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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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February 2011 Archives

Off the Map

This winter, I have become a snowbird, my first foray into that alternative lifestyle, and it's time to admit I have a raging case of culture shock.

Not because the ground outside my southern New Mexico apartment is snowless. Not because the sun through this super-clear air is so constantly blinding. Not because the desert grass is so stiff that my Minnesota dogs refuse to walk on it. Those things are only curiosities, and the snowless curiosity was what I hoped for.

No. What makes it strange is what doesn't show. Behind the familiar box stores - Target, Marshall's, Home Depot, Wal-Mart - and beyond the rush-hour traffic and the lighted signs of fast-foods that fringe the main streets, all inevitable anywhere - there are enough differences that sometimes I feel I'm in an alternate universe.

I'm a Minnesota liberal - I should make that clear - and down here, we are as rare as real grass. The editorials in the local paper only confirm what the bumper stickers have already told me. Those differences in viewpoint I expected.

What I wasn't prepared for was the difference that hit me this week, when I started to volunteer at the local animal shelter. It's a good shelter, run by dedicated people, but it's always at capacity. It can house 450 animals at a time, which is a lot for a city smaller than Duluth.

But spaying and neutering, the staff explained sadly, just aren't as common down here as they are up north. That's why the shelter takes in nearly 15,000 unwanted animals a year - mostly dogs, mostly picked up as strays. Fifteen thousand. I am trying not to be judgmental about this, but I'm not over the shock of that number.

A couple of years ago, I was considering buying a winter home down here - a transition I had planned as part of my retirement. Then it dawned on me that I ought to try living here first. That was wise. So was coming here this winter, even though my current reaction dismays me. It reminds me too much of being a high-school exchange student, feeling like a fish out of water on my first trip to Europe.

Culture shock always comes down to expectations, of course. In other countries, I learned to accept local values as fact, a given, a part of the culture, and I tried to look at them without judging. I made a career of that, in fact - telling readers (and myself) that cultures aren't bad or good, they're just different, and differences are okay.

But because this isn't another country - because it's my own - I made the unconscious mistake of expecting values from home to match the values down here.

Then, too, I expected different lessons from this winter's experiment. Now I see that finding out where my own rigidities and biases lie - and enduring culture shock once again, 50 years after I first encountered it - are good wake-up calls. They're just not the ones I, um, expected.