Culture is one aspect of a person’s individuality that is deeply entrenched in him after years of socialization and learning the ways, beliefs, thoughts and world view of one society or any group of people. When one is uprooted from the familiarity of the culture that he has internalized, the consequence involves disorientation, anxiety, and other host of psychological and even physiological imbalance. Such is the experience described by Evelyn Lau in her essay Insatiable Emptiness.
In her vivid and poetic descriptions, she tells how she violently coped with the changes that were occurring within her adolescent body and how her negative response to these changes affected the stability of her health for eight years. The case of Lau’s maladjustment to her bodily changes and the way people around her, specifically her mother, reacted to her maturing body can be considered a form of culture shock. As a child, Lau says that she had been accustomed to the way her body looked: “I had been thin and healthy, with flat belly and limbs” (495).
The image of her as a slender girl was instilled in her mind and became the identity that she appropriated for herself. However, this familiarity with her body was undermined by the natural, adolescent changes that occurred within her. At age 11, Lau got her first period and the hormonal imbalance brought unwanted changes in her breasts and hips. She began to see her natural metamorphosis as something that must be hidden, “terrible workings” which she must immediately expel out of her body (496). Because she was unprepared for the changes occurring within her, she reacted negatively to it, wanting to return to the familiar image of her body.
Lau says that she “longed to make [her body] translucent, pared down, clean as a whistle” (496). When Lau describes the sensation she felt after vomiting food out of her stomach, she refers to it as a feeling of being “clean and shiny inside, like a scrubbed machine” (495). This is the sensation she got addicted to. Despite the unpleasant experience of forcing food out of her body and the foul taste of acid passing through her mouth, not to mention the detrimental effects of acid on her oral cavity, Lau got fixated on vomiting.
The unpleasant activity became pleasurable in her mind because psychologically, she made herself believe that the act of vomiting purges her body of the unwanted changes that was occurring within her and that this act also brings her back to the familiar, internalized image of herself as a slender girl. What worsened her misperception of the natural adolescent changes was the negative response of her family, specifically her mother, to these changes. Instead of being a support in understanding her situation, her mother ridiculed Lau for her growing breasts and her insatiable appetite.
Lau says that her mother’s actions “convinced [her] there was something wrong with [her] body” (496). Lau’s mother was a very controlling woman. Lau believes that her mother’s actions were motivated by the reality that as Lau was becoming a full grown woman, her mother began to see her daughter grew distant from her. Lau was becoming a separate part of her mother and her mother did not want Lau to be different and unfamiliar. As a result, her mother put Lau on strict diets, ridiculed her body and downgraded her by saying that she will never amount to anything because she was just like her weak father.
In this sense, Lau mother’s also experience culture shock because the unfamiliar caused her to have an imbalance of perception. After eight years of suffering from bulimia, Lau’s body took the toll of her abusive behavior. Her and her mother’s failure to adjust to the novel experience of adolescent changes led her to a behavior that weakened her body and resulted to irreversible consequences. Lacking the encouragement and assurance that she needed, Lau resorted to a violent behavior directed toward herself. She feigned self-esteem when her insides were corroding with incessant self-hatred.
She became withdrawn and obsessive for control just like her mother. Controlling the changes in her body is a manifestation that Lau wanted things to stay as they were because the changes she encountered was too shocking for her to accept. Being withdrawn, violent to oneself and obsessive for control are just few of the negative responses to culture shock. If not reversed, altered or mediated, these behaviors, as seen in Lau’s narrative, can result to a maladjusted person who is unprepared to meet any further changes.
To some extent, I can relate to Lau’s experience because I too have undergone culture shock when I first encountered university life. Although my experience was not as violent or traumatic as Lau’s, I also responded negatively to the unfamiliar territory, to some degree. I was only about 18 when I first stepped in the halls of the university. To me, it was a totally different world, bustling with chaotic energy that my adjusting self was unprepared to match. I was caught in the wave of fast-paced change that I began to be negative about the unfamiliar experience during my first few months in the university.
Being in a place stripped of the comforts of home and the certainty of the place where I grew up in was just like being fish out of water. There were discomforts and at times, severe bouts of anxiety. When I look back at those few months of nervously finding my way through this new environment, I remember it to be one huge blur, an indistinct rush of unfamiliar faces, behavior, ways and manners. The university I attended was set in a sprawling hectare of land with buildings so far apart it was so easy to get lost. The vast space which I discovered alienated me and I knew then that I needed some company.
However, I found out that it was not as easy to blend in an environment whose unfamiliarity seemed hostile. It seemed to me back then that I was traversing dangerous grounds, a foreign territory whose internal rules and codes of conduct I did not understand. I was tentative when I introduced myself to others or try to make connections that would give me bearing as I was being hurled from one strange experience to another. What compounded my confusion and anxiety was the fact that I was an immigrant and being in the minority put me in constant check of myself whether I was rightly blending in or I was sticking out too much.
Although diversity is one of the things they hail in the university, I could not help but see my foreignness to be at fault, somehow, to the anxiety I was experiencing. Like Lau, I had mistaken the anxieties from culture shock to be something that is accountable to my behavior or being and not to the fact that the unfamiliarity was unnerving to me. As a result, I became withdrawn for the first few months. I cruised the university halls by myself, aware of my alienation with the crowd. My social disengagement stressed me out, and I found it hard to initially cope with my academic load.
The method of teaching and learning in the university was another factor in my brief alienation and to me the whole culture of independent study and fast-paced instruction shocked me. Although I had been oriented and prepared for university education in terms of studying skills and habits, the initial encounter with the actual thing was disorienting. I was managing my classes on my own, without the aid of peers. Professors hurled academic requirements to us by truckloads and I had to keep myself afloat in the torrent of term papers and coursework. When I came to the point that things got too big for me to handle, I sought help.
I remember in Lau’s essay that she too sought help for her condition, but backed away because she had to wait in line. I think it is her failure to get early professional help which led to her aggravated addiction. In my experience, the perspective and advice of a person outside the eye of the storm of culture shock are valuable. I was able to positively adjust through the aid the student services made available for people going through the same confusion and anxiety. Culture shock, as seen in both my experience in my early days in the university and in Lau’s transforming body, can be experienced on many levels.
It does not only refer to disorientation to a culture in the conventional definition involving race and nationality. It may also pertain to any confusion brought about by the intrusion of an unfamiliar behavior, image, or environment. Whatever the source of culture shock is, it is clear that the experience is temporal and must be dealt with positively. Reference Lau. E. (2006). Insatiable Emptiness. In Reinking, J. , Osten, R. Cairns, S. and Fleming, r (Eds. ) Strategies for Successful Writing: A Rhetoric, Research Guide, Reader and Handbook, Third Canadian Edition (pp. 495-499). Canada: Pearson Education.