You know the feeling you had when you walked into your first middle school dance? You didn’t know the social rules. What do you do if a guy asks you to dance? What do you do if no one asks you? What do you wear? How do you dance? That’s a little of what people in culture shock feel all the time.

Our culture is really just a system of maps. We all share the same map for how to buy milk or how to get our driver’s license renewed. But, do you know how to buy milk in China? Do they have nice gallons in the refrigerated section of the store? What about renewing a driver’s license in Mozambique? What’s the process? When we first moved here, we had to relearn how to do everything. How do you pay for a bus ride? How do you buy vegetables at the market? How do you get your elecricity set up?

Then there’s the cultural maps relating to people. In the States if an acquaintance says “We should get together sometime!” I know they mean “Good to see you, we never have time to hang out, it would be nice, but it’ll never happen, but I don’t want to be rude, see you around.” Here, when my neighbor says “Come over any time!” what does she mean? What are the cultural undertones?

I’m not writing this so you’ll say “Poor mab! Look what she’s gone through!” Going through culture shock and learning how to live in a new culture has been a good thing for me. It’s helped me grow. I do hope that the next time you see someone from another culture in Wal-Mart looking very confused at all the canned vegetables, you’ll understand why. They might have just arrived and haven’t figured out what on earth creamed corn really is.

As I get ready to go back to the States for a visit, I’ve been thinking about some things I want my family and friends to understand before I arrive. The nature of culture shock is one of those things. The others will be the focus of some of my posts for the next 10 days. I heartily welcome all to comment on their experiences or ask questions. (Or tell stories about the time they thought their neighbor was offering homeade cheese and butter and you took it to be nice even though you didn’t want it, but later you realized she was showing off her cheese and butter and never intended you to take it at all. Yeah, I still worry about what that neighbor thinks of me.)