Why We Long For Culture Shock

Jackson Pollock’s ‘Number 8’ (1949)

Sometimes the most obvious facts are ones that escape us again and again in our daily lives. For example, looking at my past I see that I am a very different person than I was only a year ago, and yet, in my everyday experience my personality seems to change at a glacial pace, if at all. Perhaps other people are the best authority for viewing changes within ourselves: when you reunite with an old friend, you suddenly feel torn between two identities, and the changes within yourself become apparent.

Marcel Duchamp, ‘To Have the Apprentice in the Sun’ (1914)

The transformation of our personalities is obscured partly because our daily routine is structured around the idea of stability in our personalities. For practical effect, we stick to our routines: working everyday, seeing the same people everyday, returning to the same restaurants and bars and so on. Our environment encourages repetitive behavior. In fact, our whole society is structured around it. What would life be like if no one was expected to do at least some of the same things every day? I suspect we’d have a culture of well-rounded charlatans, with greater breadth of experience, but far less productivity.

The stasis of routine might explain the appeal of traveling. The term ‘culture shock’ accurately portrays the jolt we feel from exposing ourselves to novel daily routines. Lest we fall victim to the idea that we are ‘fixed,’ that our personalities don’t change, that there is nothing new under the sun, we visit somewhere new, basking in the unfamiliar. Take Japan, for example.

I studied jazz performance in college, and in four years I played, studied, and heard every variation of the genre from dixieland to bebop to free jazz to experiments beyond definition. My musical cohorts and I lived and breathed jazz history, while familiarizing ourselves with the always exciting New York jazz scene. None of this prepared me for my experience at a club in Tokyo. My girlfriend found the place, nestled beneath a row of indistinguishable skyscrapers, packed with respectfully quiet musical seekers, and surprisingly expensive. A nine-piece band whose name I sadly cannot recall took the stage and counted off into a pitch-perfect (almost too perfect) impersonation of early ’60s post-bop. They were fantastic. Every note was exactly in place — a stunning impersonation, performed with obvious reverence for jazz history. With one exception: the cello player.

Hidden in back, stage left, sat a middle aged man with wild hair, obscured partly by a worn cello, feet flying eagerly at a row of effects pedals. From the first to the last note of each song, as the eight others deftly executed musical calculations, the cellist thrashed at his instrument, producing squeals of atonal noise filtered through digital delays and distortions. He was like a tuneless whirlwind, spreading chaos over immaculate cityscapes, never hesitant or self-conscious.

Wasily Kandinsky’s ‘Ensemble Multicolore’ (1938)

The combination of tradition and spontaneity was, to me, a culture shock like I’d never heard. It was brilliant. What a genuinely strange blend of noise and clarity! Who would ever think to do such a thing? Certainly no one in my musical background was capable of that effortless, earnest cacophony. I’ll never forget it.

Of course, we don’t only experience life-changing moments across the world, but often enough in our homes, as readers and lovers know. Culture shock remains the same, however, in that we never expect it. It hits us out of the blue, even when the source is someone we’ve known for years. Our reaction to the shock is a surprise even to ourselves.

The lesson to be learned is profound: our lives are, at some level, circumstantial. The consistency of our daily routine provides a bedrock from which we extrapolate our stable, independent selves, but when this consistency is altered we feel ourselves to be dependent, components of an environment, reacting naturally and inevitably to whatever comes our way.

The idea of circumstances beyond our control is scary. It undermines the security of our very identities. But, on the other hand, acknowledging this insecurity gives us a more accurate sense of self as interconnected with environment, rather than independent from it. We start to see life as a flow of shifting relationships, rather than a battle between fixed entities. Exciting, isn’t it? We never know what’s going to mess up our routines, and reveal something we didn’t know about ourselves.

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