"You must be in culture shock, right?" Miss Hass's teaching intern meant well. My steely look somehow convinced her to go on: "I mean coming to this place must be so different." She knew I had just arrived from upstate New York the month before to sit in the first class of my senior year at San Bernadino High School. Picture Ally Sheedy in the Breakfast Club anticipating Winowa Rider in Beetlejuice— that was me. Grim. Disengaged. Pissed at the world.
When our rust-belt poverty resulted in a second eviction notice in 4 years, Mom read this as an invitation to southern California's sun-belt opportunity. So we packed what we could into a UHAUL (sleeping accommodations on the roof), and we drove the 2673 miles from Corning, New York to 29 Palms, California. My brother, a Marine stationed there, put us up until we could get on our feet. Mom found us a home in San Bernardino a few months later, and I began my senior year of high school, the only white looking, punk girl in my English class. These superfacial differences aside, I was checked out of school, felt under-challenged, and dropped out for a month or so before eventually going back to finish.
I began to resolve my culture shock after two years of working at the Jack in the Box on Baseline and Waterman. I enrolled full time in California State University, San Bernadino and worked my way through, mostly in fast food and retail for 25-30 hours a week. Enrolling in classes (in the days before computer enrollment) involved standing in long lines on the day your name came into the established queue. They let students into the gymnasium fifty at a time. Tables were arranged in a circle by department around the gym's outside foul line. We raced from table to table, asked for a class, and secured a 3x5 enrollment card for the class. As an open enrollment university, CSUSB had too many students fighting for limited space in classes. One quarter of not getting the classes needed meant more tuition, more time to degree, more work and increased our frenzy.
When I did get into classes, my writing was awful: fragmented thinking led to equally fragmented writing. Ideas dolloped on the page like layers of a bean dip. With similes about that bad. But I loved reading, and words helped me make sense of my experience. So I began paying attention to the writers who were turning phrases in ways that made sense to me. I went through more writing styles than Madonna identities. Eventually, during my junior and senior years when classes got smaller, a few encouraging professors listened to what I was trying to say and I began to improve.
That last year of high school and first years of college were so daunting. Campuses bigger than my hometown. So many languages and me only able to speak English, a little book Spanish. All the time feeling the outsider. But the people in it with me were so kind, and most were in the same boat, or fresh off one. We'd come to Southern California looking for stability: food on the table, a safe home, decent clothes on our back, and we were willing to work hard for that chance to do better— even with our episodes of alienation and disengagement.
Over the years, that idea of culture shock has begun to make more sense to me as a teacher and learner. It has influenced my faculty development workshops and teaching philosophy.
More importantly, culture shock as a theory, can help us make sense of the struggles that come with loss and migration. It can help us put words to the foreignness of coming to a new country, region, or college. It can help us tell the stories behind the steely looks. Professor Cheryl Caesar developed a site that does just this. Students writing for this site voice their struggles when coming to a place like Michigan State University, help each other find resources, and share their stories. Click on the image below or visit: caitlah.cal.msu.edu/divein.
Models of change, change agents, teaching, learning, expressive tools, and everyday struggles for dignity, resources, respect, and cultural perseverance.