The Thief of Joy

I used to think of culture shock as a cop-out illness named by weaklings. Then, the summer I turned 20, karma got around to me.

That summer, I moved to Morocco. And I would be just fine, thank you very much, because all the struggles that anyone had ever faced when moving to another country came from the fact that they were somehow less than what I thought I was.

And that illusion lasted until about three weeks into my trip.

Around that time, my brain rebelled. I felt discombobulated and nauseated in class. I became inexplicably recalcitrant toward my teacher—yes, me, recalcitrant, toward a teacher. It felt as though my body were rejecting the Arabic language.

My expressive capabilities in English felt endless, as far as I could tell. But in Arabic, they were on par with a four year old. I couldn’t tell people what I wanted, what I thought, or what I was doing, just because I didn’t know precise enough Arabic to do so. I knew that a way to express myself existed, but I was barred from it by a bad attitude about learning that had seemingly cropped up from nowhere. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like the confident, unstoppable, independent traveler I thought I was. Indeed, I wasn’t feeling any better than any of those “weaklings” I used to look down on.

And once I let go of that, things got better.

Well, some other stuff happened too: I quit stressing out about Arabic all the time, joined a janky little gym near my school, and signed up for the local surf club. My friend Christina and I would drag nine-foot surf boards to the one and only beach in Rabat, then huff and puff over a few wave crests to hide from our attractive but demanding surf instructor. Safely concealed behind the waves, we’d spend the whole lesson sitting astride our boards, letting the gentle waves lift and drop us together as we chatted about where to travel that weekend, what we had eaten for dinner, and, more often than not, our attractive but demanding surf instructor.

That summer, I didn’t learn to surf (I stood up on an unbroken wave a total of one time, and my shriek sounded manly and terrifying).

I did learn, though, that sometimes it’s OK to spend some time not being good at something. And in some cases (like surfing), it’s also OK to pretty much not care.

I learned another thing: when you’re not busy comparing yourself to others, you have a lot more time to just enjoy yourself.

I had more fun in Morocco than at any other period in my life up until then. I also learned Arabic quite well, and I came back unusually slim to boot.

Once I got back to college, that all went out the window. In a hyper-competitive environment like that, you learn to run an internal pissing contest with every single person you ever meet. You learn to pore over somebody else’s resumé, internally matching each line with something you’ve done that might be considered equivalent or superior. You learn that every alum you ever meet, whether it’s for an informational interview or just a drink, is wondering whether he is smarter than you, and you’re wondering the same thing.

Embarrassingly, it took me two years to notice how deranged that is.

Why does it matter? What changes when the two of you have implicitly duked it out? The answer is nothing. Nothing changes. And the answers don’t matter. And the answers don’t exist.

That’s right. You don’t deserve fewer chocolate bars because you’ve decided that the other person is somehow your superior. And you don’t deserve more chocolate bars because you’ve determined yourself to be superior. Because no one is superior anyway. And because everyone should have all the chocolate they can get their hot little hands on.

But seriously, every single human being you will ever meet, ever, is a person with demi-godlike talents and hobbies they could do all day without stopping to eat and convictions that are exactly like yours and convictions that are absolutely nothing like yours and people they love and people whose houses they would burn down if consequences didn’t exist and huge, enormous, gaping flaws that they spend massive amounts of their time trying to hide from the world in a desperate attempt to seem normal—and telling themselves that people who do expose those flaws are weird. And hopefully, one day, finding themselves feeling relieved and strengthened when other people admit to having those same flaws.

And once I started to see that, things got better. Suddenly, not everyone was my competitor. And people became much, much more interesting. I went from the depressed, shitty postgrad period of my life to a decidedly less shitty period.

Some other stuff happened, too. I quit checking Facebook. I quit reading Forbes. I started telling people what I wanted and needed, rather than just eating it whenever something wasn’t going my way (literally and figuratively). I started actually changing the things I didn’t like about my life—not by trying to run off to some faraway pasture where everything was suddenly going to be all better, and not by bitching about the way things were going for me at the time, but by incrementally changing what I already had to make it something closer to what I’d like it to be.

For example, everybody complains that, once they get out of college, it’s really hard to make friends. Oh, I don’t have friends here. My old friends don’t talk to me anymore. Poor, pitiful me.

Tuh-rust me. I basically ring-led the pity party.

Well, that was wrong, actually. Because I’ve realized that making friends now is at least as easy as it ever was.

In the course of history, that is. Once upon a time, humans could only make friends within walking distance of their permanent homes. Slowly that circle expanded to horse-ing distance (that’s the technical term), then car-ing distance, then airplane-ing distance. But still, even at that point, phonecalls were expensive, and there remained, of course, the biggest obstacle: though you could make friends anyplace, you still had to meet them in person, which meant they had to still be in the same place as you at the same time as you at some point. With that limiting criterion, people didn’t have the luxury of selecting friends that were perfect fits for them.

Not so now—because you can e-mail anyone. You can meet someone through your shitty ex-boss who explains your ex-boss’s shittiness without defending him, and then that person can end up daring you to share your writing for once. You can find a blog online and realize, oh my god, this person would be the best road trip buddy ever, and you can e-mail them. You can find that one programmer who has done the exact thing you wish you could do in the exact programming language you’re learning. And if you make like a hipster (without the arrogance) and look for the people making the 97% of the music/writing/software that you love—the ones who aren’t famous yet—a lot of times they’ll respond to you. You can select the people you think you would know in the ideal version of your life, and you can become friends with them.

And before long, you’ve built a little bit better, more connected life than the life you had a week ago.

It’s not everything, but it’s something. It’s something I need to revisit every once in a while, but maybe I can get there :).

One thought on “The Thief of Joy

  1. I appreciate you sharing this! I’ve been out of my home country now for 7 months and still feel like a completely lost/ different person. It’s funny how this culture shock can hit in so many different shapes and forms. I appreciate the honesty and lighthearted tone.. Keep it up!


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