Tag Archives: Culture shock

Randy Ford Author-on clashing cultures

      The transition would give us some trouble.   Training would prepare us in a number of ways, according to how receptive we were; and we were tested and had it defined for us, we had the terminology: it was what was called culture shock.   Where most of us came from added to it.   I thought because most of the people where I grew up drove cars that most of the people in Manila would also, not that a car was that important to me then.   But there was a time in high school when I had to own a car…normally even then I had to earn my own money and paid for a car from the money I earned…once in Manila I quickly saw I was mistaken.   I had almost no idea about how other people lived.   All I knew was that by and large I had been better off.   I saw immediately more poverty than I was use to.   It was easy for me to feel privileged and see why so many of those people wanted to come to the United States, as if I really knew what they thought or wanted.

      I began thinking this way before I finished training in Hawaii.   I was from a blue-collared, white family.   My father worked hard for what we had.   It would be hard for me to explain to Filipinos that we weren’t rich.   (Ironically, I would end up working with Filipino movie stars, therefore among the wealthier people there).   When people like us shopped, we shopped in a supermarket; when we wanted something, we went out and bought it.   How could I explain that my parents mostly bought things on credit.   They would be in debt most of their lives, in that way the bank actually owned our home.   All kinds of things like that came to me as I thought about Filipinos wanting what I grew up with.   Yes, I assumed they wanted to live the American Dream.   It would be something that I would take for granted.   I thought that if they had the chance, everyone would come to America.   And that was a notion I would carry with me to Philippines.

      This was the dream I thought I should share and declare by the example I set.

      There was a restaurant in Hilo that volunteers went to unwind and celebrate.   It was Hawaiian.   It had atmosphere, with torches lighting the way to the entrance.   It cost us more than we could afford on our Peace Corps budget.   We preferred this place to a luau, and to get in practice we would all order halo-halo (a Filipino ice drink).   It was near there that we attended a cockfight one night and saw our first Filipinos in action.   I went and sat in the bleachers.   I saw the furious betting and the flying feathers, the death, the blood.   I thought they should’ve outlawed cockfighting, but these were Filipinos.   And then I thought they shouldn’t have brought the cockfighting with them, or they should’ve stayed home.   Beyond that I didn’t know what to make of it.

      So right from the beginning there was this complication called prejudice.   I was aware of it, but I would let it slide.

Randy Ford

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Randy Ford Author-on an American becoming more Filipino than the Filipinos around him

      Much of it is hazy now, a blur.   But waking up to the sounds of honking that late afternoon so long ago, the constant sounds of traffic just outside our hotel window connects me today with waking up in a foreign land for the first time.   With the jet lag, before there’s precise awareness of time and place, the slow waking up in a different time zone having lost a full day: little of this comes back to me tonight.   I don’t remember much.   There is, however, a lot of Manila still with me…traffic and more traffic without the rules we know in the states, from getting around in jeepnies to plowing through high water during the monsoons.   I’m not sure now whether some of what I remember is accurate or not.   And if I were to write a pure piece of fiction about Manila now, fiction or non-fiction, I would still have to go back there and try to remember the little details that are now lost.

      The Manila of those first few days was crowded and fast moving.   The shock of facing so many new things at once hit me right away.   After I got over that, and the strangeness of the traffic, I was able to navigate the city as well as any native.   From my point of view, Manila had become as much my city as theirs.   I enjoyed it that much.   It exhilarated me.   But after living there two years, I eventually realized that Manila could never really become my home.   I would always be a stranger there.

      There was the language, Tagalong…officially Filipino…that I never really mastered.   Not knowing it well separated me from my Philippine friends.   I also have to acknowledge that we didn’t share a history, or the little bit of history we did share had been far from positive: it would’ve been impossible for me to change the color of my skin, or revolt against myself for long.   To compensate I feel I would’ve had to become more Filipino than most of the Filipinos and Filipinas I knew, and on occasions I did just that.

      Here’s one example.  For a dramatic production, I turned the underground dungeon complex at Fort Santiago (a national shrine) into a “happening.”   One night during the run a nun walked through the show and something happened to her that really upset a Filipino audience member.   The nun stood nearby and wasn’t nearly as upset as he was.   He was yelling out of control.   The nun had been “touched” in the dark.   She had been “violated” and the Filipino had taken it on himself to defend her honor.   (Defending one’s honor in the Philippines has fueled feuds that have lasted for generations, the subject of my first novel.)   At this point, none of the Filipino and Filipina crewmembers seemed to know what do.   Meanwhile, this guy was escalating.   We had a sizable audience that night.   Everyone was standing around, and this guy was ready to pop somebody.   So I had to do something.   It was my production.   So I went to this guy and took his hand, taking his hand was the key thing I did to calm him down.   At that moment, though I was from another world, I acted as a Filipino, more Filipino than the Filipinos around me did and salvaged an incident that could’ve turned violent.   My intervention worked; the nun thanked me.

Randy Ford

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Randy-Author on clashing cultures

      It took a long time to get everyone set.   He had us stand just so and he knew what he wanted.   He had in his mind an idea of how a photograph of his family and us should look; some private concept of formality and perfection.   We never would’ve been so precise; he was not satisfied until the feet of his two sons were pointing out, just so.

      While we arranged for a bargain flight out of Djakarta, our Indonesian host had opened his home to us, allowing us no more than a passing glimpse of him and his family.   Throughout Indonesia, this had been the case; everywhere we went people provided us with food and shelter.

      Rejecting these offers would’ve been rude and misunderstood.   Often, in rural areas, we would be summoned or ushered to the village leader’s office or home.   There we would be put on public display (how it felt), generally in a room full of men with children and women peering through the windows.   Then, after our passports were passed around to everyone in the room for inspection, there would almost always be a long debate, sometimes heated, over who would take us in for the night.   (Our passports took such a beating that we requested a letter of passage from the US Embassy and that seemed to suffice.)

      We were both thankful and annoyed.   That, I’m sure, eschewed our perception.   Sometimes we were gracious and sometimes not.   It would be easy to attribute our reactions to fatigue and shock, as in culture shock.

      I think the differences went beyond this.   As much as anything else, it was related to our Djakarta host’s insistence, for the photo, that his sons’ feet be pointing out.   But the two cultures represented here will always be different, or let’s hope so; he needed the picture to be just so, which perhaps his culture dictated and ours did not, at least to that degree.   When traveling it is best to savor these differences, even when (let’s personalize it)…even when it rubs you the wrong way.   It should be taken as simply part of the experience, one of the main reasons I think for traveling.   It is something you better accept, or you better travel in a bubble.   That’s also okay for there’s no legitimate way of traveling, but if you’re not “easy,” you can lose the point of it.   And miss out.

Randy Ford 


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Randy-Authors going to India with contrasting points of view

But I’m sure it was more than mystical experiences that brought my friend Ray Huebner to India.   Was it his aim to see the world, or was it to experience the world, a thorough exploration, which included living in various countries?

A little background.   Our running into each other in so many places wasn’t easily explained.   Mere co-incidences or something else: somehow, without planning it, we followed each other around the world.   Six years after saying goodbye at Baylor University in Waco, and without any contact, he suddenly appeared at our door in Manila.   He had been in the Peace Corps in Africa and came from Hong Kong, where I believe he worked for a short time as a reporter.   He was an editor of the Baylor college newspaper when we said goodbye, and after the president of that university closed our production of LONG DAY’S JOURNEY, an event that changed my life and sent me to Trinity University.   Ray, also a drama major, stayed at Baylor because of his job on the newspaper.

Somehow after both of us had lived and worked in the Philippines, we connected again in Bangkok, Bombay (Mumbia), Vengurla (India), and Prescott Arizona (and all of this before the invention of the Internet).   Whose fault was it?   Each time we said goodbye one of us would say, “I guess we’ll never see each again.”   It turned out to be something we could smile about.   Frankly, I would like to see it happen again.

Ray spoke of staying in an ashram and that interest me, but not as something that I would go out of my way to do.   Had it been I would’ve gone as an observer rather than a participant; during our travels Peg and I had been in and out of many churches, mosques and temples without having a mystical or religious experience.

Ray was in fact looking for a different experience than I was; as writers we had switched emphasis, which meant he had moved away from his journalism, away from being an analytical and objective observer to a more impassioned one.   An inaccurate observation perhaps (I’ll chance that), but with his use of hashes and his long hermitage (days-long) on the beach at Vengurla, he was indeed searching for something many people go to India looking for.   It may explain why he spent more than one day at the Taj (and remember we skipped it: by then we had been on the road without a break perhaps too long); and he also “experienced” it at different times both day and night.   It also shows a contrast between him and me.   It is unfortunate that we haven’t stayed in touched.

What interested me more than the mystical was the encounter between the American and the Indian, the latter represented by Hindus and Muslims.   No better example of that occurred on the beach at Vengurla between Ray and several boys who stared at him until he became upset.   It was an encounter that turned hostile.   For Ray the hostility wasn’t as strong as with other Westerners.   In a similar situation the hostility resulted in rock throwing and epeteths (the incident I’m thinking about occurred in Heart Afghanistan between an American expatriate exiled in Sweden and his girlfriend and again with some boys who this time started throwing pebbles.   The boys threw the pebbles out of curiosity; in return the American threw rocks at them out of anger.   As I remember, when Ray got up from his meditation to piss and unzipped his pants, the boys didn’t move.   They still stared at him and maybe even gawked.   So Ray said in response  “and circumcised too!”   As if to say, “I’m circumcised, damn it!   And you’re not.”   Or “I’m different, get it?”   Or “this may be your country, but this is my beach, so scram!   I’m here for the sunset and from that somehow trying to figure out the meaning of life, scram!”   Or “you can’t appreciate what I see.   You’re looking the wrong way and at the wrong thing.”

Pretty mild, considering.   I’m pretty sure the boys didn’t understand him.   To me the moment was precious and was obviously something I’ve held onto.

More later, Randy Ford


Vengurla is not Goa, the precise reason we chose to stay in Vengurla for a while and not Goa.   We didn’t want to get mixed up with other Westerners, though that’s what happened anyway.   When we traveled we tried to have as much contact with native people as possible.   We did so by avoiding hotels (bicycling also helped) and that was how we got invited to take a room in a hospital.   (Long ago it had been established by American Methodist missionaries but no longer had an affiliation.)

I fail to see why attempting suicide would be against the law anywhere, as it was in India then.   This attitude might be interpreted as unsympathetic, particularly when it could land you jail, which leads to a specific incident in Vengurla.

I was reluctant to get involved, after first hearing that “a western had jumped off the steamer to die” and was languishing in the local jail; my habit of extending myself hadn’t yet nudged me into action.   It was part of what I could call “playing it safe.”   I didn’t want to get involved with drugs.   I immediately assumed that this incident had something to do with drugs.   I knew as a world traveler getting caught with drugs in some countries carried stiff penalties.   That attitude and fear also had something to do with why we didn’t end up in Goa and never joined the drug culture.

(As an aside, a long time friend of ours visited us in Vengurla and brought with him a pouch full of hashes.   He spent a number of days on the local beach smoking while seeking mystical enlightenment.   I read the Bible and he smoked hashes.   And what a beach that was, miles long and perfect: any place else someone would’ve built a Hilton on it.)

For several weeks the Westerner (he turned out to be Austrian) who “jumped to die” sat in jail, on the floor, for they never gave him a chair.   He was dealing with not being allowed to contact anyone from the outside, and his fate seemed sealed, with no pleader or lawyer.   Without a pleader, he didn’t know how complex or political his situation was; and there was no telling how long he would have remained locked up if I hadn’t gone to see him.   “Jump to die?”   He told me he had been pushed off the steamer.

I hired a pleader for him, because I couldn’t believe his situation and didn’t care whether he had been pushed or jumped.   The pleader convinced the authorities to immediately bring him to trial and, in a language we couldn’t understand, won the Austrian’s freedom.   (Sorry, I’ve forgotten his name.)

In Vengurla his freedom, it seems, would’ve been of short duration.   When he got out, I brought him over to our hospital room and suggested that he spend the night.   At first, he agreed.   He had lost his clothing, needed clothing, so we rustled some up for him.   He seemed antsy and spent five minutes or so running up and down in front of our room.  (It opened onto the road).   “Freedom,” he shouted. “Freedom!”   Like a wild cat sprung from a trap, he ran.   We again tried to convince him to stay.   We really did.   He ate something before he left in a hurry.

It wasn’t easy to understand why he was in such a rush, and partly because I hadn’t been locked up.   Not until morning did the picture become clear.   We knew the head police officer, a Muslim, who had us over to his home for dinner.   “Your friend?” he asked, before asking where he was.

The actually words the officer used are long gone, but it was absolutely clear he wanted the Austrian for something.   Winning his freedom had clearly not been the end of it, a fact confirmed when we later traveled to Ratnagiri, the district seat of government, to renew our visas.   And when he found out we had been living in Vengurla, the immigration official asked us if we knew about the “trouble” there involving a Westerner, and added that they had been looking for him.

Hazards of traveling in a foreign country were, and remain, real; and language increases the risk.   So it seemed prudent for us not to let on that we had been involved with the Austrian.   When we lived in Vienna, I ran into him again; this time on the street.   “Good to see you,” and all that.   I invited him to our flat for supper.   The excuse the Austrian gave for not accepting my invitation was that in the morning he was on his way to prison and wanted to enjoy his last night of freedom.   He said he hoped I understood and told me to give my regards to my wife.   I consoled him, but he acted as if it weren’t a big deal.   Just a drug charge.   That was his attitude, or was it a front?

Randy Ford


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