I’ve always been tickled by the question “what do you do?” How this query usually comes during the small talk phase of interaction, sometime after weather or sports and before becoming lifelong friends, could mean “what do you like to do?” or “what do you do for a living?” Though I often try to differ, I sometimes find myself telling these relative strangers that I’m a cultural anthropologist working in rural Mexico. At this point they’ll often tell me (instead of asking if I think so), “I bet it’s hard to live down there.” What they’re actually saying is “I’d never do that.” The odd thing is, we do it all the time, just not by choice, and under different institutional circumstances. To this question I always reply, “of course it’s fucking hard, but not in the way you meant.”

The shock of disorientation, the experiencing of the unfamiliar in moving between socio-cultural environments, embodies a basic human experience, albeit one we’re often unprepared for, and therefore quick to relinquish instead of cherish. I don’t chide them for saying down there, but it remains that theirs is a hard separation. As in, it must be hard to leave everything you know and love to live among others and share and speak and level with people so different from us up here. What’s odd about this dynamic, familiar to all travelers as they inevitably come home, is that for me, the reverse is true. For me culture shock is always worse on return than arrival, but this might be more a reflection on what I know and love than on my feelings for any particular place or nation.

Culture shock is a term introduced by anthropologist Kalvero Oberg in the 1950s to describe a state precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing touch with all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse.1. This academic term cum popular expression exposes a feeling, a nexus of relations solidifying in our continual state of alienation and personal-perceptual retrieve, reprieve, or reverie, experienced as we (re)encounter Otherness. Stranger still when this otherness emanates from us, or our own cultural milieu. Strangest of all, it signifies a cultivation of closeness that only seems strange or unnatural because of an institutionalized separatism general to nation-states, but specific to the US and Mexico.

So how can I experience this, on coming back to my country of birth? Not to say that I feel more at home in Mexico or that I dislike the United States, but it remains one of the perplexing side effects of the career I’ve chosen. Doing fieldwork, I underwent drastic shifts in how I encountered my own values in maneuvering between worldviews. When I returned across the border, everything seemed strange. For example, after my last sojourn into the field, I crossed the border into Southern California, touching down at John Wayne Airport in Santa Anna, CA. Howdy partner, I can hear the famed native killer of the silver screen say, as I slink past the baggage claim and make for the exit. My girlfriend’s grandmother is waiting for us, and her smile saddens me as I think of the next leg of migration I’ll make, to return to the land of my mother’s family (Minneapolis) to mourn the passing of my own grandmother. The smile and embrace of a grandparent inhabits at once a higher and deeper realm of love than a parent’s, yet maintains the unconditional surface calm that comes without the quagmire of the relation between a person and their child.

First stop, an In-N-Out Burger, where I’m so flustered by the rush of the fast food social machinery that I forget to order grilled onions on my Double-Double. Damn. This is already the second burger I’ve eaten (the other during the layover in Phoenix). The joint is close to her residence, which calms the trained-anxiety of the traveler in me who likes to know where all proximal lavatories lay at all times. The shock hits me in earnest when stuck in traffic on the 101, that great stretch of highway that lays in legend and gridlock all up and down the coast. I see the faces in the cars near me, the distress and annoyance akin to Michael Douglas in his seminal role in Falling Down. The fuselage closes in and I want to leap from the cab of the mid-90s Acura and heave my form down the embankment to meet the sea.

It gets worse as we exit to crawl through Laguna Beach and I see the shops with quaint storefronts and faux-historic architecture, indicative of the yuppie nightmare. The grandmother lives in one of those beach communities that sprawl on the California Coast. In Seizure World, a over-55 city/community of over 30,000, gated in against the surrounding traffic, her single unit snugs underground deep within the bowels of the scatter-planned cul-de-sacs and off-shoot streets that lead to cookie cutter condos, built for the retired wanting to permanently remove themselves from a certain pace of life or youth into a perpetual dead-light wonderland, designed especially for them. To add insult to injurious paranoia, she won’t let us out of the house at night without her cane, for fear of coyote attacks. This may sound mean and overly critical, but she perpetually calls me Zack, so I can’t feel too bad.


Confining the fieldwork experience to stages or steps negates the fundamental and at times drastic sea change taking place in practicing ethnographic research. However, a general matrix of this critical-reflexive process could be described as: Adjustment, Involvement, and Achievement.

These stages involve engaging with obstacles including: ethnocentrism, ‘recruiting’ interlocutors, language barriers, gender bias, community acceptance, and the metaphysical and clerical confines or convolutions of ‘recording’ information. The baseline situation capitulates bridging that abyssal, emergent complexity of being in the world. The technical impenetrability lies in the fact that anthropologists classically conduct their research in a cultural group not their own. Culture shock thus stems not just from an Other, but from the embedded practice of othering oneself from the root of one’s self-engineering.

If culture plays the stage on which the performance of identity unfolds, then in the wings lies the shock, waiting for its cue. It’s not just for the fieldworker whose choice of immersion in alien worlds might seem thoroughly insane to most. Indeed, the schizophrenia embodied in the practice of anthropology mirrors the schizophrenia of being in the world. Alienation and the always-already smokescreen education of the child as a self-becoming-not-being precludes participation in culture, but that doesn’t mean the barriers cannot be broken down in earnest. Half (if not the whole) of why I feel I’m good at what I do is I’ve taken this occlusion, which has been with me so long, and run with it opposite the comfort of norms. To deny the difference and settle into sameness, in defiance of the natural want/need of being, aside from that-which-you-are-not, sadly, doesn’t transmute back to my own life, At the best of times, it lacks the clarity of my work, and at the worst, it royally fucks up my personal relationships. That’s why, when people ask me if it’s hard to live down there, to do what I do, I reply “of course it’s fucking hard, but no harder than dealing and living in your own life.” And there’s always two spheres, one large and one small. The small one reads, where the action is, and the large one, your comfort zone.

1. Baker, David Read. 1980. Culture Shock and Anthropological Fieldwork. Paper presented at Annual Meeting of the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research (6th, Mount Pocono, PA, March 14, 1980).

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