Saturday, April 11, 2009

Cultural Shock and Assimilation

When I first moved to Lancaster, Pa. from Brooklyn, at age 22, I experienced cultural shock. It seemed that I had moved to a different country and I wasn't quite prepared. Our apartment was on the outskirts of Lancaster, in a small town called Leola, which is in the heart of Amish country. This was not the touristy part of Amish country, but the center of Amish life. Horses and buggies were commonplace; most of the businesses were Amish owned.

There were hardly any Jews or Catholics. Brooklyn was nearly all Jewish, or Irish, or Italian Catholic. I had not met many Protestants.

In my first few days in Lancaster I met a guy who introduced himself to me by saying, "Hi, glad to meet you, but I would like to tell you, there are three things I hate: Jews, people from New York, and people from New York who move to Lancaster."

I did not know quite what to say.

Also, there were no poor Jews. They were all business owners. In Brooklyn, the Jews were mostly lower middle class. No one owned their own home, let alone their own business. I felt totally lost in this new environment. I remember I stayed in my apartment most of the time smoking hashish, which I had brought with me to ease the transition.

My next door neighbor, from Reading, Pa., considered himself more streetwise, less of a hick than the average Lancaster native. He was sociable. He asked me to go with him to a Conestoga Valley Junior Chamber of Commerce meeting. He thought it might be a good experience for me: to get more involved in the local community. I had no interest, but he was persistent. I smoked an extra amount of hash to prepare. I was totally stoned.

When we got there he introduced me. He told the group I had just moved from New York, that I had been a teacher in the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, one of the toughest ghettos in the country. It seemed that one of the concerns of this conservative group was the rising drug use among teenagers. The JCC was committed to a project whose goal was to stamp out drug problems in the Conestoga Valley. They immediately realized that my experience in New York with problem kids who probably used drugs (they did to a degree that was unimaginable to these people) would qualify me to head up this committee. They asked me if I would be willing to get up in front of the group and share my experiences and the ways we dealt with the problem in Brooklyn. I could hardly stand.

I politely declined. I was just readjusting to the area; I did not want to commit my time until I was sure of what I was going to do. They understood, let me off the hook.

This all occurred in the first two weeks of my seventeen year stay in Lancaster. During this time I came to appreciate the area, make many friends, and see that beneath the surface all people are basically the same. I continued to verify this during many other adventures and experiences I had in other countries and with a wide range of people.

What I learned was that when you first meet people and evaluate them you can easily see how different they are. However, when you get to know them better you begin to recognize how similar they are, especially in their problems and fears. When you go deeper still you begin to notice the subtlties of their differences and that even though most people are similar in their desires they approach life with different atttitudes, behaviors, strentgths, and weaknesses. At the deepest level though, we are all the same. We are all connected and we are all derived from the same original source. I can't verify this scientifically but I am confident that it is true and that the key to our survival as a species is the realization of our connectedness and our learning to get along with each other.

No comments:

Post a Comment