Friday, January 19, 2007

Has anyone seen my ability to communicate?





CULTURE SHOCK-- a phrase tossed around repeatedly among the "study abroad" gurus of universities the world wide. I didn't believe in it. Perhaps, because its manifestations are not so obvious in this era. They are subtle and pervasive collapses in communicative abilities...taken in the broadest possible sense of the phrase. It is not as if one moves to a foreign country and always feels a sense of direct homesickness, of rushing highs and lows--complete awe and enthusiasm running into disillusionment, fear, and general irritability or defeatedness, and back again. Culture shock is described in these terms, and yet it is not "culture shock" at all...

I have been thinking about this issue for the last couple of weeks, since moving to London. For me, the manifestation of the misnomer "culture shock" has been in a frustrated inability to produce creatively. Or, so I thought.

In searching for a) the roots of my creative stagnation, and b) the remedy, i have embarked on a long train of thoughts of the metaphor of language. Granted, Londoners speak English. Americans speak English. So, language is no boundary? In a simple sense--no. I comprehend most words, most utterences. But the subtleties are unnerving. In overhearing a conversation...the patterns and intonations of the speech are undecodable to me. In making a public statement, I incorrectly used the word "pants" (british for underwear) where i should have used "trousers," and quickly became the laughing stock of a queue of Britons. It is in the element of what Saussure called "Parole" that is different. Quickly, "parole" is the element of language which is the individual utterances and applications of what Saussure deemed "Langue"...or the underlying structural rules, and social contract that activates and anchors a language.

Parole, however, is the creative element of language. And I have lost my mastery of it, over night. In a broader sense, the metaphor of language is a means of understanding and explaining other systems of human communication...social customs, body language, fashion, cuisine, visual art, and music. My cues in all of these areas have failed me. So, there you have it. "Culture shock" is actually a frustrated inability to communicate and to understand. It is as if I am suddenly a toddler who knows individual words are associated with certain objects, and yet I cannot form utterances...i cannot make myself understood. Nor can I interpret my surroundings, which is perhaps more frustrating.


Take the cue of fashion. For me, fashion is crucial to my interpretation of the persons with which I am surrounded. By fashion, I do not mean the runways of Paris...rather, the choices people make or dont make about the clothing that they wear, the length of their hair, the presence or absence of makeup, etc... Most especially, the ecosystem of the college campus lends itself to the interpretation and utilization of fashion as a means of communication. Clothing choices can be misleading, but they also often are made specifically to signify that the individual enjoys a certain kind of music, or has a certain occupation, or religious belief... I am much less able to comprehend the fashion cues of Londoners. My frame of reference is gone. Indeed, it seems as if everyone is utilizing a different frame of reference. The city is so large, that in many sublingual ways, the population communicates entirely differently...

This is an extremely underdeveloped train of thought, but I will post more on it later.

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