Sunday, January 08, 2006

Culture Shock

from The Urbanite -

After I spent nearly a thousand dollars and six hours at the Motor Vehicle Administration, my 1989 Mazda passed the state inspection, and now the back of my car proudly displays a new Maryland plate. However, the screws holding the Washington, D.C. front plate have refused to budge, giving my car a disconcerting—if not illegal—dual identity.

In downtown Baltimore you’ll find me working for a large humanitarian aid organization in disaster response. We work in places where people, sometimes against their will, sometimes by free choice, are thrust into new environments amid unknown faces, languages, and cultures; people who, like me, suddenly find themselves dependent on the kindness of strangers.

“Is Centre Street that way?” I ask the man at the bus stop.

“Honey!” He laughs and points in the opposite direction. “Turn around!”

This, I think, is how refugees, hurricane victims, or newcomers must feel. They must close their eyes and take a deep breath before opening the door, wishing that when they exhale and open their eyes they will step into a familiar street with familiar smells and sounds and people.

But the life they have left—the life I have left—is not there when we open our eyes. We step through the door hearing the wind whisper “you don’t belong here,” and finding our place will be like wrenching out the rusty screws that hold my front license plate. Necessary, but painful and daunting and sad.

Kelsey Hoppe is the Indonesia program officer for disaster response at World Relief. She lives in Mount Vernon.