With all the travel I’ve done throughout my life, I’ve had my fair share of culture shock. But the one that sticks most in my mind is the very first culture shock moment I ever experienced.
At six years old I moved to Jacksonville, FL. This was my first time leaving Canada. I was excited. Even at a young age I was chomping at the bit to explore new place. We moved during the summer so I started school along with all the kids are coming back from summer vacation. I was just as excited to start at a new school as I was to move to a new town (I guess I could say country as well this time).
I didn’t end up going to the proper school for where we lived, it was over-crowded and wasn’t admitting new students. So, I spent 2 months at a school until they had a spot for me. While attending this school there wasn’t too much “culture shock”. The things that threw me off had more to do with trying to adjust to the school, not the culture. Though I do remember one thing that confused my 6 year old brain. Restroom. The teacher would ask the class if anyone needed the restroom. What’s a restroom? Is it a room to take a nap in? You know, like to “rest” in the middle of the school day. I thought that was an odd concept. This was grade 2, not kindergarten. I found out a month later that a “restroom” is what they call the toilet (or what I would call the washroom).
But moving on…
I finally got into the school I was suppose to attend, two months into the school year. I was the (obvious) new kid. I was trying to figure out a new school while everyone else was already adjusted. I was a fairly shy kid. I also wasn’t the brightest and usually kept quiet during class. So, when the time came for me to answer a question in class for the first time, I was terrified.
I lucked out though! I actually knew this one! I was confident and just as I was about to open my mouth I was interrupted.
“Stand up.” the teacher told me. I closed my mouth and stood up. “Behind your chair”… Okay. This was a little different but I no big deal. So I said my answer, “No”.
I got nothing but a blank stare from the teacher. I suddenly became aware of the rest of the class looking at me as the silence after answering the question grew longer and more deafening.
“Umm… Yes?” I said changing my answer after second guessing myself. Was I wrong and that’s why everyone was quiet?
“Do you want to try answering again?” Finally the teacher spoke but what did she mean again? I just gave the two possible answers. I started to panic. I repeated my first answer with less confidence than before. I looked towards the kids at my table for help since that the blank stare from my teacher returned.
“Say ma’am” the kid beside me whispered.
“… Ma’am?” I said trying not to tear up from the amount of pressure and confusion I’d been feeling over what seemed like a hour. That was it. She agreed with my answer and went on teaching.
Stunned, I sat back down. It felt like my brain was exploding. What just happened? Was she really that upset I didn’t say “No, ma’am”? I mean, this is public school. I’m not in some military academy where I could see that being more common.
But that was it. I was just slapped in the face with culture shock for the first time. It was after this point that I realized finishing sentences with “ma’am” or “sir” was a common thing. The waitress at the restaurant would say it to my parents and all the teachers at school expected it. It’s considered the polite thing to do in the south. Where grew up in Canada, saying “ma’am” and “sir” would be considered extremely formal and unnecessary in any situation a middle-class 6 year old would find themselves in.
And let this be a lesson to those who think that there isn’t much of a cultural difference between Canada and the USA. I’ve experienced more culture shock travelling to the USA than a lot of others… this is just one example.