The shock of the new

Orphaned by civil war in Sudan, John Bul Dau, Daniel Abol Pach and Panther Bior left behind everything that was familiar. The drive to survive led them across the sub-Saharan desert in the company of thousands of other displaced youths collectively known as “the lost boys.” They scrounged for food and fended off lions, hyenas and rebel soldiers. Finally they reached a U.N. refugee camp in Kenya, where John, Daniel and Panther were among 3,800 lost boys selected for resettlement in the United States.

A documentary crew filmed their amazement and apprehension as they boarded a plane for the flight across the Atlantic. Over the next four years, the filmmakers chronicled their new lives in the United States and the process of adjustment. The result is an award-winning documentary, “God Grew Tired of Us,” a story both of immigration and of the human response to being culturally uprooted.

I saw the film last night at a film festival being hosted this month by the Willmar Area Comprehensive Immigration Reform coalition. One scene particularly stands out in my mind: Daniel and Panther’s visit to a shopping mall at Christmastime, where they’re speechless at the sight of Santa Claus and a towering Christmas tree.

Talk about a moment of culture shock.

What exactly is culture shock? Anyone who travels is probably familiar with some of the signs: unfamiliarity, stress, disorientation, homesickness. It’s a common reaction to being placed in strange surroundings, and it’s often experienced by immigrants, expatriates, international students and anyone who lives or works abroad. The Amigos Web site at San Diego State University describes it this way:

The term, culture shock, was introduced for the first time in 1958 to describe the anxiety produced when a person moves to a completely new environment. This term expresses the lack of direction, the feeling of not knowing what to do or how to do things in a new environment, and not knowing what is appropriate or inappropriate.  The feeling of culture shock generally sets in after the first few weeks of coming to a new place.

Anthropologist Dr. Kalervo Oberg appears to have been the first person to coin the term “culture shock” and to identify its distinct stages: the honeymoon phase, when newcomers often are eager to absorb their new surroundings, followed by a hostile and unhappy phase which eventually gives way to adjustment and even enjoyment.

Although it’s only been within the last 50 years that culture shock has been officially recognized and given a name, it has surely been a common experience in much of human history. One of the most memorable characters in American immigrant literature can be found in “Giants in the Earth,” a saga of Norwegian homesteaders on the Dakota prairie. (The author, O.E. Rolvaag, was the father of Karl Rolvaag, Minnesota’s 31st governor; the book was first published in 1929.) It’s an unflinching look at the difficulties that come with pulling up stakes and settling in a new home. The intrepid Per Hansa takes to homesteading with gusto but his wife, Beret – lonely, homesick and feeling unmoored from all her familiar values and traditions - cannot adapt. Although I doubt Rolvaag, who was himself an immigrant from Norway, would have used the words “culture shock” to describe Beret’s emotional turmoil, he clearly recognized this is how some people react to a new and unfamiliar environment.

In many ways, it’s hardly surprising that cultural transplantation leads to some level of stress or difficulty with adapting. Unfamiliar customs and language barriers can make even the normal daily routine more challenging. Moving from a tropical to a more temperate climate, or vice versa, also involves physical adjustment. Then there are all the cultural assumptions that we take for granted when we’re at home - for instance, our concepts of privacy and social distance.

For many, the adjustment is not easy, especially if they’re transplanted to a culture significantly different from their own. As the global gap widens between the haves and the have-nots, and as people are increasingly displaced by armed conflicts, I suspect the trauma and the adjustment challenges may rise to a level we haven’t previously seen. Partway through “God Grew Tired of Us,” we learn that one of the lost boys who came to the U.S. with John, Daniel and Panther disappeared for a couple of days, broke down and ended up in a psychiatric hospital.

This doesn’t mean everyone who experiences culture shock has a mental health disorder. Most people, in fact, eventually do adjust, although for some it can take many months. By some estimates, approximately half of Americans living abroad never fully integrate into their new surroundings.

How do you know when you’ve arrived, culturally speaking? An online guide for Americans living and working overseas offers some of the mileposts:

– You begin to feel less isolated.

– You reach the level where you feel you can function effectively in the new environment.

– You don’t feel the same frustration or helplessness anymore.

– You find a middle ground where you can converse comfortably in the language.

– You have made friends and can share common enjoyment in leisure pursuits with your new friends.

– You have accepted the differences between your home society and the new society.

This seems to be true regardless of who you are or where you’ve come from. There were some moments of levity in “God Grew Tired of Us” as the lost boys of the Sudan were introduced to an American escalator and the trappings of a city apartment, none of which they’d ever encountered before. You have to wonder, though, what would happen if the situation were reversed. How many of us would have been able to survive in the desert as these young men did?

By the end of the documentary, John, Daniel and Panther have more or less adjusted and have turned their attention to finding and helping their displaced relatives in Sudan. John plans to return and build a clinic. Panther wants to start a school. None of them are bitter. It’s a pretty amazing lesson in how resilient we can be, even in the face of earth-shaking changes in our lives.

For those who are interested, the Willmar Area Comprehensive Immigration Reform is hosting two more nights of its film festival this month. The next film, “La Misma Luna,” will be shown at 6 p.m. Monday, March 22, in the theater at Vinje Lutheran Church. The final film, to be shown at 6 p.m. March 29, will be chosen by the audience.

Photo: Immigrant children at Ellis Island, New York, 1908. Source: National Archives.

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