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PHOTO: Rachael Brugger
In my early 20s, I spent a year abroad in Cambodia. Like most people who live for any significant length of time in a foreign country, I went through the various stages of culture shock: honeymoon, negotiation and adjustment. The honeymoon phase was exciting, and I couldn’t wait to explore new places and try new foods, but before too long, I moved into the negotiation stage, where the discomforts of living in a strange land become tough, communication wasn’t easy and something as simple as grocery shopping required exhausting effort. Eventually, though, I moved into the adjustment stage and began to accept the Cambodian culture—haggling at the marketplace, using hand motions and broken language to tell taxi drivers where I needed to go, the sometimes revolting smells of food unfamiliar to me—and I even began to enjoy these exotic differences from my American home.
What I didn’t expect upon moving to our farm in the country—only about 30 minutes away from our former in-town home, mind you—was that I’d experience these same disorienting feelings of culture shock. Perhaps, what added to these feelings of being out of my element is that moving wasn’t a premeditated decision. We were just taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity that arose. But nonetheless, the culture shock has been just as real as what I experienced in Cambodia.
The Honeymoon Phase
The honeymoon phase of farm life started and ended for me before we even moved in. For years now, I’ve been dreaming about moving to a larger piece of land where I could grow a bigger garden, keep some chickens and have breathing room away from neighbors, so when we found our farm, it was like hitting the lottery. There were two gigantic 150-by-50-foot organic gardens ready for us to begin planting, and bees ready to start pollinating. The wildflowers growing about the property captured my imagination and got me dreaming about all the elixirs I could create with them. Trails through our woods satisfied our desires to hike and simply “be” in nature. And the house, well, nothing better could have suited my and Mr. B’s innate differences—the use of old wood throughout and attention to design detail gave the place character, which suited the creative spirit in me, and the thought given to energy savings through each stage of building suited Mr. B’s engineering brain.
I couldn’t wait to move to this magical place, where everything we’d been hoping for would eventually come to fruition. It all seemed too good to be true, and I constantly had to pinch myself to ensure that this indeed was real. Then, of course, as tends to happen, reality set in.
The Negotiation Phase
It’s not that I don’t love our new place—I do! And it’s not that I didn’t anticipate the work that would go into it—I did! But the adjustment to this new lifestyle, which very little in my 31 years of city living prepared me for, has brought on all the emotions. I mean, all of them. And according to the people that explain the psychology behind culture shock, this is to be expected.
The negotiation phase is a time of intense anxiety, as you deal with the frustrations and complications of adjusting to a way of living that you’re not familiar with. In Cambodia, these frustrations came in the form of language barriers and cultural norms. On the farm, it’s more like incessant bug bites and broken-down equipment.
Between the time we put in the offer on the farm and move-in day, spring and early summer happened, so you can imagine what that meant: Overgrowth was everywhere. We barely had enough time to get our things moved, let alone toil away at our day jobs, before we had to get outside and start cutting through the jungle that was our farm. The forest paths that were once there had disappeared, and the gardens ready for planting needed a good tilling before we could do anything with them. (Actually, that last one’s still on the to-do list.) On top of all that, the mowing equipment we bought with the farm broke down, so we had to do some emergency shopping if we wanted to avoid a constant barrage of ticks and chiggers while trying to enjoy our new land.
The stress of moving, of getting our farm in working order and of making decisions we had never had to think about before takes a toll on a person. It takes an even bigger toll a couple. With emotions in overdrive, Mr. B and I have had heated discussions about seemingly small things, like which trees should be trimmed and what areas of the farm should be mowed. And then about even less important things, like where to put the living room couch.
Finding A New Identity
I think what’s made the transition to farm living the most difficult is that our city life is still a part of who we are. It’s hard for me to identify as a farmer or a rural liver or whatever it is we’re supposed to be when I work in town, all of my friends are in town and many of the things I love to do are in town. When I’m at the farm, I love being at the farm—I could spend all day pulling weeds, trimming flowers, harvesting what little we have and planting more—but I also love what town offers. Unlike being in Cambodia, I’m not completely cut off from my old culture. I’m straddling the line. I have my two big toes in two different puddles.
Perhaps it’s my propensity to put things in neat boxes that is making this a struggle for me. Just like the gray area between black and white, perhaps Mr. B and I need to identify somewhere between country and suburbia.
The Adjustment Will Come
I’ve had so many bouts of anger and tears and exhaustion during the past couple months, an outside observer may think that I didn’t actually want to move to the farm at all. I want to be clear about one thing:
That’s not the case.
Culture shock can feel horrible at times, and it can look quite ugly. I’ve even felt guilty over my (very fleeting) moments of ungratitude for the lovely piece of land we get to call home, but I’m learning that I’ve got to offer myself a bit of grace as we make this adjustment. We can’t immediately go from being “city people” to being “farmers.” It doesn’t work like that.
What we can do, though, during those hard moments of exhaustion and discomfort is give thanks for the people in our lives who have been supporting us in this transition: the friends and family who have helped us clean and mow, who have brought us food, who have belayed Mr. B as he’s done some roof work (I’m so glad I wasn’t there to see that one). One day, this place will indeed feel like home—I’m certain of it.