CULTURE SHOCK


First impressions and culture shock:


Culture shock is the disorientation and stress one feels when in an alien cultural setting. Having read ethnographies on societies similar to Gende society, however, I was prepared to accept most Gende customs as "normal" or as making sense in their own cultural terms (cultural relativism). If anything, I was more in danger of taking the Gende for granted than of experiencing culture shock and of imposing other anthropologists' interpretations of similar societies on Gende society. It took me some time, for example, to see beyond the more public (and, in other PNG highlands societies, much written about) persona of Gende men and women to discover how much real power some women wielded alongside their menfolk. This tendency to underestimate the power of "native" women or to interpret others' societies in our own terms is well-illustrated in the reflective fieldwork accounts of Jean Jackson (1986) and Elizabeth Faithorn (1986).

The first shocks one feels are usually a sense of social versus cultural unconnectedness - having left one's home behind and stepped into an unknown set of social relations - and the physical shock of climbing mountains or other unfamiliar physical discomforts. Compare my comment in Rapport (1. The next day:) on feeling "like Alice in Wonderland" on my first night in the field with the following quotes from other anthropologists describing their first impressions:

"This was my first night in Lesu alone. As I sat on the veranda of my thatched-roofed, two-room house in the early evening, I felt uncertain and scared, not of anything in particular, but just of being alone in a native village. I asked myself, "What on earth am I doing here, all alone and at the edge of the world?" - Hortense Powdermaker 1966, p. 51.

"My knees buckled beneath me, and I knelt down completely exhausted on the dirt floor. A single stream of light peeked through the opening of the shabby, darkened hut. My bare legs ached and creaked from the torturous mountain walk, and I could not even savor the luxury of a few seconds of silence to collect my thoughts. Slowly the buzz of flies and mosquitoes built up, collaborating with the fleas that danced peskily around my ankles. With the crowd outside, chattering and pointing, I felt completely out of place, like a prize specimen in a zoo." - David Hayano 1990, p. 20.

Homesickness as a form of culture shock:


Missing one's family and friends is a normal reaction to prolonged fieldwork. Often, however, homesickness and culture shock combine to produce odd cravings and yearnings for the familiar, and sometimes not so familiar, paraphernalia and foods of one's own culture. Around the middle of my first year in the field I developed a passion for reading John Updike's Rabbit books for their copious and minute details of American life. Only later did I realize that I was using the books as a way of holding onto a thread of my own culture as I became more and more immersed in Gende culture. At that time I also began dreaming in tok pisin and Gende and mixing together in one dream locale the village and my home in Pennsylvania. In one dream, for example, some of my Gende friends, dressed like so many ladies auxilliary women, poured tea from a silver tea set while I sat on the floor, feeling out of place and wanting to return to Yandera.

Culture shock, the real thing:


Some differences are easy to accept, others not so easy. Our culture places more emphasis on individuality than many cultures do, including making adults individually responsible for their actions. During my first fieldwork there were many conflicts in the village and I was often shocked by the Gende's practice of assigning blame wherever it best suited them versus following our alleged practice of blind justice. When Elizabeth's house burnt to the ground one morning in a "mysterious" fire, Elizabeth blamed a boy who was no where near the village that day. While it took some effort for her to convince others to accept this version of the story, she further surprised me when she demanded compensation from the boy's older brother on the grounds that he - being the eldest son in the family - was ultimately responsible for any crime his brothers might commit. Most people believed the fire had started from a lit cigarette Elizabeth had left behind during an argument with Ruge. As Ruge and Elizabeth were important leaders, however, and always ready and able to support other villagers in raising brideprices and other payments, their social capital was enormous compared to the family they scapegoated. From this perspective, I shouldn't have suffered further shock trying to understand why the accused, while obviously distressed, accepted their role as village scapegoats, realizing as they did that they had no other option and that with time, they would be accepted back into the fold (which they were, but only a year or so after I left the field).


Copyright 1996 by Laura Tamakoshi and Brian Cross