Quacks like a duck, but looks like a cat.
This is how my best friend described walking through the local grocery store when he came to visit a few weeks ago. We got into a discussion of such things and it got me thinking. Is this perhaps actually a very clever pithy way of describing the expat life that we have decided to pursue as well as an explanation of why cultures is so overwhelming sometimes.
Quacks like a duck
The phrase goes something like this, “if it quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, it probably is a duck.” Pretty much, I read this as saying if it fulfills most of the brain’s qualities of being a duck, it just gets categorized and treated like a duck. If something is familiar enough then there is a normal way of dealing with it. Ducks are given bread and swim in lakes.They have feathers and Daffy was one.
but looks like a cat.
The problem in dealing with other cultures can be that something doesn’t fit properly into a familiar category and this is disorienting. If an animal quacks like a duck, the brain wants to call it a duck. If it looks like a cat, the brain wants to file it under cat. Cats sleep in the sun and chase mice. They purr and take over your favorite seat on the couch.
Quacking cat or furry duck?
Sometimes you get things like a grocery store and try to use your normal interaction pattern for a grocery store. And then you hit something for some reason that slaps up against that interaction pattern and things get confusing. Somehow then neither pattern of interaction fits and the brain has to deal with something it hasn’t fathomed yet.
This is where I like my friend’s phrase a lot. Both ducks and cats are relatively mundane creatures with very well known patterns of behavior. The fact that these things are so well known makes it all the more disconcerting when they don’t fit into the pattern. The more familiar the object or pattern, the deeper these patterns go and the weirder it feels when things are different.
Familiar but different
A grocery store is a very deeply held pattern for most. Especially in the US, I went to the same store every week buying roughly the same things in the same aisles. The store was roughly the size of a city block here and contained nearly every brand of every type of food.
So my pattern was deeply held. Now I come here and have different experiences. It is fairly common for certain brands of things to go out of stock for weeks or stuff to shift around in the store. Or not be able to find some types of food at all. In Aldi even, it is often a crap shoot of exactly what they will have in general. This is still the grocery store pattern but doesn’t hold the routine stability that Americans are used to in their stores. It quacks like a duck, but looks like a cat.
Subtle Culture Shock
These are the things that seem to be very subtle on the culture shock scale. Seasoned travelers are able to deal with the radical changes. When you encounter something that you expect to be the same because it fits some of the qualities and yet isn’t the same, then it gets annoying. That aspect of the traveler’s mind that can deal with big things just gets sideswiped a bit. The subtler the differences, the harder it can hit at times.
My wife Ali’s thoughts on the sneaky nature of culture shock.
An interesting post from an expat in Sweden about the Expat Blues that I liked.
May 26, 2012 @ 7:46 pm
We are very spoiled in the States. People would freak out if their favorite item went out of stock for weeks. 🙂
May 27, 2012 @ 8:23 pm
Indeed. And that is even to the brand level. What they are out of my exact brand,flavor,size combo? We don’t get so much selection anyway, but it can mean that all forms of some specific thing are gone. Like, no chicken in the meat case at all.
May 23, 2012 @ 4:22 pm
Rice Bubbles??? For reals? Why on earth….
May 23, 2012 @ 8:03 pm
Yup. We found these in a store in New Zealand. And apparently the kiwis know it by this name. I don’t really understand it either.
May 23, 2012 @ 10:26 am
I think people should be aware with this matter and I guess this should be spread too.. Anyway, thanks for the photos of duck and a cat here..LOL..
May 22, 2012 @ 8:32 pm
I hear you about the culture shock and grocery stores issues. In the U.S. we have EVERYTHING!! We really do. The more I travel the more this fact is driven home to me. People will ask me about random substances and objects “Do you have this in America?” and I’ve learned to say “We have everything in America,” because it’s so true. We are so spoiled. In other countries, I can find only a small percentage of what I used to consume in the U.S. Is this a good thing? Well, it kind of is. Proves I don’t need what I used to think I did.
May 23, 2012 @ 1:15 am
The US grocery stores truly have everything. At least in the larger cities with immigrant populations. I am able to get Milka and Kinder chocolate for my husband at the same price you would pay in Germany. The Tommy condiments, all the different juices in the cardboard containers. Large amounts of Polish foods in Chicago make it easy to find some things equivalent to the German product. Including the Banana juice I found for my husbands hefeweizen.
I found some things to tide me over in Switzerland too. Toppas were frosted mini wheats. There was a bag of chips that tasted just like cool ranch Doritos. I bough the Bran from Kellogg’s and then added my own raisins to make Raisin Bran. Switzerland also had the oddity of importing some products from the US since the exchange rate was in their favor. Single bottles of Sam Adams. And oddly enough last August they were importing the cardboard fridge packs of Vanilla Coke. 15 CHF a 12 pack thank goodness I’m not a fan of that. Funny also because you drive a hour to Germany and they have the stuff that is bottled there at normal price!
May 23, 2012 @ 8:05 pm
Wow that is quite a spread.
May 23, 2012 @ 8:02 pm
Exactly, we don’t need what we think we do. I do miss certain things though. None of them are healthy however.
May 22, 2012 @ 11:13 am
Visiting local supermarkets is always one of my favourite things when in a new place, to shock my brain into realising I’m somewhere new.
Often when in a new country, particularly if it’s a Western one, things on the surface look the same. It’s only when you look on the shelves of a supermarket that you realise that you are somewhere entirely different!
May 23, 2012 @ 7:10 pm
Exactly. It gets subtler though. Sometimes the products look the same but don’t act or taste quite the same once you get them home. It feels almost betraying.