Culture Shock

By Jordan Freisleben and Lauren Seo

As he unbuckles his seatbelt, Gavin Cook ’10 reaches for his wallet. Looking up, he is slightly surprised to see his mother get out of the driver’s seat, instead of the taxi driver waiting for him to pay. With a slight smile, he realizes he’s not in China anymore.

Expecting to pay for transportation is one of the many habits Cook has carried over from his year abroad in Beijing. He is among the three seniors that have had to adjust from the lifestyle they developed last year while participating in the School Year Abroad Program.

Like Cook, Harper Wayne ’10 has been experiencing subconscious slips back into her French lifestyle ever since she got back from her program in Rennes.

“I still order my food in French in restaurants,” Wayne said. “[It’s strange] that I’m walking around and everyone’s speaking English.”

For SYA students, readjusting is a process that could potentially last for a couple of months, according to school psychologist Sheila Siegel, whose own son (Matthew ’91) spent several months of his junior year of high school in Argentina.

Returning to Los Angeles requires the three seniors to readapt in both the academic and social aspects of their former lifestyle.

“[In France], they give you a lot less work, because [the school] feels like you should profit and not be cooped up all day doing work—so in that respect it was hard coming back to Harvard-Westlake,” Wayne said.

Patrick Hentschel ’10 notes that his Chinese peers were exceptionally intense about their schoolwork. He thinks that most of this stress is due to the national university entrance exams every high school Chinese student must take.

“A strong focus on studies is something I think is just engrained in their culture,” he said.

Cook believes the workload and competitive environment of China’s school system are comparable to those of Harvard-Westlake.

“I thought they were all going to be a bunch of study robots,” he said. “But I went on a five day immersion program in a Chinese classroom and I realized they weren’t as intense as I thought they were.”

Upon returning to Los Angeles, Wayne found the dynamics her friendships at home were different than how she remembered them.

“All of my friends are exactly the same, and I’ve changed while I was there,” she said. “I’m more mature than I was—they’re the same as they were when I left.”

Wayne also encountered difficulties reintegrating into her family life after a year spent with a laidback host family.

“I just fight with [my family] a lot more because they have this twisted idea that I should have a curfew and rules, which is just unrealistic—[in France], I had nothing,” she said. “They just wanted me to use good judgment and to be safe, and they trusted me to know that I would do that, so that was the only rule.”

Siegel agrees that spending a year on one’s own away from family takes a toll on the household dynamics.

“You have to work your way back into a family—if you’ve lived away, you’re a different person, you’ve had a whole different life with completely different life experiences that your family and old friends aren’t a part of,” she said. “You have to work back into the closeness.”

Cook’s experience in China with a dysfunctional host family made him miss the environment of his actual family.

“Living with them made me really appreciate my family on a seminal level,” Cook said.

While he doesn’t plan on taking another year of school abroad in China, Cook plans on returning this summer to the place he calls a “second home”.

“It makes me confident that I could live in a different place,and feel at home in a different part of the world,” he said. “I feel like more of a citizen of the world.”

In Wayne’s case, she feels more attached to France than she does to the United States.

“I didn’t feel like I was coming home, I felt like I was leaving home,” she said. “I made a home there and my friends that I made were my family. I’m homesick for France; never once when I was there did I get homesick for America.”