the untethered expat: culture shock

I’ve been a bit off lately.

I’ve seen it coming, and I recognize it for what it is, but nonetheless, it’s unsettling.

I felt it on our school trip to Belem. The last presentation–the culminating speech–was in Portuguese. Again. Chaos erupted across the room as Brazilian friends leaned in to translate for their foreign peers. Someone leaned over and began translating for me. I was hot. I was itchy. I was tired. I was annoyed by an earlier rude interaction. I couldn’t focus on the speaker, I couldn’t focus on the translator, I couldn’t focus. My skin crawled. I left the room with a wet face and huddled in a bathroom stall, a secret fight with my tears.

Culture shock.

I felt it on our twelve-hour commute home from Ihlabela. The sky leaked, the traffic crawled, the language blurred–all closing our access to “normal” road trip conveniences: a bathroom where I can flush the toilet paper, a restaurant where I can read the menu, a map where I can navigate the alternative routes. No one looked like me. No one talked like me. I was trapped in a car on a road going nowhere, literally, in a foreign land.

Culture shock.

Those moments were sudden and striking compared to the undertone of malaise I’ve been experiencing lately. A sense of floating pervades my daily experience. A lack of connections confounds me. A tangled web of “what was” and “what is” and “what will be” constricts my access to air. And I already wrote about the plague of insecurity.

Culture shock.

1_8NUOaTClmFPvDi9U4HpscwRecently during some circle conversations and mindfulness moments in class, I’ve asked kiddos:

What are you grateful for? Who are you grateful for?

Like always, I was moved by their responses. However, unlike always, I was also moved by my response. Not in a good way: it took me so long to think of who or what I was grateful for. For a while, my mind was completely blank. This is not like me. I’ve written about gratitude often (see: here or here or here or here). It is important. It is foundational. It is me.

But there I sat, a silent vacuum.

Culture shock.

All of this–my response to and experience with culture shock–has been on my mind constantly. It guides my meditation practice. It is the source of dinner conversations with Dave. And I’ve come to realize that my lack of gratitude is rooted in, well, my lack of being rooted.

It honestly hurts my heart to call to mind people or things or experiences back in the US. I’ve “left.” My heart aches with a sense of abandonment.

It’s as equally challenging to root into what is new and express gratitude for the here and now. My heart aches with a fear of surrender.

And I know it doesn’t make sense.

Culture shock.

And so, as always, I am left with my breath. Gently noticing this experience, observing what it feels like from head to toe, from heart to soul, and ultimately letting go.

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