Culture Shock | Colleen MacDonald

I was at a local shopping mall in Minnesota, it was December 20th, 2011, and it was the first time in almost exactly one year since Iʼd stepped foot inside an American consuming establishment.

It wasnʼt pretty.

Come to think of it, neither were the malls in St.Petersburg, Istanbul, Baku, or Dubai – and in the case of Dubai the malls were particularly behemoth and alien. Somewhere, or somehow in the years spent in Ismailli/Baku/St. Petersburg, I had come to loathe malls and large complexes with harsh lights and the low buzz of nonsense chatter. To be fair, Iʼd always found nonsense chatter to be particularly annoying and frustrating in any social situation. Perhaps it was due to a social awkwardness or my incessant curiosity to pry into the lives of those I was speaking with in order to understand and see what they were really thinking and hiding beneath the nonsense chatter?

The decorations were awful. The red too bright, the trees too fake. I think it’s been done or addressed many times (ad-nauseam) by various authors: the fakeness of American holidays and culture shock. Iʼm sure I even read a blog post about it and maybe even an NY times lifestyle piece. But, this moment, this time, the culture shock and fakeness hit me and was utterly and completely addressed by me. I wasn’t expecting it. Iʼd dealt with culture shock many times over by moving to a post soviet-Muslim country, then falling in love and then moving to Russia all in the past 4.9 years. I didn’t feel American, or Minnesotan, or a hipster late 20-something (I’ve ben told by magazines, TV, music and books that I should be hipster, jet set, fashionable and brittle skinny – mostly this message distresses me.) I felt confusion, distress and an almost uncontrollable urge to spin in a circle, make my self very dizzy and then sit in a plastic covered seat and watch the people jump awkwardly by while my brain realigned itself. Instead, I ambled up to the centralized chain coffee shop and ordered a coffee. I had forgotten that people speak my native tongue, and stammered out replies. “Yes, Ill pay by card.” “No, no milk,, please.” “Receipt?” “Da..yes.” “Oh, I wait there.” I suddenly knew how the hard of hearing oldies must feel. The barista must have seen my name on the plastic card Iʼd not used in a year, since some underpaid holiday worker called out my name. It strange to hear one’s name called by a native English speaker. The ʻeʼs are not rolled, and my name is not pronounced as the opposite of dirty.

I sat down at the table to sip coffee and felt intrusive -I could understand every damn thing the fellow coffee drinkers were saying. Not, that while in Azerbaijan or Russia, I couldn’t understand – it just didn’t come fluidly – but by the time I left Azerbaijan, it was more odd to hear English than Azeri and Iʼd purposely listen to Azeri conversations to practice my language. I did this in Russia as well, whilst on the metro we – no, I, there is no longer a ʻweʼ – would try to pick out the words I knew and follow the conversation.

Much can be learned by public transport conversations. I don’t know how much I learned on Russian public transport; some of those memories, since associated with a certain person, shall remain locked. At some point, I am convinced those memories would make a grand epic comedy of the silliness, patheticness, and amazingness of life – if for no other reason than that the memories would justify a significant chunk of my life. We all need neat little boxes to sort things into.

But into which box does one sort culture shock to one’s native country? In the past, when Iʻd visited the States for a few weeks at a time, I knew it was for just that: a few weeks. But now, today, blindly feeling my way through a holiday with, for the first time in my life (yes, the first time in my life) no concrete plan on the other side – I was completely, utterly, most pathetically confused. Reduced to a wall flower, a shambling zombie, a newborn Capybara, a fish out of water: an adult functioning with the bare minimum of feelings, and the feelings that were functioning where most definitely not of the holiday spirit kind. The music was rushing out of the speakers: ʻIts the Most wonderful time of the year…ʼ. I felt like slapping the speakers or the nearest face.

It was not wonderful.

In my naivety, living abroad was supposed to expand one’s brain, thoughts and actions, give one the zen-like aura of a monk who takes difficulties, heartbreak, leaky toilets and woefully confusingly-dressed foreign locals as tasty learning experiences. Clearly, that zen bit was bypassed by me and Iʼd been reading too many fluffy magazines. Right at that instant, I had to wrap my brain round the reality of a new place, new people, culture, food, lifestyle, values, and myself. A lame, most obviously not mature self who was, in all her overseas living, travels, adventures, risks and days spent climbing off-limits structures (don’t ask), was not prepared, ready, or mature enough to face, deal with, accept, and gracefully move through the biggest challenge yet: returning to one’s hometown for a yet indeterminable amount of time.

I drank the hot coffee.
Scalded my tongue.
Silently cursed popstars with enough money to bastardize a decent holiday and classic music.


The hidden, derelict and marginalized attract her; with a desire for adrenaline rushes and a love of heights, Colleen has photographed everything from abandoned highrises in Detroit to Particle Colliders in Russia. With an eye for portraits, a belief that everyone has a story, and a love of drains, she has been wandering through foreign countries since 2007. Accused of being a spy, a prostitute and a missionary; having repelled down elevator shafts, been caught up in political protests and nearly arrested, she has developed a fearless approch to photography seeking out the moments both violent and peaceful that give life meaning.

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