S8: Reverse Culture Shock (A Memoir)

I was five. It was a hot summer day, and the scorching yellow sun was forcing all the puddles outside to evaporate. I was happily out of the heat and inside a brightly lit air conditioned room. I was in summer camp, and I was busy discussing the importance of markers with my only friend. We did not become friends because of similar interests or complimentary personalities (although we did get along and always had plenty to talk about), but because we were the only Russians in an American summer camp. This was our first summer in America, and while the Americans chatted away in their strange language, the two of us were perfectly content not to interact with them.

It’s not that the American children weren’t friendly. In fact, the opposite was true. They would smile and wave at us, and we would always return the curtsey. If either of us had minimum contact with them, we would brag about that moment to each other. The bragging would always be embellished. When I retold a story, a simple hello might turn into a full length conversation; and according to my friend, a game of chase meant that she found a new best friend. I remember one time when my friend was sick, and I was stuck in the sea of American children by myself. The camp counselor wanted us to stand in a circle and hold hands, and I was afraid that nobody would offer me their hand. However, a girl with shoulder length blonde smiled at me and extended her palm. I happily took it, and from that moment on I considered the girl to be the nicest in the camp. In those days a smile was all I needed to decide if the person was worthy of my praise. When my friend returned to camp the next day, the girl with the blond hair was forgotten, and I returned back to my Russian bubble.

On this particular hot day, the camp counselors announced that we would spend the day outside playing in the water. I’m not sure how I was able to understand this plan. Perhaps the camp counselor made gestures, or maybe I had begun to recognize certain English words. Regardless of how I was able to understand the message, I was very excited about spending the afternoon splashing around in the water. All the girls were ushered into a separate room to change. Our parents must have been aware of the camp’s plans that day, because both my friend and I had swimsuits in our bags. This was the same swimsuit I had worn on the windy beaches of Ukraine the year before, but I was not worried about fitting in. My parents had assured me that this swim suit had come from America, and that all American girls wore similar swimsuits. Besides, my friend had the exact same swim suit. So we put them on, and in our excitement about spending the day playing in the water, we did not notice that the girls around us were wearing a different style of swimwear. We emerged from the room eagerly anticipating the moment we would be allowed outside.

When the two camp counselors saw us they were shocked. One of the counselor’s eyes began to grow large, and the other counselor’s bottom lip fell. They began to talk quickly and in incomprehensible words. Although we did not know what they were talking about, from the tone of their voices and the expressions on their faces, we knew there was something wrong with our swimming attire. We were wearing white bottoms with colorful pictures on them, but we did not have on any tops. As we began to look around the room, we noticed that all the other girls had their chests covered by either a one piece or a two piece swimsuit. The only kids who had bare chests in that room were boys. We were quickly ushered back into the changing room, and the counselors motioned for us to put our clothes back on.

The camp counselors talked amongst themselves, while our fate hung in their hands. At age five, being forced to sit inside while all the other kids are playing outside, is a cruel punishment. The camp counselors must have felt the same way, because they came up with a solution. While one of the counselors took the rest of the kids outside, the other one gave us gray shorts and a gray t-shirt to put on. We went outside in over-sized gray outfits, and we joined the other kids who had already begun to run through the sprinklers and play in the blue plastic pools. I had never done a water activity in clothes, and the wet cloth hung heavily on me. However, I did not care. I was excited to slide down a wet slide and make a big splash when I landed in the pool. Perhaps the other kids made fun of us because we were overdressed, but luckily our English was not good enough to understand. A few of the Americans jumped in the plastic pool where my friend and I were sitting, and we began a splashing war. By the time the day ended I no longer cared that I did not have on a swim suit, and I was happy that the wet gray cloth protected me from the sun’s rays.

When my parents came to pick me up that day, the camp counselors lectured them about my swim suit. It was obvious that was what they were talking about by the way they held my unused swim trunks in the air, and also by the way they were pointing at my chest. They offered to give me a an ugly pink swim suit, but my parents politely declined. A few days later I was the proud owner of a blue-green one piece swim suit that sparkled all over, and that met the approval of all American grownups. I wore my new bathing suit many times that summer, but I do not recall the first time I put it on. However, I do vividly remember how much fun I had splashing water in my friend’s face, how heavy the wet t-shirt felt on my shoulders, and the bewildered looks on the faces of two American women as they stared at the naked chests of two Russian girls.

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