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Real Talk About Culture Shock

16 Nov 2017

Culture shock is not always very obvious and easy to recognize. Sometimes it is sneaky and seeps into you like a draft.

September went by so quickly. Everything was new and unbelievably beautiful. Looking back, I marvel at how much energy and positivity I had. I even climbed the highest mountain in the MENA region over a 3-day weekend, and then happily hobbled over to my first class at the crazy Moroccan university (cringing every time I had to climb a step or sit down, but still smiling). We visited a new city in Morocco each weekend and blessings came in the form of an early dinner followed by a quiet night in my bedroom at 9:00pm. I was grateful for every moment alone to reflect and sleep came quickly and easily as my body prepared for the adventures of the next day.


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At the beginning of a journey it’s easy to internalize all of the discomforts and push them off to digest later. The men who whisper “zwina” in my ear or grab at my clothes, the blood and random sheep heads laying in the street from Eid, the unwavering heat and sweat, the disorienting language and lack of ability to communicate with words, the stressful, 30-minute tram rides to get to a class at the university where my professor would only show up 50% of the time… all of these things were small obstacles that slipped away from my memory when I would hear the beautiful call to prayer, or when my host mom would smile at me after I said a sentence correctly.

However, one humid October night, I remember I was watching the usual string of ants come in through the window in search my toothbrush or my water bottle when a feeling that must be culture shock washed over me. I was suddenly sick of everything. I spent the next couple of weeks hating cous cous, not bothering to study my extra vocab cards or do anything outside of what was absolutely necessary for homework, avoiding extra conversation with my host family, and I think I even cried real tears in the face of yet another cold shower. Everything was a battle, even the dust in the market that gets all over my black clothing.

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We got through midterms and everyone set off to Europe to reset our visas and escape the life we tried so hard to blend with. Living in Morocco was constantly a game of molding into a girl I do not recognize, one who walks with her head down on the street to avoid hasslers, one who can hardly order a cappuccino without a friend who speaks French to translate. I let go of so much of the independence that I take for granted in the US. For a moment in Italy, I felt like myself again: out of the heat and able to wear a leather jacket without a rando man telling me to “ride the wind, baby.” I could eat whatever food I wanted and I blended in for once with the other travelers instead of constantly sticking out. Going to Europe was the break I sought, but also a huge wake-up call that I didn’t expect.

Back in Morocco, my amazing travel buddy endured a solid 10 minutes of angry bargaining in French to pay a normal taxi fare.  As we reluctantly got in the grand taxi, I felt the most unexpected sense of “home” watching the palm trees and the ancient clay walls zoom by. We only had 6 weeks left and I was starting to panic that I had wasted the majority of October feeling angry about ants in my bedroom and cous cous and silly boys on the street I will never see again. Being in Europe also made me realize that my language skills really had developed rapidly; and my Arabic comprehension and speaking skills were through the roof compared to when I had started in August.

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My time in Morocco has always been short, but now the weeks and days fly by faster than I can count them on my fingers. I have signed up for extra meetings with my language partner and I am jumping ahead in my language books, chatting with my professors more often, and I don’t even mind the hagglers in the souk anymore because I missed their antics while walking around the quiet streets of Europe.

This trip has presented me with so many unexpected decisions and challenges. It is amazing how I am able to react by second nature to various Moroccan situations that used to make me feel uncomfortable. I spent this weekend in Rabat visiting the hamam with my host mom and sister, and going to a truly historic soccer game that has put Morocco in the World Cup for the first time in 20 years. I’m spending more time with local friends, who despite our differences in lifestyle and values, still want to get coffee and answer all of my rookie questions.

Morocco has become a part of me now. Sometimes I look forward to returning to my ‘luxuries’ at home, but more often I stare anxiously at the months of November and December in my planner and wonder how tightly I can pack my schedule without burning out again.

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