I’ve been told that during times of stress our adrenal glands kick in to prepare us for two possible responses: fight or flight. This is conventional thought. But I’d like to argue there’s a third response that many animals employ, a response that’s often overlooked. It’s the hide response. When you’re too weak or scared to fight, and you know there’s no use in trying to run away (most of the time for me!), it only makes sense to head for the ditch and take cover. Maybe growing up in a tornado-fraught land selected the hide response in me over the other two. It would seem so because when faced with something terrifying, I almost always decide to hide. I learned, though, that hiding always seems like a better solution than it is. Just think back to Hide-and-Seek as a child and you may remember that when you found a really good hiding place, it was at first intoxicatingly satisfying. You felt sneaky and clever. You were almost in disbelief that such a perfect loophole existed. As time passed, however, you became a bit bored of being isolated from the outside world and others’ company. You grew impatient and began to wonder what was taking the others so long to discover you. You’re hiding place started to work against you as far as fun was concerned. Finally, if you were like me and trusted little in others’ concern for you, you gave up and came out of hiding, only to find that your playmates had long since moved on to the next episode. The immediate rewards of hiding are great, but the end result of doing it is that life moves on without you—you miss out. Even as a pseudo-adult I still love to hide. When something or someone new intimidates me, I retreat. My bed becomes my best friend, in it I feel safe and alone, and I make promises to it like, “Yeah, I know it sucks I have to go to this new class/job/party, but I’ll be back to you in just x hours and then we can relax.” I sometimes sleep for more than 12 hours straight just because my emotions, whether they be dread or sadness or confusion, are just too much for me to face. (Okay, this is only one cause of my hypersomnia, so don’t jump to conclusions!) I get a false sense of security from being alone and worrying. But in this emptiness the threat that I’ve imagined only grows, and the outside environment turns to support it. Being alone and worrying about my fears–dreading them–makes me believe more and more that they’re legitimate. “Yes, this new job must really be awful, because otherwise why would I be so nervous about it?” At the same time, other people can tell that I’m hiding and assume that maybe I’m in a bad mood and don’t want to be bothered, so they avoid contact with me. I then believe that I really am alone, that people are cold, and that I really do have something to fear. Then maybe I become even more isolated and miss out on opportunities for jobs, fun, friendships, etc. You see how quickly things can spiral downward. Suddenly your world becomes very separate from the real world and you lose your grip on reality altogether. This was happening to me as of this morning. That’s when I decided to stop hiding and instead to fight. I thought maybe even if I didn’t have the actual strength to fight this imaginary fear, just the switch in mentality would be enough to turn my downward spiral into an upward draft…just maybe. I decided that my status here as an Ausländer, or foreigner, would make the perfect front for my uncommon audacity. I gave audacity a try, saying, “Throw whatever you want at me life, I’m ready!”, and sure enough, I had great results. People talked to me more. One head of a lab, who I had never seen before, talked with me during our whole elevator ride and then out of the building. My coworkers invited me for coffee. The owner of the Indian market where I went to buy paneer told me it would be much cheaper for me to buy it at the supermarket. They opened up to me. It seemed as if the world opened up to me! And most of all, I had a lot of fun. I laughed at myself and at my own audacity. I did jump turns on the sidewalk ledge as if on a balance beam while passing cars watched me through the rain (sadly this isn’t a metaphor). I smiled at people for no reason at all. I came to respect myself for facing my fears. I grew. And that’s the point. I couldn’t grow in my hiding place. Now “Ich bin neue” (I’m new here) is my favorite phrase and my excuse to make a fool of myself in any situation. The draft has turned upwards. At least now I’m facing my fears. At least I’m not hiding anymore in that staticky orange plastic tunnel on the playground waiting for my friends to notice that I’m gone. Now I’m a part of all that I’d been missing.
I’m leaving Marburg after almost seven weeks here. The first four weeks were dismal and chaotic, and during this time I had a lot of nervous highs and listless lows. Getting settled in a new country is the only stressful activity I’ve ever known to wear away at all of my faculties at the same time. It’s really the Ironman of life experiences, one in which you’re subjected to fear of destitution, judgement by others, doubts about self and life, gross miscommunications, inability to learn quickly enough, confusion, frustration, loneliness, sickness, and physical exhaustion. Just like I’m not a proponent of masochism (like doing an Ironman just “for the challenge”), I don’t think that long-term travel or moving to another country should be taken on just to “build character”. Stress kills, so don’t seek it out–that’s my philosophy. No, the huge benefit of long-term travel comes not from these first four weeks of hell in a new country but from the time that follows them. It’s the time during which you’ve been surprised and disappointed so many times that your mind naturally lets go of expectations almost entirely. The phenomenon enhances the senses, which for me, as you know, is important. In the United States it seems I was always shocked or disappointed because I had years of familiar experiences upon which to build my expectations. When things didn’t go according to my expectations, I was upset. Restaurant food was always not as good as I had imagined, Sundays were always gloomier or busier than I had wanted, and family times were never as wholesome as I had pictured. This is because there I had life figured out. I knew what to expect and I demanded it. This is a binary way of life in which the senses are not used. An experience either fulfilled my expectations (1) or it didn’t (0). Maybe that’s why regular life is so dull and unsatisfying at times. During the past two to three weeks in Marburg, in contrast, I’ve noticed my invigorated zeal and honed senses. My legs don’t want to give out every time I walk up a hill; they’re ready for anything. My nose latches on to every aroma wafted down the street. I hear elderly couples laughing, children screaming, and store owners singing, but I never stop to analyze these sounds, to think “How strange” or “How annoying”. They’re merely music to fill the silence in my head, silent because my mind is too busy taking everything in to be bothered by thought or emotional reaction. I become life’s participant (almost animal-like) instead of its judge. And with my expectations dropped, my heart feels full and open instead of tight and agitated. I feel unrestrained by my own mind. This feeling–the same feeling as when you get off of a bus that’s been driving for hours on a curvy, bumpy road and everything feels still and solid–is good for our bodies, good for our minds, and is one path to being more sensuous. And this is why I can’t stop moving around, why I’m always looking for somewhere new to go and live next. Call it artificial fascination; I call it remembering how to live well.
Toxic relationships involve people who, knowingly or not, are swimming in their own pools of toxic self-pity. I’ve asked myself over and over how I can avoid being hurt by such relationships. I’ve wondered if there’s some do-gooder approach to them, if there’s away I can clean up the toxic waste or put boundaries around it so that it won’t spread any further or compromise my own dignity. There are all kinds of suggestions out there on how to deal with toxic parents, siblings, friends, etc. but what I’ve read so far just doesn’t seem to help. It results in a slightly different frame of mind but a continuation of the pain. When the most recent load of toxic waste was dumped on me by a loved one, I realized something that may save my sanity: the only way to avoid the damage of a toxic relationship is to not jump in it. What does this mean? Contrary to many things I’ve read, it doesn’t mean drawing respectful boundaries with the person, it doesn’t mean trying to understand the person, and it doesn’t mean shutting the person out. It means that when their toxic rain starts pouring down on you, you calmly open your umbrella and keep on walking until it stops. What he or she wants is for you to react to the toxicity, to call out some sort of pity or attention from you. But reacting to him or her would only poison you, which is why you must refuse to jump in the pool of toxic waste in the first place. You recognize it for what it is (toxic nonsense), say, “Huh, that’s no good,” and then you keep walking safe and dry and with your head held high. Because life is too short to be tormented by these people. And they’re not going to get any better either unless people stop paying attention to their games. They cause us problems, but the problems aren’t really even the issue. Problems can be solved in a logical way; we do it all the time. It can sometimes even be satisfying to meet these challenges. But not when we’ve jumped into the toxic waste pool. Then we’re incapacitated, left to drown, just like our toxic loved one. Misery loves company. Don’t join the misery; just let toxic waste lie.
I’ve managed to settle into the routine of Marburg, and of course now it’s time to leave. For as many moves as I’ve willingly pursued, you would think that I wouldn’t be fazed by them anymore. But when it comes to moving, I’m still like a child screaming until I’m blue in the face. I hate change, even when I know it’s for the best. And every change weighs on my body: My immune system weakens, I sleep all the time, and I cannot focus for weeks. It’s a full-body protest to change. It’s not so much that I fear a new environment (although perhaps my body does). Rather it’s my prospective inner environment that frightens me. During change the lack of control tears away at my nerves, and the loneliness chills my core. I’m afraid of the negative thoughts that will come along with these and the horrible things that I’ll tell myself in an attempt to make sense of my nonsensical new situation. Many would say that this worrying is completely useless, but try telling me that! I once heard the Dalai Lama say something like, “You should never worry about anything. If it’s something that can be changed, then you shouldn’t worry about it because you will be strong enough to deal with it when it comes. And if it cannot be changed, then you shouldn’t worry because there will be nothing you can do about it. Either way, there’s no need to worry.” And then he grinned his child-like peaceful grin. Oh Dalai Lama, I wish I had your simplicity! They say that humans are different from all other animals in that we’re able to play through situations in our heads before they even happen and anticipate possible outcomes. I wonder sometimes how well this part of our brain is developed. I mean, maybe we’re just the half-step in evolution between a creature that only lives in the present and a creature that can actually anticipate the future, you know? Like we’re still the test run for this new capability. For now we’re just stuck with worries, these troubling thought cycles, which are rarely true previews of the future and like the Dalai Lama said, are never useful. Still, my brain is screaming as if in detox. My heels are digging into the ground. I don’t want to go. But in just a few days it will be time to pack up shop again. Next stop is Heidelberg, the first place in the past year where I will live for more than 5 months. I’ve never looked forward to settling down so much. I’ve never been so sick of change.
I’ve traveled quite a lot for my someone of my ripe age, but I’m still not immune to culture shock. For several years I dismissed culture shock as a description of some superficial feeling of loss due to the absence of one’s comforts (like NetFlix or favorite bars/clubs). I judged it as materialistic and shallow. That was until I stayed in a foreign country long enough for it to actually creep up and grab me. It was when I was spending a summer in a small village in Guatemala and was not traveling around much. I was doing some research here and there on introduced fish species in a particular volcanic lake (I know, the reasons I come up with to travel…), but mostly I was just loafing around in a pseudo-routine, staying with a family I had known well for a few years. I remember being shocked and actually looking up the symptoms in my international health guidebook—it actually resembled a sickness! I judged myself for falling prey to this silly condition, but it was undeniable: when I looked at the symptoms, I fit the description of culture shock to a tee. There is a so-called “crisis stage”, during which “perceived differences in language, values and symbols between the own and the foreign culture cause feelings of anxiety and frustration” (Culture Shock- Causes, Consequences and Solutions: The International Experience). In the case of Guatemala, I started to hate all of the food, I became an obsessive cleaner, and I saw all of my relationships through judgmental eyes. I was irritated all the time for seemingly no reason. It was terrible. I found that the only way to overcome culture shock was to wait it out, and most of what I’ve read concurs. This is a frustrating prospect when you’re in the situation, but having experienced it myself a few times now, I have some further suggestions for dealing with culture shock that may be helpful:
1) Let yourself have one or two good venting sessions with a fellow expat. Be careful to limit it though, as relying on the expat community for too long can sometimes make your culture shock last longer.
2) Don’t force yourself into any new activities or relationships. It’s tempting to want to integrate quickly, but added stress during this period is only going to make things worse. Make sure that if you do find friends, you genuinely like them and are not just using them as place holders. Being surrounded by fake friends can be even more lonely than being alone.
3) Phone home as much as possible to keep in touch with family and friends, as it’s important that you feel you have a good support system even if you’re thousands of miles away from home.
4) Stop judging yourself for your lack of integration or communication abilities. You don’t need the added stress of impatience.
5) Ease into the language so that it’s not so intimidating. This means first self-study, then attending public seminars, movies, etc. where you won’t be forced to talk but can listen, then speaking in professional or distanced situations such as at shops, train stations, work, etc., and finally you will feel comfortable using your new language in casual settings to make friends without getting so stressed.
As you can see, the themes in these suggestions are relaxation and comforting communication, which is why I think of them as Chicken Noodle Soup. We don’t have to be so hard on ourselves! Culture shock is an opportunity to practice self-compassion and non-forcefulness, two practices which can do wonders for one’s growth. So if you’re feeling stuck and agitated, as I am in Germany now, remember that some day when you least expect it, the culture shock stream will turn off. For now please consider trying a little tenderness.
There are so many sensations to describe Marburg: the bursts of savory aromas arising from the döner kebab joints, the comforting weight of a Jägersnitzel on one’s ribs after dinner, the hot blood pumping right under frigid skin as one walks home up the hill on a nippy late night. But recently I’ve discovered a sensation that must be shared with the world. No one should be deprived of this. It consists of a few thick slices of brie melted and topped with slices of un-peeled nectarine. Melt the sliced brie (usually 3-4 thick slices) in the microwave and then arrange the sliced nectarine on top. Eat on a cold morning for breakfast, preferably while wrapped in a blanket and lying sideways in an oversized armchair with both feet dangling off the arm while watching the sun come up. (But the crumb-fraught tables in the dorm kitchen will also do if you have a good imagination). Brie is really cheap in Marburg and usually tastes great. It melts so wonderfully, but even more beautiful, the white wrapping on the outside remains firm so you still have to do some work with your fork. Nectarines are best when crisp and in season as they are now. The outsides are fuzzy and firm, making for a sensational bite, and the flesh is tangy, juicy and just a bit sweet. Make sure to wrap each slice of nectarine with gooey brie, twirling it around your fork. Towards the end of your meal, use the nectarine skin to release the last bits of brie, which have already cooled, from the plate. You will walk away from such a breakfast with a gleeful freshness still on your tongue and a warm richness in your chest. Also, the brie will coat your lips and make them silky smooth. I can’t think of a more pleasureful way to start one’s day.
Today my friends and I were discussing being fat. This is a favorite topic among women, but it’s sometimes an underlying theme in conversations with men too. Thinking about fat always makes one think about diet and exercise too, and this of course makes one argue with oneself and with others about what the most effective dieting and exercise strategies are. This afternoon I was looking at some old pictures and thinking about how my weight has remained relatively constant over the past few years despite the many diet and exercises crazes that I temporarily adopted. Obsessing about my body has never once done me any good! Then I saw my pictures from my summer in Nicaragua, where I ate wonderfully delicious things and hung out at bars and went on trips with strangers (that I really shouldn’t have) and sweated a lot and went hungry sometimes. I realized how non-regimented it was and how I didn’t care at all about what I ate or how much I exercised. And of course I lost weight. Am I saying that you or I should start eating Nicaraguan food to lose weight? Or that we should walk on a treadmill as much a Nicaraguan would in order to simulate this lifestyle? No, of course not! (Although the food would be delicious!) I’m saying that the reason our bodies sometimes shut down on us is because we’re killing them with our worry-filled meaningless lives. Namely, our lives of calorie counting and low-carb cookbooks. Our lives of half-hour runs and pilates sessions. We’re trying to calculate what the exact nutritional and motional needs of a human being would be if she were living in similar conditions to ours, but the problem is, we’re not really living so it doesn’t work. We’re not out there exploring, laughing, starting up conversations with strangers, losing ourselves in new passions we discover, getting to know the people we love, getting lost for hours. People who do those things don’t have time to worry about what they eat or how much exercise they do. They’re too busy living. We’re too busy worrying about our weights to get out there and do anything worthwhile. The body, as it did for me in Nicaragua, will take care of itself when the soul pushes forward. So this is my diet advice for you and me: stop dieting and go get a life!