COVID Shock Instead of Culture Shock

When we moved to Morocco, our school’s orientation for new expat staff did a splendid job talking about Culture Shock and helping us prepare for the likelihood that at some point we would deal with it.  Audrey never did; and Brian did not experience its funky pangs until ten months later as he approached his 50th birthday in a new country on a continent an ocean away from family and friends that he wished could celebrate with him.  He recognized it for what it was, and weathered it with Audrey’s support as they planned a fun birthday evening that filled our apartment with new friends to celebrate his milestone.  (See our 28 May 2017 blog post Homesick in Morocco:  Transition at Ten Months.)

Since coming to our current digs was not our first rodeo abroad, and having seen our share of seasoned expat educators who suffer bouts of Culture Shock despite thinking their previous experience made them invulnerable to it, we anticipated the potential pangs of Culture Shock upon coming to Panama.  As we proceeded blithely through one day after another feeling largely unscathed, when days grew into weeks we also started to feel oddly caught in that “just arrived” stage, curtailed by external forces from experiencing and adapting to our new surroundings.

Our transition this summer into Panama from Morocco, by way of a two-week U.S. stay hunkered down in a hotel room outside Dulles Airport, was relatively smooth, considering we arrived with a mandatory two-week quarantine and the severe pandemic lockdown still in force.  The lockdown continued for several weeks unabated until Panama commenced a slow process of opening up that still continues.  Audrey’s school year started online and will remain virtual until February.  In fact, though we live across the street from the school she was not permitted to set foot on campus until last week.

We had planned to spend a week here last May for house hunting and starting to orient ourselves to our next post; but COVID-19 squelched that plan, so we feel quite fortunate to have found a wonderful house virtually while still wrapping up life in Morocco.  Even better, we struck a deal with the house’s previous inhabitants (an ISP staff family departing for new jobs at a school many time zones away) to buy an abundance of their belongings that they did not plan to move with them.  So despite Panama’s lockdown preventing us from shopping for furnishings and houseware, we arrived with basics covered – refrigerator and stove/oven in the kitchen (critical, because like many places outside the U.S., unfurnished home rentals here generally come without what stateside folks typically consider standard); beds and linens in the bedrooms; towels in the bathrooms; a mix of furniture in different rooms, including a well-outfitted office for Brian’s new home-based phase – to allow us to live a life beyond subsistence while waiting for the Ministry of Health to allow stores to reopen.  That said, with stores now open we look forward to being able to shop for things that will take us from having “a” home in Panama to having “our” home here.

That positive spin of “looking forward” has been ubiquitous throughout the pandemic’s upheaval, and really means that for three months since our arrival we have waited here in Panama, and that waiting goes beyond merely shopping for material things to make home more comfortable for us.  It means waiting – sometimes patiently and sometimes less so – for daily life to resume some semblance of normalcy.  Brian, as a lifelong Catholic (though one who has not gone to Mass since the end of February), is used to periods of waiting:  Advent and Lent come in each year’s liturgical cycle.  But each Advent and each Lent, like in all the years before, promise something wonderful and known at the end of the waiting.

As parents of two children, we also know the patience required to go through pregnancy, with the hope of something wonderful at the end always tempered by never knowing for sure what the result will be until it arrives or how it will change your life until actually experiencing the changes the arrival brings.  But one at least can read books and talk to people to get a general idea of what to expect while waiting nine months.

Since the world changed last March we have encountered many people waiting for normalcy to resume.  Seven months (and the start of a new school year) into the Age of COVID, more people have started to understand that normalcy, as least as we knew it, will NOT resume.  The normalcy we knew left in February 2020; instead of waiting for that normalcy to resume, we now wait for the global disruption COVID-19 wrought to settle into a new normalcy the details of which we still cannot script.  How long will activities and processes of daily life remain disturbed?  When will vaccines and “herd immunity” lower significantly the caution threshold that so much of our former lives, as yet, cannot rise above?  How much will we need to practice social distancing once we do settle into post-COVID normalcy?  When will we feel the desire for in-person social interaction outweighs what seems prudent caution in leading reclusive daily lives?

Add to these the precipitating causes stemming from a mid-pandemic transoceanic move from one country and continent to another, and you have all the makings for COVID Shock instead of Culture Shock.  

Under the lockdown that prevented men and women from leaving their homes on the same days (Monday/Wednesday/Friday for women, Tuesday/Thursday for men) and for no more than two hours as assigned by the last digit of one’s passport or cedula (Panamanian ID card), we could not even shop for groceries together.  More significantly, we could not go to the bank together to fix some issues with the account that got set up only in Audrey’s name instead of both our names.  We could not hunt easily for doctors, language tutors, barbers and stylists, handymen, house cleaners, and other key people on our default “Settling into a New Country” list.  We appreciated tremendously knowing that despite all these impediments, our nascent life in Panama let us exist in far better circumstances than so many here and around the world; yet, still we felt hampered from moving forward as we always have in previous moves, our adept problem-solving skills and experience snagged by unseen but very real grapplers.

Little annoyances became bigger in appearance with no immediate solutions available, and bigger in effect from prolonged periods of being unable to take corrective action.  One day we noticed a rotting sort of smell and figured we had waited too long to take out the kitchen garbage.  But the kitchen smelled fine.  Letting our noses lead a hunt through the house we eventually concluded a critter of some kind had gotten into the central a/c ducts and died.  Without a handyman to duct-hunt and without language skills to search for one, we endured the worsening stench over the next several days, and weeks later we still get whiffs of the unseen.  Likewise, when the washing machine broke we were dead in the water (i.e., the water that flooded the utility room floor) until Brian could find the right store to buy a new one…then wait several days before the store delivered it…then wait several more days before the store sent someone with an electrical cord (since it had arrived without one) to install it.  All told, we endured two weeks without doing laundry and grasped experientially one benefit of the pandemic from having daily interactions only with the one person who had taken vows to love and cherish in clean clothes and in dirty clothes.

Such ballooning of little things into big things, along with feeling unsettled (if not outright depressed), irritable, hostile, confused, even feeling frustrated with feeling frustrated and wallowing in futility, offer classic signs of Culture Shock.  People suffering from it may want to cloister themselves, staying in their small environment they can control instead of venturing out into the new and strange culture into which they have moved that does not make sense to them.  The good news about Culture Shock is that it usually runs a course of several stages from a honeymoon period to eventual adaptation (and even reverse culture shock when expats travel back “home” and discover they no longer fit it, and it them, like before they moved abroad).

Our label of COVID Shock highlights a condition similar to Culture Shock, but with some important distinctions:  First and foremost, while Culture Shock marks a discomfort with one’s unfamiliar surroundings, COVID Shock makes one long for a time and a way of life that came to an abrupt end in March 2020.  Second, as a codicil to that, those suffering from Culture Shock can hope that, if they get stuck in the Irritable & Hostile stage and never adjust to their new surroundings, they can return to their home culture to find that comfort in their daily lives that eludes them abroad.  On the other hand, living with COVID Shock we know we cannot ever go back to our lives before the Age of COVID struck.  Third, while Culture Shock hits individuals as it will in their individual life changes, COVID Shock has struck broad populations.

Four weeks ago, and more than seven weeks after arriving here, we celebrated our first day out together.  With the guidance of an ISP staffer who kindly offered to introduce us to places she knows in the San Francisco neighborhood that she thought we would enjoy, “we” (Audrey) bought the foodie kitchen appliances that “we” (Audrey) had been waiting two months to purchase; “we” (Brian) bought wine and spirits that we had not found in Riba Smith’s alcohol aisle (e.g., banana liqueur to make Bananas Foster the right way…although the all-rum effort a few weeks ago still worked fine); we (both) started looking for furniture that could get our house up to entertaining level; and we (Audrey, with Brian dutifully pushing the cart into which she loaded things) knocked off a number of foodie ingredients we have wanted and finally found at the deli and specialty store where we grabbed sandwiches for lunch.  After a long sleep under lockdown, Panama was starting to wake up as the number of new COVID-19 cases continued to decrease poco a poco.

More recently, numbers are holding steady at around 600-700 new cases a day, which apparently will not overwhelm Panama’s medical resources.  The opening up that started last month continues, and we continue finding our way with what we do amid the daily mix of things changing and things not.  After finally being able to set foot on ISP’s campus, this week Audrey actually had her first group meeting in ISP’s conference room – complete with plexiglas partitions marking each socially distanced seat at the table – and marvelled afterward at the ability to see people in their entirety instead of just their on-screen faces.  She glowed in awe of things like body language and other nonverbal cues so valuable to human interaction.  Meanwhile, last week Brian participated in a virtual accreditation team visit to a school in Africa without ever leaving his office upstairs in our house.  With everyone having polished their virtual skills since March, much of it was like the traditional on-campus accreditation team visits he has done in the past; at the same time, nothing substitutes for actually standing on a campus to look all around during a walk-through or in a classroom observation (rather than seeing only what a camera shows in their virtual manifestations).  Looking ahead…and waiting…we cannot yet plan on in-person gatherings with family and friends:  birthdays, anniversaries, other significant and momentous occasions you want to experience and share with people you love.  Doing this digitally is feasible, in some sense, like the extended family Zoom sessions to meet our new grandson in Morocco, but it changes the “gathering” in fundamental ways:  most obviously, in losing the ability to look around room filled with full-bodied people who own places in your heart rather than seeing a gallery view of disembodied faces on your screen; to touch them as you hold them in your arms or hand-in-hand; to feel their human warmth and, for reassurance, their pulses.  We cannot know whether it will be possible to break the virtual screen borders on human interactions for the milestone birthday Brian’s mother will celebrate next spring, or the 25th Anniversary we will celebrate next summer.

It goes without saying that the most painful manifestation of COVID Shock is when loved ones die and people cannot come together to help and to mourn like “normal” practice dictates.  On September 20, Brian’s stepfather suffered a sudden heart attack and died after chopping wood at his parents’ mountain cabin in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains.  At any other time, Brian would have jumped on the first flight back to the U.S. to be with family, as would his siblings spread from the eastern to western U.S. and the eastern and western hemispheres.  When we moved to Morocco on our first overseas gig, we had to accept the roll of the dice that meant for being able to get back to family “in time” if a stateside loved one suffered a health emergency.  Knowing that reminded us of the importance of ongoing relationship maintenance, practicing the ubiquitous telling people who matter to you that you love them.  Indeed, over our four years based in Casablanca, serious medical events struck family members.  Fortunately they survived their immediate threats.  Without minimizing the significance and difficulty of those experiences, though, before COVID-19 expats abroad could come together, in cases where someone actually passed away, to grieve even if it took a day or so of exhausting air travel to join family and friends back in the U.S.  The Age of COVID, however, robs us of that ability.  Even with Panama’s airport recently opened, best practices preclude siblings coming together from our respective locations around the world to grieve with family and friends that include a large proportion of older and other high risk individuals.  We cannot touch and hug and kiss each other.  Brian, whose newfound flexible circumstances would allow him to help his mother in the aftermath of losing her husband, instead has to do that virtually from Panama.  So we must grieve from here, Charlotte and Zak from Casablanca, and Margaret from Arizona, while we all hope that the world will have settled enough into this new age that we can gather next summer for a memorial to someone we love deeply and whose loss we have to process in ways we never before imagined.

As Panama and the rest of the world moves, if slowly, toward more openness, we find ourselves in a new aspect of COVID Shock.  Instead of feeling held back from what we want to do to acclimate to our new surroundings, now we feel a reluctance to move too quickly too far out of the shell in which we have lived for more than half a year.  One hard thing about getting used to COVID life is coming out of seclusion.  We have done well for seven months spending time together – talking, cooking, watching movies, playing cribbage, and supporting each other when things get hard.  As Panamá opens up, people can shop, go to restaurants, go out to socialize, entertain, go to church, do as they wish.  The thing is, we feel no great impulse to do so.

It is so hard to shake the need to protect ourselves against a potential danger that, even though the chances of contraction are small, we have no control over if we give up our controlled environment.  We love entertaining; but we feel cautious about bringing people and traces of all the places they have been and all the people with whom they have had contact into our house.  We love socializing; but that affords us less control than entertaining in our house.  When a Panamanian friend of other friends in the U.S. that we have known for decades invited us to dinner with his family, we thanked him for his invitation, and said we would love to do it once we are “there” re socializing.  In this odd time, we battle with ourselves existentially over whether to reach out to people about meeting up; but we just have not reached that point.  We find many people who agree there are too many uncontrollables which, even when terribly unlikely to spin into something cataclysmic, have the potential to manifest badly.  We have always told our staffs that “hope is not a strategy” for avoiding bad consequences, and we do not want to rely on hope more than we need to right now in our personal lives when, among other things, our health insurance is still in process.  But we do look forward to socializing with people when the time feels right.  In the meantime, we have the dubious good fortune of Audrey remaining so busy with work that it is hard to find time to go out or invite people in.

It is also good that, for now, culturally it is perfectly acceptable to live in a sheltered manner that previously appeared anti-social or even agoraphobic.  To be clear, we are NOT agoraphobic.  We have no problem going out – or even having people in – when it is called for.  We look forward to “out there” settling – not to mention, eventually, development of a vaccine and/or cure – so that we can resume shopping, going to restaurants, going to church, socializing, entertaining.  In the Age of COVID, we find everyone crawling out of their COVID dens in ways that work best for them, with a general willingness on the part of those emerging more quickly to have patience with the cautious processes of those more timid and cautious about overexposure from emerging too quickly.  While joining or leading virtual school accreditation team visits around the world without leaving Panama, Brian has found others with this same cautious perspective and with the same appreciation for others being gracious about people having different time frames for re-emerging.  And this week, when Audrey had her first socially distanced multi-person gathering in ISP’s conference room, the small group took a photo to memorialize the event for all its significance in the context of COVID-19.

We cannot know now the details of how post-COVID normalcy will look when the world finally settles into it, just as people living in the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 (which actually raged through two years) could not begin to imagine life beyond 1920.  But we know that eventually it will settle into normalcy of some kind.  While we practice flexibility, creativity, and other 21st Century pedagogical skills that serve just as well in life as in the classroom, we appreciate the blessings in our life each day.  (Some days that is easy; some days that is hard.)  One of political geek Brian’s favorite memoirs is No Such Thing As A Bad Day, written by President Jimmy Carter’s Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan, after surviving several battles with cancer and before he lost a final battle to the disease.  That is the perspective we have tried to follow throughout the pandemic, even while encountering so many bad things – whether in our immediate lives or in the world – through the often-pervasive darkness of the last seven months.  Perhaps this strangeness we feel, seeking to be hopeful and appreciating so much that is good without denying the bad or the difficult or the need for caution, fits a poem that Brian’s aunt shared recently with his extended family.

A Blessing for Traveling in the Dark

Go slow

if you can.


More slowly still.

Friendly dark

or fearsome,

this is no place

to break your neck

by rushing,

by running,

by crashing into

what you cannot see.

Then again,

it is true:

different darks

have different tasks,

and if you

have arrived here unawares,

if you have come

in peril

or in pain,

this might be no place

you should dawdle.

I do not know

what these shadows

ask of you,

what they might hold

that means you good

or ill.

It is not for me

to reckon

whether you should linger

or you should leave.

But this is what

I can ask for you:

That in the darkness

there be a blessing.

That in the shadows

there be a welcome.

That in the night

you be encompassed

by the Love that knows

your name.

– Jan Richardson

On your mark, get set, here we go!