Culture Shock

CHI Summer Abroad participant with Kenyan students at the
CHI Academy outside Nairobi

A few weeks ago I attended a fundraising breakfast for Children’s Humanitarian International (CHI), a Sonoma County charitable organization for which I’ve been providing a good deal of writing and editing assistance over the past several years.

CHI is the creation of a highly motivated individual, Jordan Burns,1 who had traveled to Kenya as a UC Berkeley undergrad and saw the local children’s palpable hunger for education. After starting gradually by providing financial assistance to Kenyan grade schoolers (for whom education is not free), CHI has grown significantly, greatly expanding its Sonoma County donor base and acquiring its own school building – the CHI Academy – in a Nairobi suburb. Today it is educating over 150 eagerly receptive elementary school students.

In 2016, CHI significantly expanded and diversified its efforts by starting a Summer Abroad program that takes a group of Sonoma and Napa county high school students (almost all on scholarship) to Kenya for five weeks of study, project work and eye-opening cultural experiences at the CHI Academy, plus, of course, a range of weekend excursions to places like Mt. Kenya, a Nairobi slum, an internally displaced persons camp, the Great Rift Valley and the wildlife wonders of Masai Mara National Reserve. Among the Sonoma and Napa kids’ many takeaways from their five weeks of work and study in a developing country is a refreshing new appreciation – thanks largely to seeing it through Kenyan kids’ eyes – of the importance of education.

At the breakfast, a couple of Sonoma County participants in the CHI Summer Abroad program gave low-key but eloquent talks about their Kenya experiences. These talks, plus a number of blog posts written by several of the Summer Abroad participants while they were still in Kenya, which I’d earlier been asked to lightly edit, brought to mind recollections of the culture shock I initially experienced in 1968 as a newly arrived Peace Corps volunteer in an Indian village.

Judging by their Kenya blog posts, the American students were most struck by an up-close view of poverty that was beyond anything they had ever imagined:

  • “I come from a family that struggles to get by and lives in poverty in Southwest Santa Rosa which is a pretty bad part of town. … The things I have witnessed, whether it was visiting the homes of the children at CHI, or just driving down the street, show me that the poverty and problems that we have back home are nothing compared to the things that go on in Kenya.”
  • “Most [people] live in rundown houses with one room and no kitchen, no separate rooms and even have to get water from a well outside.”
  • “The smell of dirty standing water, burning garbage, and waste overwhelmed me. Eight or nine students sat shoulder to shoulder in a living room filled with two couches, a bunk bed for the children, and no extra space. The mother’s room was separated from the living room by just a curtain. There was no kitchen or bathroom inside this house. One outdoor bathroom is shared by thirty families in the compound. The women filled the paths – gathering clean water from the communal spout or doing laundry by hand.”
  • “The mother … was very hospitable … but beneath her kindness, one could see she was embarrassed by the visit of a group of white people who wanted to see her standard of living.”
  • “The most mind-blowing difference to me was the massive amount of garbage scattered along the roads, lining each and every street, and the burning piles of it every 50 yards or so.”

  • “The school we volunteer at … has kids that are actually excited to learn every day.”

Compared to these young people, I believe my experiences of culture shock as a Peace Corps volunteer in India were quite mild. But a few memories stand out:

  • When we arrived in New Delhi, our group of volunteers was immediately bused to a clean, modern building where we were to have a couple of days of briefings on a range of topics. I remember thinking that these surroundings were so unlike anything I’d expected to experience in India that I needed to get away at every available free moment and see “the real India.” So on a couple of occasions I went to “old” Delhi and wandered around the bazaar. There I was assaulted by the sights and – especially – the smells of Third World poverty. It made me seriously wonder if I could endure such an environment for two years. Fortunately, once we left Delhi and got out into less densely populated – and therefore less smelly – village India, I found my concerns unwarranted.

That’s me, in Indian garb, in 1968.

  • Despite all the efforts during our training to prepare us for village life, I was a little taken aback upon my arrival in Rajnagar. I’d been driven there in a jeep by one of the district’s two assistant directors of agriculture. We arrived in the main “square” (actually the open bus stop area, surrounded by the post office, school, “hospital” and a tea stall), where I was greeted by the sarpanch2 (mayor), my co-worker Jagdish Prasad Mishra (the local agricultural extension agent, who would become a great friend and colleague), and a few curious villagers. I was told that my living quarters were not yet ready, so for the first night or two I would be sleeping in a small room in the panchayat (municipal) building, right there at the square. As I prepared to retire for the night, an elderly man from another village asked me to keep his lota3 for him overnight in my room. It seemed a strange request, but I agreed. At first light the next morning – well before 6 o’clock – he pounded on my door and asked for the lota so he could go do his morning ablutions. The whole episode was a source of considerable puzzlement. (In retrospect, I’m guessing the lota was sufficiently valuable to a poor villager that he might have been worried that someone could steal it if he kept it at his side while asleep far from home.)

This is one of my two lotas. An antique I was lucky to find in a bazaar (the Hindi word for market), it was not the one I used every day. My everyday lota – undecorated – is the one I’m drinking from in the photo below.

  • The culture shock experience that most vividly persists in my memory took place a few weeks later. Mishra had asked me to accompany him on an early morning visit to some farmers in a nearby village. To catch them before they left for their fields, we had to set out while it was still dark. As we walked several miles along the dusty path, I recall looking up at the full moon that was lighting our way and thinking how very far, both geographically and culturally, I was from home and all the people and familiar surroundings I’d left behind – almost halfway around the globe (nine and a half time zones from the U.S. East Coast) and walking in open sandals in the dark to talk with largely illiterate farmers in a language I was still learning, a far cry from the Ivy League precincts in which, only a few months before, I’d felt at home.
  • Perhaps the biggest culture shock I’ve ever experienced came on my return to the U.S. Thinking I might never again have a chance to see Asia, I’d traveled east, spending anywhere from a few days to a week or more in Nepal, Burma (today Myanmar), Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, East Timor, Australia, Papua New Guinea (so I could see the Stone Age before it disappeared), Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Japan, before flying back to the U.S. In many of these places, I’d tried to learn and use a few words of the local language, and these efforts were invariably rewarded with smiles and friendship. After a few days back home in New Jersey, I needed to go to New York City on some errand or other. My dad drove me to the drug store in Red Bank that served as a stop on the route of the New York bus line. I went inside to buy a ticket. Not seeing any sign directing passengers to a ticket counter, I asked a clerk. Her response took me aback. “Whatsa matter, can’t ya read?” she barked and pointed to a small sign overhead that I hadn’t noticed amid all the visual clutter. These were the first rude words I’d heard in traveling halfway around the world. Welcome home! Real culture shock.


1. Jordan is also a member of the Santa Rosa Junior College board of trustees.

2. The sarpanch chairs the panchayat, or five-member village council. Panch is Hindi for “five.”

Me again, a few years older, demonstrating how to drink from a lota.

3. In village India, the lota, a small metal (usually brass) vessel for water, serves several purposes. People often use it for drinking. They don’t drink directly from the lota, but instead hold it in the left hand and pour water into their cupped right hand, from which they drink, usually spilling a bit as they do. The lota is also used when bathing (you just pour the water over your head or down your arm or back) and in cleansing one’s bottom after defecating. In village India, toilet paper is non-existent. Instead, people spill water onto their left hand, with which they clean themselves. The lota itself never contacts fecal matter, but the left hand does, of course, which is why in India and many other countries, only the right hand is used for eating. (In village India, not everyone uses soap to clean their hands. Hand cleansing is often accomplished by rubbing with dirt, followed by a rinse. The friction of the soil particles does a good job. But of course it’s not anti-bacterial. In case you’re wondering, I always used soap.) The photo above shows me demonstrating how to drink from a lota. It’s the one I used every day in India for all the purposes just mentioned. There was no way I wouldn’t bring it home with me. And the antique one too.

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