I boarded a plane May 5, 1996 and left a rural life in Northwestern Montana for Basic Training at Fort Leonard-Wood, Missouri. Up to that point in my life, I had lived very much in the dark about the world as a whole and really didn’t comprehend much beyond the small town values I had been raised with. After landing at the airport in St. Louis, I walked out into what seemed at the time to be another world.
To back up a bit though. Let’s explore that rural community a bit more. I grew up in a tiny town called Trout Creek. It’s a good place for a kid to grow up. Forestry and tourism are the two most prominent industries; though there are a few ranches around, this isn’t the cattle-breeding mecca of the state. At the time I left, there were three bars, two convenience stores, two restaurants, and not much else in town. There was an elementary school for kindergarten through eighth grade, and upon graduation students had to ride a bus to the neighboring towns of Noxon or Thompson falls to go to high school. Junior high was an odd concept. There just wasn’t sufficient population to make a separate school. My graduating class from 8th grade was perhaps a dozen kids, if that. Diversity wasn’t really there, as far as I knew. There were two Pilipino girls in my class whose parents had adopted them as missionaries when they were little. Otherwise, everyone in the school was white. I don’t recall ever seeing a black person before I left for Basic Training. Hispanics were generally only seen when migrant workers came through in the fall to help with the harvest, and then not many. Most of the population is comprised of conservative Christians who listen to classic rock or country by choice and drive trucks or SUVs out of necessity. It’s a good place to live; even if I did get a lot of shit for being a long-haired metalhead.
So, now that we’ve set the backdrop, let’s take our young and naïve bumpkin – AKA “me” – to St. Louis. There were two very distinct impressions that hit me while I was walking to baggage claim. The first was that St. Louis smelled. It was this odd mix of sulfur and carbon with a touch of B.O. that was fairly reprehensible. The second was, “OMG where did all of the color come from?” There were white people, black people, Asian people, Arabic people, and people whose origins I could only guess at. There were people wearing crosses, burkhas, turbans, robes, jeans, and crazy goth stuff the likes of which I had never imagined. I think my jaw drug along the floor for most of the next few hours while I waited for the bus to arrive from Ft. Leonard-Wood to take me away to get Lost-in-the-woods.
That was my very first experience with true diversity. The type of diversity that you hear about in trainings hosted by your HR department at work. The type of diversity that I think Roddenberry hoped for when he dreamt up Star Trek. And, I freely admit, I was terrified. All of the impressions I had of these people I was experiencing for the first time were from pop culture. Keep in mind that this was a time when middle-eastern cultures were in the news for hijacking airplanes and blacks were represented in pop culture by the (oh so shocking) beginnings of gangsta rap, gang violence, and such theatrical classics as “Boyz ‘n the Hood.” My ignorance took me by the throat and choked me.
Fortunately; the military forced me to get over that culture shock pretty quickly, by simply smacking me upside the head with a culture shock of its own. The transition from civilian college drop-out – who did whatever, whenever – to a private in the U.S. Army is a pretty black and white thing. You can’t wear, eat, or do anything of your choosing. Your entire day and way of life is issued to you along with your BDUs (uniform). You get up, you exercise, train, exercise, train, exercise, train, and collapse hoping you’ll be yelled at less the next day. There is little to no free time, and even your free time becomes a regimented selection of activities. Sundays, you could choose to go to church, read your “smart book” (the Basic Training instruction book, basically), clean the barracks, or exercise in the quad between the barracks. Even then, I was subject to random ass-chewings.
I pretty much had no opportunity to even address the initial culture shock from my arrival in St. Louis. I had no time to even acknowledge it. There was a point where I went from being ignorant of my ignorance to being aware that I had stepped into a larger world. There was a black man in my company that was really intimidating to me. He never really spoke much, but he was physically the hugest man I had ever met. Not quite Michael Clark Duncan, but he was big. Plus, he always looked Really Serious. One day, we ran into a problem. We arrived at a firing range – sans ammunition. Apparently the supply folks hadn’t gotten the shipment of ammo in until late that morning, and we were stuck waiting on them. Eventually, the drill sergeants got tired of making us do pointless exercises, and went to go relax while we all ate and visited. I was sitting down, enjoying my Chicken a la King in a pouch, when the picnic table creaked and I looked up to see Really Serious sitting down in front of me. He scarfed down his meal in a few bites, and took out his smart book, and began reading. It wasn’t hard to notice that he was flying through pages and was ENJOYING whatever it was he was reading. Also, from the lack of diagrams depicting how to do such things as deploy a Claymore M14 antipersonnel mine, I could tell it was NOT his smart book he was reading. He’d used the cover of the book to disguise a novel. I discreetly asked him what he was reading, and he responds with, “Dragons of Summer Flame.” My entire worldview shifted in that one moment. The other races changed from something I was nervous about to something I was intrigued by. Dragons of Summer Flame is one of my favorite novels by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I realized that, if a black guy could like the same books as I did, then I was being an ignorant jackass and needed to forget the stupid preconceived notions that I had. We spoke for quite a while about Raist and Caramon and how Tika was just awesome. He couldn’t stand Tas, while I think he’s a tie with Raist and Caramon for Best Dragonlance Character EVAR. We both played Dungeons and Dragons and were set up to be assigned to Europe after our training was done. People were all the same and all different at the same time, and I needed to find out exactly how.
I didn’t really keep in touch with that Army specialist as I’d intended. We graduated from Basic and went to our respective AIT (Advanced Individual Training) assignments. I only saw him once a few years later. He had worked hard, been promoted to sergeant and he and his wife had a new baby. He was at Ft. Hood for training, and we didn’t have much time to catch up with one another. I can’t remember his name, but I remember his face and I’ll always remember the impact he had on my worldview. Since meeting him, I’ve faced a lot more diversity and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, because he opened my mind to the reality of diversity. I’ve lived in Germany for two years, moved to Texas, been exposed to everything from polyamory and Bhudist monks to strict atheists and Satanists. In each and every one of those experiences, that first experience with culture shock (and more importantly, getting over it) has helped me meet those cultures with an open mind and curiosity rather than fear and skepticism. And that’s a good thing.
Now, since I try to always come back to writing somehow…
How does culture shock affect our characters in our stories? I think there are several examples that stand out to me as well-done examples of culture shock.
Rand al’Thor’s encounter with the Aiel, a culture of desert people, in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series stands out particularly well in my mind. Rand was raised in a culture typical of medieval Europe. Men worked and went to war while women tended the home and children. There were few exceptions to this mindset in his life; however, as he eventually meets the Aiel and their elite Maidens of the Spear. They eventually become his personal guard, and this causes several plot enhancements. The two most prominent of those are that he continually offends them by finding ways to avoid putting them in harm’s way, an affront to their honor; and by giving gifts to one of them, which is subsequently mistaken as him showing interest in her hand in marriage. The cultures throughout the series grow and mature and the culture shock has multiple effects on nearly all of the characters.
C.S. Lewis has a rather unique bit of culture shock in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. The main characters are all humans from this world who find themselves in a land populated entirely by creatures of myth, including talking animals, dwarves, fauns, dryads and centaurs. The cultural divide is seen from both sides of the coin, and we see where some people experience culture shock with less contrast than the rest of us might. The youngest of the main characters, Lucy, meets Mr. Tumnus, a faun, in Narnia and accepts him almost immediately as a friend, with little reservation regardless of his differences to herself. Her youth and innocent worldview allow her to forego the cultural divide and skip right to wonder and acceptance. The Narnians view Lucy and her three older siblings the way that most of us in the real world would if we were to come across a fairy having a latte at our local Starbucks. Lucy’s trust for Tumnus sets the plot in motion, and the culture-bred distrust of the older characters regularly bumps the plotline along as well. Culture shock breeds the story from start to finish.
Another, perhaps more traditional literary example is Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies. In this short story, an Indian tour guide, Mr. Kapasi, ponders the idea of having an affair with his married American client, Mrs. Das. Mr. Kapasi takes the flirtations of Mrs. Das quite a bit more seriously than she intends them. They spend time alone in the car while Mr. Das takes the kids around the various sites they visit during their tour. Mrs. Das is somewhat unhappy in her marriage, and looks to Mr. Kapasi to bolster her ego a bit. This is something most married women in Indian culture would not do today, let alone consider having an affair outside of her marriage, given the extreme consequences such an action would have in that culture. Thus, when presented with such a notion, Mr. Kapasi is unable to interpret the situation correctly, and experiences a subtle form of culture shock, only realizing in the last paragraph of the story that such a thing is only a temporary distraction.
I think it is important for us to remember to let the cultures in our writing be characters. Without the interactions between cultures, why create those cultures in the first place? Let the cultures talk to one another. Culture adds to theme, conflict, characterization, setting, and language directly, while indirectly nudging style, tone, and symbolism. Keep it in the writing and let it expand your readers’ minds.