photo & text by nacrowe
its hard to describe culture shock to people that have not experienced such. its a level of DEPENDENCE and outright VULNERABILITY that is difficult to verbalize for those that have never ventured out of the confines of their native country. ive been lucky enough to have experienced such a few times during my years spent in AFRICA, THE MIDDLE EAST, EASTERN EUROPE, SOUTH AMERICA and ASIA and thing about it is that it never gets any easier. you are basically HUMBLED by the fact that processes and procedures you took for granted dont exist and you are forced to confront your own HELPLESSNESS in a foreign land. in essence you need to adapt to them, not the other way around. it very much is a situation that makes you value the immense cultural and personal hardships that make up the IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE.
SHENZEN: A TRAVELOGUE FROM CHINA (DRAWN & QUARTERLY, 2000) is a graphic novel memoir that FRENCH cartoonist GUY DELISLE wrote about his three-month stay in SHENZEN as part of a temporary position overseeing an animation studio. much like his other illustrated memoirs, this graphic novel is less about his work and more about the CULTURAL DIFFERENCES one comes across as a foreign national in a new country, even for a short stay. SHENZEN is just due north of HONG KONG, but culturally and political is more indicative of mainland CHINA than THE WEST. it is a major business city which means that much of its population is TRANSITORY in nature, with heavy traffic and dense daily geographic population shifts. DELISLE is often confronted with a culture that yields for nobody and has SPECIALIZED RITUALS that dont make run for niceties such as privacy or the celebration of the individual. making friends or acquaintances is difficult due to the LANGUAGE BARRIER, as even ENGLISH-speaking natives are GUARDED and PERIPHERAL with their opinions. there is an unspoken sense of hesitation at saying the wrong thing to the wrong person by his new colleagues, both in and out of work. this never subsides. even DELISLE' learning of a colleague's deep artistic appreciation for the celebrated DUTCH painter REMBRANDT, which he utilizes in finding a book for said acquaintance in HONG KONG as a gift, results in no acknowledged, feedback or verbalized appreciation.
the joy of SHENZEN: A TRAVELOGUE FROM CHINA is experiencing that dilemma anew through the eyes of DELISLE. its impossible to not put yourself in that same space and wonder how you would react to all of these scenarios, in and out of a professional setting. i can say from experience that it is absolutely EXHAUSTING and EXHILARATING at the same time, something you dont fully appreciate until you are back home in more familiar confines. or at least you think such. after a two year PEACE CORPS stint in ALBANIA it took me at least three months to fully be back mentally stateside after a serious bought of REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK. that totally took me by SURPRISE.
i always wonder when reading and pondering over any of DELISLE's illustrated travel memoirs what he took back with him to FRANCE and if REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK ever reared its ugly head on him. its interesting to consider and explore what aspects of foreign cultures manage to grab hold of one's PYSCHE and SELF-IDENTITY and dont let easily go. i know after living in JAPAN for a year, it took me 6-8 months to stop bowing. just became second nature.
photo & text by nacrowe
BURMA CHRONICLES (DRAWN & QUARTERLY, 2008) is an autobiographical memoir by FRENCH cartoonist GUY DELISLE that depicts his yearlong tenure in MYANMAR while his wife was stationed there as part of her work with the international NGO DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS. to state the obvious, this era in the history of MYANMAR predated the military junta's experimental flirtation with democracy and the release, political rise and swift downfall of AUNG SAN SUU KYI. it also predates the genocide currently taking place against the MUSLIM ROHINGYA population in the southwest of the country.
what makes this book interesting, much like his other works cataloguing similar stints in NORTH KOREA, CHINA and ISRAEL, is deft manner in which DELISLE presents a culture through his personal experiences as an expatriate with everyday people. given his status as his wife's "plus one," he essentially uses this unique opportunity to critical examine his daily mundane interactions. this manifests in a narrative that is made up of intimate vignettes about dealing with issues ranging from the systematic (MEDIA CENSORSHIP, GOVERNMENT CORRUPTION, FOOD INSECURITY, INTERMTTENT ELECTRICITY and UNRELIABLE INTERNET CONNECTIONS) to the personal (LOCAL CUSTOMS/FASHION/CUSINE, RELIGIOUS HOLIDAYS, GENDER ROLES and FILIAL PIETY). sure there are times when his observations come off a bit PATRONIZING and even PATERNALISTIC, but in my experience that is part of the process of acclimating to new surroundings and normative culture that differs from your own. so i dont fault him too much for that, in fact i think its a testament to his honesty to include such and gives this graphic novel a sense of authenticity.
as ive mentioned in this forum before, i formerly worked in MYANMAR in the northern city of MANDALAY, which is far from the metropolis that is YANGON where DELISLE resided more than a decade before. there were things i learned from BURMA CHRONICLES about my area, specifically KACHIN STATE which was to my north. i taught children of their military during my tenure and i really had no idea about the jade mines located there and the dismal, sub-human conditions endured there by local workers at the behest of foreign companies (mostly CHINESE). i did not know about the narcotics problem there and how it worked within a broader GEOPOLITICAL STRATEGY by the military junta. of cause looking back, who would have told me? i was literally surrounded by AMERICANS, some of the CHRISTIAN MISSIONARY persuasion so at the very least they were highly unreliable on most any subject.
having been a PEACE CORPS volunteer in ALBANIA i worked in concert with some foreign NGOs so i found it interesting learning about the politics regarding the mission of DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS and the decision matrix they utilize to deem a situation beyond salvageable. in BURMA CHRONICLES DELISLE and his family leave because the organization determined that they were rendering services that should be provided by the government. in essence they were aiding in the lack of development and progress by the military junta. i find that sort of thing incredibly interesting. too often in ALBANIA i felt that PEACE CORPS was more interested in what we got our counterparts to produce rather than having them self-determine and work towards mutual goals. that over time all we provided was a crutch for the locals to rely upon instead of becoming more self-sufficient. it is nice to know in this instance that responsible NGOs take their mission seriously and are willing to depart if the conditions do not present themselves. of course, i admit that an NGO is different than PEACE CORPS, which is an extension of the STATE DEPARTMENT, so maybe those missions and their ethos dont match exactly, but all the same it is not in the AMERICAN interest to have developing countries rely on us for expertise. or maybe it is?
i thought DELISLE did a stellar job of elucidating the experience of adjusting to living in a developing by a WESTERN expatriate, worts and all. i highly recommend this graphic novel to anyone interested in learning about that experience or even a pre-"democratic" MYANMAR for that matter. cant wait to seek out his other publications.