The Psychological Impact of Culture Shock:

My Dual Lives in Africa and America

My homeland of Eritrea, in East Africa, is very dear to me partly because it is the land of my birth and is the country for which I fought so ardently for many years. However, the green mountains, the rolling hills, the music of our birds in the morning also constitute cherished memories which remain with me, along with recollections of my childhood days in Asmara, our capital city. Eritrea is a land of beauty and grace, a country which is steeped in age-old tradition, hard work, love of God and loyalty to our new government.

Education in Eritrea, at all levels, is now evolving gradually. Yet, when I was young, my nation was still part of Ethiopia and some of my basic schooling took place in an Ethiopian region now located, of course, well south of our new national boundary. I remember the simple classrooms of my youthful days, without technological innovations, and I can easily see in my mind's eye our school's old blackboards and hard wooden benches where I sat with my fellow students and learned along side them in Adiquala Province.

As I matured, I attended Public Health College in Gonda Province, near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's teeming capital city. Here, I learned how to care for the sick and injured patients who visited our College's clinic. I spent several years at this school learning medical practice. Following this training, I was assigned to a sanitarium near Addis Ababa for three years where I perfected my practical and theoretical knowledge of medicine. Our facilities and equipment were primitive by Western standards, but we were able to save many lives.

Then in 1971, full-scale war broke out between my native land of Eritrea and Ethiopia. I returned to the region of my birth, in the north, and was immediately mobilized; in fact, I became a guerrilla freedom-fighter for my country and served in the hills and mountains near the border with our enemy nation, Ethiopia. For twenty-two years, I lived in these hills and fought for my country's freedom. My primary task, fortunately, was to care for our wounded soldiers, as a clinician, and I saved many lives. We had no modern medical or living facilities. On the contrary, I lived in rough and primitive conditions among soldiers, both men and women, who had been inducted from all parts of our nation. After more than two decades, and great suffering of my people, Eritrean Independence was finally declared on May 24, 1993.

Several years after independence, through friends in Asmara, I was put in touch with the African-American Institute at the U.S. Embassy, and was ultimately invited to further pursue my studies in Community Health at New Mexico State University. I left behind the simple life, the rural roads, the charming villages, as well as the green hills and lush valleys of my homeland and, on September 26, 1998, arrived in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The United States, from an African perspective, defies description. I stepped off the plane in El Paso, rode in a fast-moving limousine in the dead of night to Las Cruces, and began a new existence which I cannot even begin to explain to my family back in Asmara. "Shock" is a mild term to describe what I felt inwardly.

First of all, I was surprised by the number of vehicles on American roads. It seemed to me as if everyone must have had at least two cars! The purchasing power of American money is much higher than in my country, and student-loans are very generous here, permitting virtually every student to have a vehicle. In Eritrea, this is impossible due the vast gap between U.S. and African standards of living. American student life seems to whiz along at an unbelievable pace.

Even though 85% or 90% of students at NMSU borrow money to finance their education (and only half of them pay it back), they are allowed to spend it as they wish, often on cars, expensive clothes, restaurants and non-academic interests. This would not be permitted in most European countries, let alone in Africa!

In my first days, I could not believe what I saw on campus. Young couples would openly display signs of affection, wear provocative clothing and parade about shamelessly. In my country, this would have been strictly forbidden. It is not hard to understand why, under these circumstances, the attitudes of students are also very different. Instead of respect for my age, educational status in my homeland, and clinical/surgical experience, I have been almost consistently rebuffed and rejected by undergraduate students. There have been some mature students, and several faculty members, who have seen Africa and who approach me, however, in a friendly manner.

I have experienced many problems with spoken English and this has created a barrier between myself and the student community. The language problem constitutes one of the most prominent aspects of culture shock, as I struggle to make myself understood. Pronunciation of American English differs from standard international English which I assimilated fairly well in Asmara prior to arriving here. Slang, Hispanic content, local expressions, abbreviations for products and services all thrown into an average Las Cruces ‘undergraduate sentence' make it almost impossible to understand. "Hola! Que onda, bro? Gotta super awesome idea fo'us, dude! Wanna cruize da chix ta'nite at Micky D's?" would simply not prove acceptable English in London, Boston or Toronto. Technically, it's not quite acceptable for NMSU either. And for someone arriving from Asmara, it's quite a hurdle!

On the other hand, I have been impressed with the quality of instruction at NMSU. Here, there is a vast storehouse of professional and academic knowledge among members of the Faculty.

Teaching methods are also quite innovative and sophisticated. Computers, audio-visual aids, closed-circuit television, video-conferencing, and simpler things like overhead projectors or opaque projectors make teaching much easier and more effective. In Eritrea, of course, none of these techniques is in use nationwide. I was therefore immensely impressed with the range of methodologies and strategies in use throughout the various Departments where I have taken courses.

When I contrast my life in Eritrea with my new daily existence in New Mexico, I am overwhelmed by the differences between the two cultures. The impact which American wealth, methods and attitudes seem to have on newly arrived Africans is enormous. We lie awake at night wondering where the sweet tune of the nightingale has gone or where the weaver birds have nested this season. More importantly, we think about our families and their future in our homeland. However, it is not simply nostalgia which dominates our thinking. Rather, it is the contrast between Eritrea and America.. For example, I often tend to think in these terms: "What COULD my son become if he were educated in America and what WILL he become because he is in Eritrea." Indeed, when we transfer the effects of culture shock on us, as individuals, to the impact these cultural and socio-economic differences could have on our loved-ones, the magnitude of the shock is further compounded.

As events in Las Cruces continue to swirl around me, I have adapted on the surface to my daily class routine, but inwardly I am still in the green hills and lush valleys of my fatherland. I think, like Ernest Hemingway must have thought after seeing Africa, about the beauty of my land and the simplicity of its people. I love both countries, of course, because of the things they offer. But Eritrea, the country of my forefathers, will always remain my homeland.