The New Girl

In training for the mission field, they teach you all about culture shock. You learn that there is, of course, the initial shock of stepping into a place so different from your own. They explain that learning to exist in your new environment will wear you out both mentally and physically. Then, they say, after several weeks, you will be more accustomed to your new way of life and the shock subsides. But often, when you least expect it, they tell you even as many as three or four months in, you may very well be hit with another wave of it. I’ve heard the stories, seen the diagrams, and experienced it myself a few times. This time, though, the shock is different. Having been here before, I was able to prepare myself for the culture pretty well. I knew that things move MUCH more slowly here and to not expect anything different. I knew I would not be able to jump into my work immediately; that it would take time to figure out a plan and get it into place. I knew that the food is dramatically different, and so I planned according and rationed out mac and cheese so that I’ll be able to enjoy it once every week until I return home for Christmas. I was ready to be stared at, laughed with for no reason, and I was even prepared to use a latrine rather than a flush toilet. But I did not think to prepare myself for what I am currently experiencing.
I was born in Versailles and graduated from Versailles; I never had the awkward experience of trying to fit into friendships that were already formed. At Miami, all of the freshman girls from Anderson-1-South stuck together, so I never had to look for someone to do my grocery shopping with. When I moved to Colorado, I lived with girls I knew from summer camp and my friend Jocelyn from home, so we all discovered how to get around the city together. And when I began teaching at West Carrollton and was greeted by Berger’s “The last time I saw you, you were just an annoying little eighth grader,” I somehow found comfort in the fact that I would be working alongside three people who knew my family and understood where I was from. But now, here, I am: The New Girl.
Relationships have been formed, routines have been figured out, and transportation has been perfected. For the first time in my life, I have to ask for help with all of these things. I imagine that God must have been playing guidance counselor when he asked the Hodges’ to be my friends. Just like the new students at school get a buddy to help them open their locker and find the cafeteria, Steve and Diantha have taken me in and show me the ropes. Diantha stops on her way into town to take me to the market and Steve teaches me the most important words I need to know in Arabic. They have invited me to dinner with their friends and check to make sure I’m doing okay. And I am, minus the unfamiliar feeling of vulnerability.
Even though I am struggling with knowing that I have been here six weeks and have yet to do a teacher training, I know that I am making progress. I have deemed these first months “South Sudan Orientation,” and am determined to learn as much as I can about how to thrive here. I am proud to say that not only can I greet the students in my compound in the local Arabic, but I can also answer questions about where I am going or when I’ll be coming back (Thanks mostly to Margaret the typical 13-year-old who, between making funny faces at me and mocking my English, patiently quizzes me regularly with questions that she knows I should be able to answer). Late last week I made it all the way in to town to buy grape juice without getting lost! I look forward to the coming months when I will form relationships that go beyond “how has your week been?”
Now that I am knee deep in it, if I were doing the naming I wouldn’t have called it culture shock. It would be more appropriate to call it “senses shock.” Every moment of every day in this place each one of my five senses is bombarded with unfamiliarity. My eyes are overwhelmed with the sights of the dirt roads and marketplace. My ears can’t comprehend the languages of the people or these strange birds. My skin doesn’t understand how it can be hot with the heat of the sun and cold with the moisture of the air all at the same time. My tongue can never prepare itself enough for something that looks familiar but tastes foreign. My nose can’t figure out why my clothes don’t smell like they belong to me or why my wallet doesn’t smell like money. But slowly, just as my brain is creating a schema for understanding life here, I expect my senses will do the same. Until then, I will continue to indulge myself with bowls of macaroni and cheese, playlists of English music, and bed sheets washed with tide.
When I headed out of the compound yesterday, I sighed as one of the students called me over. “Lisabet!” he called, and I was frustrated that even my own name sounds different here. But then, as another student called in the same way, the irony of the sound hit me. In the local tongue the phrase “lisa bet” literally means “not yet home.” And that is exactly it. South Sudan is not YET home, but I am learning to be patient.

5 thoughts on “The New Girl

  1. The more I read of your blogs the more I realize how spoiled I am and how much courage and dedication you have my friend.
    Stay safe. Love you, Pat and Dave

  2. You are a wonderful writer! When I read your blogs, I almost feel that I am right there with you! I know that sooner, rather than later, we will be reading your blog where you talk about how South Sudan DOES feel like home and you can not imagine leaving. Until then, continue what you are doing and thank you for keeping us updated! Stay Safe!

  3. I love reading about your experiences. I always feel that next year this will be Taba writing and going through all these adjustments. I keep telling myself God is big enough to take care of you all. Have a wonderful day and keep safe. Love and prayers. Grandma Bonnie

  4. I always love reading your updates… you just have such a wonderful way of relating this experience to those of us stateside. We miss you and you are in our thoughts regularly!

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