over.

My dad now lives in a small apartment and is dating a woman whom he eventually marries. My mom has moved to a funky rental and is struggling to get back into the workforce after twenty-seven years as a homemaker. I will be more secure in the grad program than trying to make it in the real world where my address is from nowhere. I stay.

As one year drearily trudges numbly into the next, my grip on the core part of myself, who I am, what I stand for, what I believe in, why I am here, slowly sinks beneath the red sands, like the horse from Never Ending Story who drowned in the swamp of sadness as he was pursued by The Nothing. The Nothing is so quiet, that I never notice its gradual erosion of who I once was until no trace of it remains. Then, one morning, I awake to a day like all the rest: except I don’t know who I am. Having no energy or will to grieve such a loss, I stumble on with little sense of purpose or meaning, and even now, much of that time is lost to disassociation, out of the reach of memory.

November of 2007 sees the final drawing up of my parents’ divorce papers. Meanwhile, the landscape around me at the school mirrors the raw and barren, thorny, and parched landscape of my heart. Up until now, I’ve spent my whole life living in the Bay Area, California. I’m used to and love the golden hills, the green lawns and chattering trees, and most of all, the ocean. But here, here the desert sands ooze red like blood, canyons gape open like mouths fiercely begging for a rain to quench an eon of thirst; here the wind gathers itself and rumbles across the earth like a living animal. Here people promise themselves in strange awkward moments that a scientist somewhere must be hard at work at this very moment, creating a pesticide that will get rid of the vast infestation of dust that takes over their houses, floats in films onto their dishware, scurries into their clothing, sifts through their hair, settles into their ears and mouths, suffocates their souls. For like the parched clay within my heart, dried out and hardened from the intense heat of anger, frozen by my fears, stilled by the silence I keep in order to survive where I do not belong, the landscape surrounding me is hostile and defensive and sometimes literally locks its tenderness away, displaying nothing but spikes on the outside.

The philosophy department in this earth-cracked, hungry place is full of bigoted and sexist graduate students and prejudiced professors. One graduate student tells me after an argument in which I announce that if the department is going to give me ninety students to teach, it is my responsibility to give each of them an equal opportunity to learn, even if my research falls behind for this reason: “It would behoove you to adopt our values, or leave.” There is the professor not on my committee who expresses surprise that I have passed my comprehensive exams. There is the professor who insists that I have made a pact with most of her colleagues to grade me leniently due to my blindness, a statement I still have in writing. In fact, my miserable situation even seeps into my dreams: I dream that, at a department meeting, all my colleagues turn into eighth graders. True enough, my experience is very much reminiscent of middle school.

This desert, which I have now endured for two long years, leaves my bones dry and brittle, leaves my soul thread-bear and gulping for water, raw and cold like a piece of forgotten old stone. Inside or out, I am nowhere. I have no home, and for this reason, through the years in the desert, I wander like a nomad, like one of a lost people yearning for a promised land without the benefit of believing that a god will grant such a place to me.

For during this time I also shed the last vestiges of Christianity and throw myself whole-heartedly into following the earth-centered path I have always followed, whose name I have only now learned. I am ecstatic to realize that there are others like me in the here and now, and I can claim the ancient ways of my own ancestors. Somehow amidst the despair, I honor mother earth, hold sacred the land, sea, and sky, and speak to the old ones. This revelation somewhat complicates my graduate experience however as it also means living in the broom closet. According to my department members, the only sane position on spirituality is atheism and anyone deviating from this world view is stupid, irrational, and not worth anyone’s time. There is no attempt to tolerate others’ differences, and even the Christian in the program finds himself at the center of ridicule and insult. So I live a double life, unable to be honest with my colleagues, in constant fear of discovery.

At the end of spring 2011, and nearing the end of my coursework, the smoldering remains of the silent cry within myself keens so loudly for freedom that I can no longer ignore the necessity of leaving. I am so tired of wandering. I have wandered this desert for six years. I take a six month lease apartment in the fall to make sure I don’t change my mind. I’m too far along to leave the school, but I can make an exodus, like Moses out of the American Sahara back to my home in the Bay Area, where I can write my dissertation on virtue and interdependence. I will return to the rolling brown hills, green trees and winding trails, and water. Dear, inviting, vital ocean whose rhythm is my heartbeat.

Not even a new relationship, the first one in as many years as I’ve been a graduate student, can detour me from home. With tears in my eyes I leave for a long distance arrangement and for an apartment in Berkeley, surrounded by family and friends, soft mist, the silent bay, and people who won’t figuratively cut off my head if they learn I am a druid. (As a philosopher I very much value my head, thanks.)

Finally I start to grow and heal. Finally I can dissolve into a sacred space of becoming, from which I might emerge changed, but enough, re-membered into cohesion, renewed. Perhaps I will even once again be able to hear the voices on the wind and look into the world beyond the world, which now is lost to me. Perhaps, I can spin a cocoon around my broken pieces so that the withered fragments I have become can mend me, weaving themselves into new wings with which to fly.