When we had to complete an online module on culture shock as part of DukeEngage Academy, I initially scoffed at the idea. “Culture shock?” I thought, “I’m going to Portland. What kind of culture shock could there be?” I couldn’t fathom why I wouldn’t be at ease there. After all, I had gone to school all my life in New York City, a much bigger and badder place than Portland. I believed it would be a mix of New York and Durham, somewhere between giant metropolis and growing municipality. Even if it weren’t immediately recognizable, it would quickly seem familiar.
When I arrived, my assumptions held true. While downtown Portland’s transit system is respectable, the suburbs are hard to reach without a car, just like the NY suburbs I live in. Crowds at attractions like Voodoo Doughnut and the Saturday Market were insane but avoidable, like the tourists that I reluctantly deal with on the rare occasion I want to watch a movie that isn’t playing anywhere else but Times Square. Otherwise, downtown Portland seemed like Durham — if Durham were cooler, less humid, and greener. There weren’t very many people on the streets after sunset and things were only easily accessible once you were in downtown.
Slowly though, I began to notice things that reminded me that I wasn’t perfectly at ease here. The homeless population is much more visible here than in New York or Durham and, maybe partly because of that, the emptiness of the streets felt more ominous. It wasn’t until I got hurt, however, that I was really made aware that Portland was not home.
It was a minor injury (embarrassingly so in hindsight), but it seemed a big deal at the time. One Friday night, I was walking around my dorm room looking at my phone, not paying close attention to where I was going, when I accidentally kicked the leg of my chair with my little toe and pulled it back. Being a somewhat injury-prone person, I didn’t think much of it and although it still somewhat hurt, decided to carry on and just go to bed. The next morning, I woke up at 5:30am from the pain. I immediately called my site coordinator (at 5:45am, oops), who advised me to go to urgent care when it opened. I then called my parents, who naturally proceeded to freak out. Urgent care didn’t open until 9am, but I got the first appointment of the day and then spent the next three hours reassuring my parents that everyone was fine (it took three hours because, once they ascertained that my foot was okay, they took advantage of the fact that I was stuck in bed to make me give them an update on how DukeEngage was going).
Although everything went smoothly (and I didn’t have a broken toe!), what struck me was how foreign this city seemed when an emergency arose and how little of it I knew. On my own, I didn’t have a clue where I should go to seek treatment. I ended up having to go to two locations of the same clinic because the first didn’t have x-ray services. When I was told the address, I thought to myself, “hmmm that address seems so familiar.” It turned out to be right across the street from where I work every single day and I had no idea until I got to the front door. I had never even spotted that the building next to Starbucks (which I obviously saw immediately) was an urgent care clinic.
I wonder now how many things I’ve stopped noticing or never stopped to notice because of comfort. As Portland isn’t familiar, it has never been truly comfortable for me. I could see its problems because they were new to me. But what about the places I call home? How many people sleeping on the streets do I walk by in New York when I’m lost in my own thoughts, trusting muscle memory to guide me? What am I subconsciously relieved to ignore as I wander Duke’s campus? It’s easy to get comfortable in your routine until a problem smacks you across the face, but it shouldn’t have to rise to that level.
I’m not sure what the answer to that problem is, but I have gained more of an appreciation for culture shock and I think that perhaps it would be useful to reframe it. It shouldn’t merely be seen as an annoyance to overcome as quickly as possible; it can help us reevaluate the things we’ve taken for granted not only in our new surroundings, but also back home.
Sometimes, it takes an outsider or at the very least, someone with fresh eyes, to see the truth.