Culture shock

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about culture, mostly because I’ve been reading / watching some great things on world building (Orson Scott Card’s How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy & Brandon Sanderson’s lectures on it in his Write About Dragons series) – and also because in the novel I’m writing, I have a character experience some serious culture shock when they travel from an isolated village to a high-tech society.

As someone who’s more of a “gardener” than an “architect” (thanks GRRM), I don’t over-plan my cultures when I’m writing. But that said, I’ve never had a situation where I’ve set down two such differing cultures side-by-side, and then introduced a wide-eyed innocent to the wonders and horrors of technology.

It’s made me think a lot about my own experience of culture (and culture shock), and how overwhelming cultural differences can be, even when moving between two relatively-similar cultures. When I was thirteen, my family picked up and moved from the Pacific Northwest to a pretty small town in New Zealand. Yep, one English-speaking country to another English-speaking country. We even touched the same ocean, weird as that sounds. We moved to a place we’d visited before on lots of occasions, to a town where we had family already living. And we still were traumatised by it, at first.

So how different was it? Just a couple of examples:

• We instantly stuck out like sore thumbs with our American accents. People at school knew me as “that American girl,” and as nice as it might sound for people to know who you are, even though you don’t know them, it’s actually a really weird feeling. Even my grandparents would tease us about it: “say waterrrr!” My dad’s car was known as the “Yank Tank.” We were “the Americans,” and therefore immediately different.

• Starting a new school was weird. OK, so starting a new school anywhere for a thirteen year old girl is always going to be dramatic. But throw in a totally different syllabus, a school uniform, the accent thing, and hell, even the way people took notes, and the result was total bewilderment for me.

• People would ask me if my school was like Beverly Hills 90210.

• Driving. We brought over our chevy suburban from the States (how American of us, hah!), but before it arrived we drove one of my grandparents’ cars. We were forever getting in the wrong seats – usually my little sister in the drivers’ seat. Also, my grandparents’ car would start binging once you started driving over 98 km per hour. Annoying!

• TV. When we moved to New Zealand, the country had two TV channels. This, for a TV-aholic who was used to cable TV, MTV, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, HBO, and the rest of it, was totally bizarre. Channel One was news and “old people shows,” so invariably I would come home from school, change out of my uniform, go upstairs to my grandparents’ mezzanine (we were still staying with them; it took us three months to find a house), and go upstairs to watch Neighbours and ‘60s Batman. New Zealand didn’t have Shortland Street just then, so Australian soap operas was as good as it got.

• The smells. My grandparents’ house had this certain smell about it, and for ages I just thought it was the “smell of New Zealand.” After both my grandparents passed away and their house was sold I thought I’d never smell that smell again – until the day my husband and I moved into our current house. I opened a drawer, and woosh. Turns out the “smell of New Zealand” is some sort of drawer liner paper. Huh.

• Culture. OK, regardless of your opinions on America as a hub of culture, living there – especially in the 80s – absolutely gave one a feeling of immediacy. There was so much going on, and it sincerely felt as though the US was at the centre of it all. (Yeah, I know.) I’m pleased to say a great whack of objectivity was acquired after we moved, but it did still feel as though we had moved from somewhere very big, to somewhere very small. As a thirteen year old, this was most noticed by the availability of movies and other consumable media. Seriously – I have to wait six months for Cry Baby to come out at the movies? FML.

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