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‘Tis the Season

December 28, 2009

This year I decided to stay in Angola for the holidays. It was the first time I’ve been away from my family during Christmastime. Spending Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere, where December is hot and balmy, makes you forget that the holiday season is upon us. There are no boughs of holly, no winter wonderland, no impressive window displays and this year my good cheer was replaced with hitting the “3 month wall.”

As many expats will testify, the phenomenon referred to as “culture shock” sometimes gets the best of us. Culture shock is technically defined as “anxiety and feelings of surprise, disorientation, uncertainty and confusion felt when operating in a different and unknown cultural or social environment.” It is brought on by not being familiar with local customs and norms, not understanding the local language and possibly not enjoying the local cuisine. When someone (my boss) first mentioned that I was going through culture shock, my first thought was that he was sorely mistaken. I love learning about and experiencing aspects of different cultures. I’ve lived abroad in a culture that to me felt more foreign than the culture in Angola. I’m a T-bird, for goodness’ sake! But, perhaps there may be some merit to this argument. The “honeymoon period” is over (see diagram below), and I am now dealing with adjusting to the realities of daily life. In truth, the smallest things build up and something as silly as my car service screwing up once again or frustrating as another week at the office where work doesn’t get done because the Internet only works for 1 ½ hours a day all compound on top of each other. I have had my share of screw-ups as well. I have offended co-workers by not greeting each one personally in the morning, followed by an inquiry of how their weekend or night was. A blanket “Bom dia colegas” at 7:30am before I’ve had the chance to drink my morning coffee and wake up is very American of me, and therefore……rude. The same is true of not personally saying good-bye and giving beijinhos (2 kisses on the cheek) to each and every person in a group before leaving. I’m learning through my mistakes. It only takes 1 time for someone to point out my mistake for me not to do it again. I’m sure there are many more things I’ve done or will do that seem perfectly normal to me, but will be viewed as offensive to others.

But what has taken the biggest toll on me is the separation from people who know me and know what is important to me – my friends and family, my support network. Of course it takes time to form real friendships in any new place. And of course, I know that I will make friends here. The truth is that as independent and adventurous as I may be, I need strong friendships and relationships to support me. This has always been true – whether in Angola or the US.

This year may not have felt like Christmas, but it wasn’t the lack of decked-out Christmas trees or “Santa Baby” blaring from the loud-speakers that were missing. I truly missed not being with my family and partaking in family traditions. It didn’t help that my 3-month honeymoon period expired right before the holidays. I don’t want anyone out there to feel sorry for me (apparently, people really do read my blogs!!). While my Christmas Eve left much to be desired for, I had a very, very nice Christmas Day with friends in Luanda. There was a warm glow coming from the Christmas tree lights and a feeling that we are all in this together.

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