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Culture shock: “A feeling of disorientation many people feel when experiencing an entirely new way of life.”

I’d heard the phrase culture shock getting thrown around a lot, especially in the past few years. I understood the concept, but I almost became desensitized to it after hearing it used in so many situations. I saw it as overused and most likely not an actual “shock” to most of the people who claimed it. Personally, I didn’t have many opportunities to experience culture shock before DukeEngage. I rarely left my hometown of Memphis except to visit my family’s country of origin, Eritrea. The last time I’d visited was when I was 5 years old, and the next time I left the state of Tennessee was to attend Duke in its neighboring state at 18 years old. Needless to say, the closest I got to a culture shock was hearing someone in Memphis listen to country music (we try to keep that in Nashville).

After finding myself in a place where I was not a native speaker of the dominant language, I suddenly and unexpectedly felt like I’d entered a new category: “other.”

However, as soon as my flight touched down in Miami and I entered the airport, my first culture shock was realized. From the jump, every person that I passed was having a conversation not in my native language. Knowing Miami, you can probably guess they were speaking in Spanish. Now despite my almost 6 years of studying Spanish, it still caught me off guard to hear it exclusively being spoken around me outside of a classroom setting. I probably passed someone speaking in English two times out of the entire time I was walking through the airport, and I was there for at least 30 minutes. Of course, I had no problem with the language itself or the fact that people were speaking it; I think Spanish is a beautiful language and I hope that I can one day become a fluent speaker. However, after finding myself in a place where I was not a native speaker of the dominant language, I suddenly and unexpectedly felt like I’d entered a new category: “other.”

When the group went out the next day to explore the city, it was much of that same feeling. I loved every second of it: every sight, sound, taste, and palm tree. If anything, the palm trees were the most familiar part of the city because they reminded me of the palm trees lining the streets of Eritrea’s capital that we’d often drive past when I was a little kid. Otherwise, everything was new to me. Even the McDonald’s we passed by had a Latin-inspired tile mural on the side of the building and some Latin food options on the menu (which was actually pretty cool). However, I still felt a bit out of place. Even though I could manage conversational Spanish, I still felt anxious approaching the front of a checkout line in Walmart where the cashier was speaking to the customers in Spanish. I made it through fairly quickly with my bagged items and receipt in hand, but I still wondered why it had felt so difficult for me.

After a few days to get acclimated and look back on how I’d felt when I first arrived in Miami, my first thought is how it must have felt for my parents when they first came here. I’d grown up hearing the typical immigrant story from them, complete with the desire for their children to receive a better life and education at the expense of leaving everything and everyone they knew back home. I have genuinely appreciated that sacrifice all of my life and have been grateful for all the opportunities I’ve been able to take advantage of as a result. Despite that, I’d never actually gotten the experience to know what it felt like for them to come here because this country has always been my home, and I’ve never left it. Coming to Miami, I finally got a taste of what it had been like for them when they first immigrated and constantly being around people speaking a language they could neither understand nor speak. Now that I have, I think I see myself as less “other” and more “different.” And since everyone here seems to be different, I guess I’m not that “other” after all.