talk about culture shock

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“At last I shall give myself to the desert again, that I, in its golden dust, may be blown from a barren peak broadcast over the sun-lands…If you should desire some news of me, go ask the little horned toad whose home is in the dust, or seek it among the fragrant sage, or question the mountain juniper, and then, by their silence, they will truly inform you.”

-Maynard Dixon, painter (1875-1946)

When folks in Nevada hear that I’m from Seattle, the first thing they say—ninety percent of the time, guaranteed—is, “Wow! What a culture shock, huh?” That phrase, “culture shock,” is repeated, verbatim, by nine out of every ten people I meet. I hear it so often that I can anticipate its every utterance, can visualize the words clearing space in their Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, their tongues forming the syllables as their eyes light up and their lips pucker in what is clearly—clearly—such a ticklishly clever turn of phrase: “Taaaalk…aboooout…culllllture…shooock!” It even rhymes, blast it all.

Now, because I’ve been inundated with this hackneyed line, this droll observation on my current state of affairs, I decided to investigate. Can my perspective honestly be described as “culture shock”? Does dictionary.com’s definition of “a state of bewilderment and distress experienced by an individual who is suddenly exposed to a new, strange, or foreign social and cultural environment” ring any bells for me? Perhaps, I think. Maybe a little.

Rather than bewilderment and distress, I feel the sort of ennui associated with being far from friends and family while stuck, more or less, in one spot. I miss the trees and the ocean, that’s for sure. And as far as social and cultural environments are concerned, I have noticed that quite a few Nevadans enjoy carrying guns around, playing with off-road vehicles, killing animals for sport, and driving large, fuel-inefficient trucks. Around Gerlach, there is even a propensity for men to wear wide-brimmed hats and cowboy boots. But one can find such folk anywhere in the U.S., even in my home state. It’s nothing new to my eyes, just more prevalent.

To accompany my facile assessment of northwestern Nevadan ethos vis-à-vis Seattle, I’ve compiled a list of readily-available statistics:

  • Population in 2012: 190 (Gerlach). 635,000 (Seattle)
  • Percentage of population that is white: 97 (Gerlach); 69.5 (Seattle)
  • Median age, in years: 49 (Gerlach); 35 (Seattle)
  • Elevation above sea level: 3,946 feet (Gerlach); 200 feet (Seattle)
  • Average high temperature in July, degrees Fahrenheit: 92.4 (Gerlach); 75 (Seattle)
  • Average high temperature in January, degrees Fahrenheit: 41 (Gerlach); 46 (Seattle)
  • Average annual precipitation, in inches: 7.5 (Gerlach); 38 (Seattle)
  • Cloudy days per year: 78 (Gerlach); 226 (Seattle)
  • Average annual wind speed, miles per hour: 16.8 (Gerlach); 9 (Seattle)

All of this is to say that yes, I have noticed differences between my lovely hometown of Seattle and the Tatooine sandscape of Gerlach. They are varied and stark. But to call it culture shock is a bit disingenuous. It’s like referring to the stunted junipers around here as “trees”; they’re the size of shrubs, so label them as such. The Nevadan desert provides contrast galore to the wet, wild Pacific Northwest, but it’s no foreign country, no alien planet. (I’m deliberately avoiding mentioning Burning Man here.)

One thing is certain, though: People are as friendly and welcoming in Gerlach as in any other English-speaking place I’ve known. (And the only reason I throw the “English-speaking” qualifier in there is because language, in my experience, can be a hell of a barrier to human relations.) When that dreaded two-word trope comes up, I just want to tell these smiling, well-meaning inquirers, “No, I’m not shocked to find myself in the middle of the desert, actually, but thanks for asking.”

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