7 Books About Culture Shock
The author of ‘America For Beginners’ on books about adapting to a new country
I moved to Mumbai, India almost three years ago so I’m intimately acquainted with the concept of culture shock. When I wrote my debut novel, America for Beginners, I was curious to see how immigrants and visitors responded to the United States, but the truth is, I was curious to see how being outside of one’s native space teaches people about themselves too. Culture shock is, I think, my brain’s resistance to adaptation to what is new and unfamiliar, and that is often a reaction to changing, to being forced or asked to change. What I mean to say is, it’s really more about me than the place I’m being shocked by! What I have learned the most through living in India is about myself, how much I want to belong, and how that desire informs my experience and identity.
The list below are books that help me when I’m in my most, and least, culture shocked moments, sometimes because they advocate for acceptance, for adapting, for openness, and sometimes because they reflect my desire to just get away from it all. These books around all in some way about culture shock, when traveling abroad, when confronting one’s own country or a country one is from. Sometimes the hardest thing is readapting to being in one’s own country, and that disquieting feeling of being an alien in the place you are supposed to belong to haunts some of these novels, while others are about how much better a new place suits the characters, how really, although they are far from their homeland, they are also right at home.
My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki
This hilarious and painfully accurate novel moves from biting criticism to sharp violence and back again as it follows two women, one a Japanese American shooting a television cooking show called “My American Wife” for the Japanese market, and the other an abused Japanese housewife whose husband produces the show. The pinpoint precision with which Ozeki underlines both Japanese and American cultures is excellent and the emotional resonance of the novel is hard to shake.
A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
An incomparable classic, this memoir lovingly and hilariously recounts the trials and tribulations of a pair of British home-owners in France, and the struggles of adaptation and renovation. It gives you serious life-envy, but it’s worth the jealousy. I think of it often, whenever I’m trying to arrange a home repair in India.
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
The second in Ghosh’s masterful Ibis Trilogy, this novel focuses on a Parsi trader in the 1830’s whose yearly trips to China to trade opium grown in Bengal for the British reveal a double life. The way in which Bahram Modie, and the book’s many other characters, navigate (pun intended) their dual selves and identities as they transition between the mores and restrictions of each culture is as gripping as the meticulously researched history itself.
The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
Oyeyemi’s magnificent first novel tells the story of a young girl whose mixed heritage and marvelous imagination makes it hard for her to connect with other children. A trip to her mother’s home in Nigeria unlocks a part of her identity when she meets a new friend, but the fact that her new friend might be more myth than reality is far more than she ever bargained for.
Stranger to History by Aatish Taseer
In this searing memoir, Taseer, the son of an Indian Sikh mother and a Pakistani Muslim politician, explores his own heritage and works to understand his father’s religion through the lens of a journey from Istanbul to Lahore. Trying to understand his own father’s accusation, that he is, in fact, a stranger to history, Taseer seeks out that history.
What is the What by Dave Eggers
A modern classic, Eggers’s chronicle of one of the Sudanese lost boys, Achak, as he flees civil war for life a refugee camp, and finally ending up building a new life in the United States. Achak’s resilience and curiosity about the world is inspirational and his construction of his identity as he shifts through stages of his life and struggles to survive unfolds in a way that cannot fail to move a reader.
Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina García
Following three generations of women from the same family, García’s story is at once epic, shocking, funny, strange and sad. The many characters watch their country transform as they experience their own personal transformations. The longing for a past that never existed, the disassociation from a present that seems unlivable, and the desire for a future that might never come to pass haunts this family. Watching these women try to decide who they are even as the world around them suffers a crisis of identity is engrossing.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Lahiri’s story of two people during Bengal’s Naxalite revolution twines itself up with their concurrent story about adapting to America, to a marriage neither party desired, to a life that feels stuck in the past despite being transplanted across the world. Sprawling and melancholic, the novel is rife with the tension of people who cannot connect with each other, or themselves. Additionally, the description of Kolkata was my first real snapshot of the city where my husband was born.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
One of the best novels I have read in a long time, Nguyen’s novel is masterful, hilarious, extremely well observed and heartbreaking, all at once. Every part of it is just magnificent as a commentary on Vietnam and the United States, but there is a special place in my heart for the passages depicting the bewildering experience the anonymous narrator has as the native advisor on an Apocalypse Now style Hollywood movie for it’s sheer absurdity that can only be actual truth. I have never seen my own country so clearly as through Nguyen’s eyes.
Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett
Pratchett is one of my all time favorite writers and his Discworld series is fantasy blending with satire to perfection. Interesting Times follows his recurring character, Rincewind a hapless wizard, visiting an old friend on the Counterweight Continent (which is not at all like China, not one bit, no). I have read this bitingly funny and insightful as hell book, like most of Prachett’s works, many times, and I always find something new to love. There is nothing like the comfort of a well loved book when you are far from home, or feeling far from your home while you’re in it, is there?