Culture Shock

When you travel abroad it is inevitable that you experience culture shock. It doesn’t matter how open minded or educated you are – sooner or later you will come across some element of the other culture that is just alien to you.  This has happened to me in France, in Peru and in China.  Even speaking the same language didn’t keep it from happening in England where I lived for months while doing my dissertation fieldwork.  Whether it was the social distance (or lack thereof – many cultures are very comfortable in much closer quarters than I am), the hygiene facilities, the food, or social customs in each case there were moments when I felt particularly out of place!

Although I’ve lived the great majority of my adult life in California, my profession has taken me all around the United States from Hawaii to Alaska to Florida and I’ve seen enough to realize that one can experience culture shock even within one’s own country.  So it hasn’t been a huge surprise to confront some differences between California and Indiana culture!  These are just a few of the things the kids and I have noticed:

In California if you smell smoke you dial 911.  Here it is likely to be (if outdoors) a homeowner burning yard waste or (if indoors) the ubiquitous wood stove or fireplace that heats the house.

In California if you hear gunfire you dial 911.  Here you just stay out of the woods.

In California we seldom saw ‘real’ wildlife (other than the odd seal or dolphin frolicking in the waves along Highway 101).  Here we see wildlife all the time – deer, rabbits, squirrels, bats, opossum, raccoons, skunks, hawks – unfortunately a lot of what we see is a mess of blood and guts on the highway rather than live animals!  I don’t think I’ve ever driven into town without seeing at least one road kill corpse and we have counted as many as seven in one trip!


In California the roads were wide – not just the multi-lane highways but the normal residential streets as well.  Here the roads, including the highway we travel most frequently which is one lane in either direction, are narrow.  Some like the one on which we live, are narrow to the point of making me wonder if two cars can actually fit abreast which never fails to heighten my anxiety when a car approaches from the opposing direction.

In California the speed limit is higher both on highways and residential streets.  Here it is slower but people exceed the limit in both states.  The differences is that the car that zooms past you on the California freeway is more likely to be a late edition sports car and the one that careens around you the moment (or sometimes earlier) the passing zone opens up is a big, dirty pickup truck with a gun rack.

In California (the southern coastal area where we lived) the weather was temperate.  You could almost wear the same clothes year-round as long as you had a sweatshirt to throw on when the fog rolled in or the temperatures dropped into the 50s.  Here the temperature can go from 60 degrees one day to 6 degrees two days later!  Cold is single digits, hot is triple digits!  Your wardrobe needs to include all sorts of specialized winter gear like hats, gloves, scarves, boots, long underwear and warm coats.  In the summer you can discard 3 of your 4 layers but you need to add a liberal dose of bug spray.

In California people fence themselves in and others out. Property boundary lines are clear.  Here fences are to keep livestock in and there are few fences between homes or around yards. There tends to be more room between houses but I don’t think that’s why there are no fences because of another difference I’ve noticed.  In California people mind their own business; here people are interested in what their neighbor is doing.  Depending on your point of view this is either being nosy or neighborly!  I wouldn’t have done it in California but here if I notice our neighbors (who also have goats and chickens and are going to have pigs and bees) out puttering in their yard I’ll stroll over to see what’s up and chat about  the weather and livestock and the best pasture seed.  Guess I’m assimilating!


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5 Responses to Culture Shock

  1. SMS says:

    Funny “T” – Maybe it’s a rural Michigan thing. Center line was center of the car. No shoulders so you only moved over when you met someone.
    Lots of cultural differences: My husband thought it terrible that my brother gave my son a “Weapon” for his First Communion. It was a small buck knife. Right of passage. Never would think to use that on people. My dad has 2 little jack-knives. One is tiny for dress. (Maybe 1 1/2 inches folded.) Goes in his pocket for anything requiring clean clothes. (Church, get togethers, trip to town) The other is larger (2 1/2 inches folded) and it’s his work knife. I grew up with these knives as tools. Skin a partridge. Cut bologna and cheese. Open packing boxes. Whittle for fun. Pull splinters. Tighten a screw. Strip wire. ETC. My husband (the city boy) has adjusted well in our 30 years.
    In high school ’70s. Guys put their shot guns and hunting rifles in their lockers so they could head out after school. They tend to rust in a damp cold car. I’m not sure if the office knew about it. I work at the hospital. We see buck knives in belt sheaths all the time in Nov. Part of the uniform for the UP of MI at that time of year. First day of Rifle deer season is a school holiday. There are no teachers or subs available to teach and not enough kids in school to make the quota to count it as a school day so it was common sense.
    Gun racks in trucks double as fish-pole racks and hat hooks. 🙂
    80% of my neighbors growing up were family. Always got along well and if you messed up, you better beat it home and tell the parents first because someone else would if you didn’t then you were really in trouble.
    Get to know you neighbors. Usually they are happy to help with knowledge, tools or a hand as long as you barter your skills too.
    My neighbor snow-blows my drive way. I make his family treats. We share rides for kids. We potty their dog when they are gone for the day. I’m lucky and I know it.

  2. Rachael says:

    I just had to add on the roadkill- here in Central Texas one of the first signs of spring is the skunk roadkill! Spring has definitely already sprung here, I passed 5 or 10 smashed skunks every day this past week! (My daily commute is 20 miles, one way).

    Distance driving in Texas is different too. For one thing it takes 6 hours North, 7 hours to the East, and 10 hours West just to get out of the state!

  3. bogart says:

    Ha, distances can be another thing. Try talking to a Brit (you probably have) about any drive over 2 hours. It’s an expedition! In contrast, my college roommate (from the Southwest) would think nothing of driving 20 hours r/t for a weekend visit somewhere (she’s since settled on the East coast and now laughs about this, as she will no longer drive anywhere more than about 3 hours away with very good cause).

  4. Jeannette says:

    I sometimes get the idea you miss California…
    several years ago we traveled to one of the islands that you usually visit on a cruise, either St thomas, or Cozmel or maybe St Marteen, anywho, we went on one of the side trips in this open seated truck. As we drove up this mountain,, hill whatever it was the road got narrower and narrower almost to the point you could touch the homes, farm houses etc/ As we got near the top a cow was in the middle of the almost path like road and wait, we had to stop and wait as the cow had the right of way. So until he moved we had to wait. We couldn’t go around of course as we would have had to go through someones home (shack) that was a culture shock to me

  5. T says:

    Haha, I know what you mean about the roadkill and narrow lanes. I grew up in rural Michigan, and I give my Southwestern-raised husband stress for my tendency to ride the white line. We think it comes from those narrow country roads where you drive on the shoulder to pass abreast.

    And roadkill … one fall, I drove the hour to my parents’ house and passed 25+ roadkilled animals. 25!

    Glad to hear you’re assimilating well – and here’s hoping that job opportunities open soon.


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