About six months ago, I started running. I’ve been working on healthy eating habits and increasing fitness, and running found its way into that routine. As exercise goes, I really enjoy it and have been proud of my progress – consistently running 3 miles in 30 minutes. A fun running partner, a wide, flat dirt track, and the cool mountain climate keep me motivated. I’ve even started thinking of myself as a runner. This is what I do: I run.
I’m on vacation at the moment, but being the dedicated new runner that I am, bought new shoes and scouted out a path. It’s a cement path (so that’s different) and on a hill (that’s different too) and quite a bit hotter here (different again), but I’m not one to be intimidated. Looking forward to the run, I woke early, laced up, and headed out.
1.67 miles and 21 minutes later, I thought I was going to die. I was so slow and clumsy I probably could have walked the path faster. My legs hurt even worse the next day.
I run well on my level dirt track up at 5,500ft, but a narrow cement path up and down the side of a hill at sea level? Not so much.
This is exactly what it feels like to transition cultures and languages. Exactly.
In my own culture, I run well. I’m confident and satisfied with my progress. Sure there are still risks, I could trip or overdo it and hurt myself, but mostly it’s ok. I know where to step.
Change countries and that run I thought I could do so well is now a struggle. I’m using new muscles to climb and descend, and they protest mightily. I don’t know the path and have to slow right down so I won’t trip. The cement is hard and uncomfortable. I miss my running partner. I miss my dirt track.
I think I like running, but in this new place don’t like it at all. I feel weak and incapable. It’s not easy or natural, not at all like I expected it to be. I’m quick to feel like a failure. Am I even a runner? Has this all just been one big delusion?
Given enough time, patience, and effort, I could eventually run well on this cement path.
In time, I’ll run well in my new culture too. This new path is so very different than my comfortable dirt track. It’s challenging, frustrating, and I’m not as strong as I thought I was when we started, but I’ll get there. I am, after all, a runner.
“What’s it like to move to another country?” That has got to be one of the most difficult questions people ask.
What’s it like? Well, we collect rain water and have a generator. Every six months we all take de-worming meds, pets included. Our town can get pretty crazy; it’s kind of like living in the wild west. For special occasions we cook pig, sweet potatoes, and greens over hot stones in a large pit. The people are hard working and talented farmers who light up when they laugh. Life here is different, really different, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
Attempting to describe what it’s like to move languages and cultures can be a tricky thing. I tend to give descriptions and information about the town, people, and how we live, but all those facts don’t do such a good job of communicating how it really feels to live cross-culturally. Facts may be interesting and illicit a fair amount of “Oh, wow” in response, but they are still pretty difficult to relate to.
What’s it like to live another culture? I think it feels a lot like running a new path, and if you’ve ever tried it, then I bet you can relate.
What do you think? What’s it like to transition cultures?