January 28, 2024

Culture Shock: A Journey to New Perspectives

There’s something almost absolutely satirical that my journey towards appreciation of my heritage came through culture shock. Unlike most international adoptees, I’ve never had this great desire to study my native language, to go back to my home country, or to test my DNA to learn familial connections. I’ve had my own identity struggles, but in my latter teenage years, I developed a sense of confidence and contentment where I didn’t feel that more cultural knowledge was something I needed or particularly desired.

A great deal of this self-assurance can be accredited to the way my family has approached both adoption and cultural heritage. My family’s done an outstanding job embracing my story, from attending Chinese New Year celebrations, to celebrating Gotcha Days, to the ever-constant positive reinforcement of my home culture. This isn’t always the case in multicultural families or situations - and for this, I am grateful that I never experienced the negativity, hostility, or assimilation of culture that other adoptees and multiethnic stories have gone through. 

And I suppose, raised with an overwhelmingly healthy approach to my story and culture, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional culture shock that moving to Springfield, Missouri would prompt. 

Because I was moving only cross-regional, I didn’t expect many shifts. But that’s the amazing thing about travel: it provides the opportunities to learn both more about yourself and the world around you. The culture shock we experience can be such a positive incentive to broaden understanding. And like all things, culture shock is a phenomena that is multifaceted and unique to the backgrounds we have previously come from.

Living in Springfield for school revealed a lot of cultural disparities, from the South’s curious obsession with potatoes with every single meal, to coats coming out in fifty degree weather, to Wednesday night church being a calendar event for most people. And I’m sure there’s things about Maine, from our very strange habit of slurring any word that ends with an -a (sō-da becomes so-d/er/), our love of red hot dogs and soder called Moxie, and how in winter, we all adjust our agendas to properly defrost our cars (or, often, to do snow removal).

Point in case: there’s a lot of surface disparities between cultures that are truly subjective in nature; they add dimension and distinction to our lives, a sense of identity, but beyond that, they don’t typically alter our entire worldviews or core values. 

There are, however, more subtle occurrences of culture shock that can clash with our moral values. Naively, I didn’t think much of this type of shock would occur - especially not in relation to my cultural identity as a Chinese American.

Demographically, Maine and Missouri aren’t that different in terms of racial diversity - both are predominantly Caucasian states. However, living in Missouri I experienced the subtle culture shock of living in a state with more historic racial violence, discrimination, and a conservative demographic compared to Maine’s liberal majority. 

This may sound strange, but for one of the first times in my life, I carried with me this awareness that not only was I Juliese Padgett, but right behind that was the knowledge, sometimes the paranoia, that I am also Asian, Chinese. I don’t know if I could ever properly explain this phenomenon, but I existed in a different sphere because of my cultural and genetic background. 

This is something that I’ve felt before - I think it is safe to claim that most people not within the majority ethnicity have experienced this dysphoria. However, never to this degree had I experienced the overwhelming feeling that Asian, Chinese was stamped on my forehead. Never to this degree had I brushed against a historical narrative of such racial pain. And that’s something I can’t quite articulate either - sometime during my time in Missouri, I became ultra-aware and even ended up personally affected and weighed down by the almost imperceptible racial cries that plague Springfield, Missouri. 

To give a quick history lesson, Missouri, like most of our states, was inhabited by Native Americans. In the 1830s, Native American tribes west of the Mississippi River were [legally] driven out of their ancestral homes and forced to relocate. The path they trekked is most commonly known as “The Trail of Tears”, where an estimated 60,000 Native Americans died, even more suffering emotional and psychological trauma along with physical injury. The trail’s name is symbolic, a reminder I dare say, of the tears shed during this 2,200 mile journey. 

Only a little earlier, Missouri, only a territory, had requested recognition as a state. At the same time, Maine was on its way to being recognized as a state. James Tallmadge Jr, who submitted Missouri’s request, had listed Missouri as a state with restrictions on slavery. However, the southern states that bordered Missouri didn't believe the issue of slavery within a state should be a federal matter. Eventually, the government came up with a compromise: Maine was introduced to the United States as a free state, whereas Missouri was introduced as a slave-holding state. This was better known as the Missouri Compromise, and contributed to many of the tensions that ultimately led to the Civil War. 

After the Civil War and into the early days of WWI, many in Missouri (and, important to note, other states as well) were upset by the now free people of color and came to be part of the Ku Klux Klan. Better termed a terrorist group, members of the KKK would commit acts of horrendous violence towards black people and other minorities. The members of this group were the farmers, merchants, doctors, ministers, and politicians, of the state, which made the act of convicting them nearly impossible - witnesses declined to testify, resulting in the continual violence and breeding of white supremacy. Eventually, the KKK infiltrated the Missouri government and churches, passing laws and integrating subtle beliefs into congregations that allowed them to continue their violent actions under the protection of the law (both government and morally). 

This of course, is only a sliver of the racial history that Missouri has been a part of - I encourage you to explore more resources to gain an informed picture of the racial history of our nation - but just these three historical moments in Missouri’s story explain just how inhospitable Missouri was to a person of color or of diverse ethnic origin. Unfortunately, though Missouri has made progress, if we’re not aware, our histories have a tendency to shape our worldviews, and sadly, many in Missouri still have perspectives that discriminate against people groups, consciously or unconsciously. 

Now why did I take you on that long-winded history lesson? As I stated previously, I’ve never held a particular investment in cultural appreciation because it had never been an aspect that had ever been threatened. But that changed when I moved to Missouri - here, there is cultural tension and underlying pain that revealed to me just how important it is to properly appreciate heritage and culture. It’s easy to pass over this undercurrent within cultural establishments until your own cultural identity has been called into question.

Here in Springfield, cultural groups are subconsciously having to constantly establish themselves, planting themselves like trees and standing firm in their cultural identities. That’s why it’s fascinating to me that Springfield also has, hidden in plain sight, ethnically diverse, true-to-culture restaurants that are sharing with the world authentic recipes that entire cultures have bonded over. Now isn’t this a curious thing? A city with such a history of violence and assimilation can indeed harbor such culinary diversity. 

To me, this poses such a beautifully tragic picture. It’s beautiful that people groups are able to share food that has brought together their peoples for centuries. The first time I stepped into an authentic Chinese restaurant that served food I remember gobbling up on the other side of the globe - I cannot put into words how empowering it felt to go to a restaurant where it was like stepping back into Asian streets. Having always experienced the typical Asian American restaurant (which is a whole different blog post), it was validating. It was beautiful to see culture embraced and so boldly existing. 

But there’s also a note of tragedy to this - until you’ve made the conscious choice to adopt different worldviews, you might not realize just how much it means that culture can exist this proudly. That’s because, to most people, they don’t realize how profound something as simple as authentic ramen can be to us. There’s a note of tragedy because what I learned, perhaps a bit pessimistic in view, is that to everyone else, it’s a nice restaurant. They don’t see the affirmation that’s laced in every detail, that stays with us far longer than we could ever stay ourselves. 

It was at two authentically Asian restaurants (Corner 21 and Karai Ramen) that I first realized the value of my culture shock. Though it was painful, though at times  it made me want to change myself, though it came with heaviness, I have been unable to look at the world through the same lens as before. It was not until I was in a place of uncomfortableness that I was able to recognize the value I desire to have regarding both my own culture and all the cultures around me. Because my culture was always so celebrated, because I was never faced with the identity perplexities that I was faced with this fall, I never realized that learning my culture and taking pride in it is a privilege. What a privilege it is to carry my culture - what a privilege and honor because, if we’re not careful, this can be taken from us, written by someone else and I’ve found that story ends in the erasing of personhood. 

I don’t want to erase my personhood. Part of my personhood is the fact that I am proudly Chinese-American, and the longer I’ve been in Missouri, the less I’ve taken this for granted. I know that to some, I might always have that stamp on my forehead, and I haven’t fully come to peace about that, about my ethnicity being seen and judged before my other qualities. But I do know this: the heritages of thousands of people before me was brutally taken from them. I feel the cries of the Native Americans, the slaves, and the POC’s affected by Missouri’s history when I’m in the Springfield area. It is heavy. It is unexplainably heavy, but I am grateful for the discomfort. I am grateful I experienced a culture shock that shook me down to my identity - because I see with new eyes what thousands before me weren’t able to celebrate. What a gift to see. I take pride for those who couldn’t, I take pride so perhaps others might experience even a moment of culture shock that brings them through their own journey of new perspectives.

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