Mtuseni’s been home from his US trip for over a month now, and I’m still trying to put the pieces together. It’s a little bit like the aftermath of a tornado — not only from the nonstop energy of activities during his visit, but also the mental chaos it caused. The kid I saw here was in some ways the inquisitive, funny, sweet young man I know from years of long-form texting. Yet I was also surprised and a bit dismayed to see a moody, sour, sullen, insolent teenager — an alien being I’ve never experienced in four years of digital and phone communication. To say it caught me off guard is an understatement.
Part of Mtuseni’s darker persona is a product of an emotional immaturity: developmentally on many levels he is more like a 15-year-old than someone turning 21 next month. I was not prepared to handle the psychological roulette wheel of an adolescent boy. Props (and sympathy) to any parents who deal with that stuff on a daily basis.
But I discovered in a long talk with Mtuseni towards the mid-point of the visit — after things had come to a head and my capacity for patience was exhausted — that part of his mood and ‘tude were the by-product of profound culture shock.
Before Mtuseni arrived, friends noted that visiting the US from a poor South African settlement would be a culture shock to him. And I completely agreed. Yet what does that mean? What is culture? How do people living in a particular culture understand it — or do they even recognize it? For residents of a culture, it’s just life; you’re not aware of it as being a distinct through-line of daily experience. When I think of “American culture” today, it’s a mix of consumerism and marketing and obesity and violent movies and mindless reality TV. The higher values and principles of previous generations have been drowned out by crassness and banality — the Kardashian circus being the tipping point.
I don’t think that description fits all of America, but if someone asked me today to describe our culture in a nutshell that’s what I’d say, because the momentum seems to be heading in that direction. And given that Mtuseni experiences the eye-popping wealth and consumerism of Sandton at school every day (which shocked me on my trip to SA), and because he’s a student and consumer of mass media and marketing, I thought that any culture shock from visiting America would be limited.
Boy was I wrong.
When I finally sat Mtuseni down and asked him why he was being such a dick, his response was a profound eye opener for me. He said that, from the moment he stepped off the plane, everything seemed like a dream. Like he was here, but not here. Like he was watching himself in a movie, and thinking “This is my life? Am I really here in this place?” Everyone has had a similar out-of-body experience at some time. I remember feeling that in Venice — but having traveled before, it was wondrous and pleasant. For Mtuseni, that surreal feeling overwhelmed him — and he threw up defensive walls that at times made him miserable to be around.
But it wasn’t so much the cacophony of Times Square or the Boston subways or having electricity and a fully stocked kitchen that overwhelmed him. It was our American culture — experiences of life here that are so ingrained that I don’t even notice them. And having finally broken through his walls, they all came tumbling out of him in a list that stunned me. For example…
- It felt “scary” to be hanging out with “older white people” here who treated him like a regular person and wanted to hear what he had to say. In South Africa, he says that whites look down on and talk down to blacks. There is mutual distrust, and he said that “apartheid will never be over in South Africa.” (My heart broke when he said that.)
- People here are “very color blind,” with all types of diverse people all hanging out and comfortable together. (By contrast, seeing an episode of Family Feud at the gym — which happened to have a black family and a white family as contestants — Mtuseni said to me “Oh, so this show is black versus white?” That’s not the perception of a color-blind filter at work.)
- Black teenagers here seem much more “confident” and comfortable and better dressed than his black peers in SA. (The realities of his deep poverty and limited farm-school education must have become more apparent to him here.)
- It was “shocking” that Americans are so “open” and “talk about anything” and express opinions on everything. South Africans are much more cautious and oblique in their conversations. (I’d always heard that Americans are more forthright and direct than most cultures, but didn’t fully grasp it until hearing the perspective of an outsider like Mtuseni.)
Because I live inside the American culture, these perceptions that Mtuseni shared were completely under my radar. Two “older” white folks and a college kid discussing a variety of topics at a Newbury Street cafe just seemed normal for me, but was on some level mind-blowing for him.
I now have a better understanding of “culture” and how it can affect someone who lives in a distinctly different one. I only wish I had somehow been more attuned to it with Mtuseni, and had checked in earlier with him. For after we spent over two hours talking about this stuff, he lost that sense of “being in a dream” and was more present here, more comfortable, more integrated into the experience. Don’t get me wrong, he still had his moments of sour faces and stony silence. But that wasn’t culture shock; it was merely a kid who has one foot in adulthood and one foot in ninth grade. And that’s going to take longer to resolve.
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