Embracing Culture Shock

Frank and I are on a movie-watching roll and saw Silver Linings Playbook last weekend. I cringed through the entire movie. The drugs! The fighting! The social awkwardness! Yikes!! Frank thought it was hilarious. While the details are different, the film itself reflected his life growing up in Philadelphia in a loud, feisty, passionate family.

Growing up, I always thought I came from a loud family. My mom is one of seven siblings, so family gatherings were filled with kids running and playing and adults talking and laughing. What I didn’t realize is that there are many different kinds of loud. My family’s loudness came from many conversations happening at once. If you were able to focus only on one, it wouldn’t be all that loud in itself.

Frank’s family is large, but each conversation is also loud. When I first met his sisters, I wondered if they were upset with me. Frank looked at me quizzically and said, They’re just talking! He grew up in a Jewish-Italian family and in our holiday trips back east, I’ve encountered many cultural experiences – from the Feast of the Seven Fishes and midnight Mass to weddings and smorgasbords. Each time we go back, I’ve experienced less culture shock, but no matter how much I prepare, there always seems to be some shocking moment.

In college, I always thought it would be amazing to marry someone international. We’d raise our kids in a cross-culture environment and they’d get a well-rounded life experience. Lack of prospects as well as the reality of the exhaustion of living abroad brought me back home and, a few years later, I met an American. What I didn’t realize is that, even though we have similar pop cultural backgrounds, there is a definite east coast – west coast divide. Maybe it’s not the extreme cultural differences of separate nationalities but there are definite new cultural norms that we’ve each had to learn.

Once I started viewing our Philadelphia trips as a cultural learning experience, rather than a stressful navigation in family dynamics, our trips became easier. Maybe they’re not completely drama-free, but I’m not sure they’ll ever be, and I’m learning to adjust my expectations.

Pizza at the Jersey Shore last Christmas
Pizza at the Jersey Shore last Christmas

I am thankful that Bea will grow up with both experiences: From my family, she’ll learn how to throw beautiful dinner parties and extend gracious hospitality. From Frank’s family, she’ll learn to loudly embrace anyone, no matter their background. Both our families value hospitality and inclusion, but they are modeled in vastly different ways. And, while it’s shocking to me, I’m glad that she’ll be able to navigate those two coasts and mentalities from a young age.

What about you? If you’re married, are your in-laws similar to your background or do you navigate cultural differences? Do you embrace them or are they stressful?


“Come! Come, ‘Ma’oes!” Bea eagerly led any guests to our home straight to the tomato plants, towering over her 11-month self. Once she discovered our garden, and especially the delicious cherry tomatoes, Bea wanted to share her wealth with others. At any given moment, her small mouth would be stuffed with red (and often green) tomatoes, as though the plant would suddenly wither and she would have only what she had squirreled into her cheeks.

Tomatoes off the vine
Tomatoes off the vine

Many guests over the summer bonded with Bea behind those tomato plants. You knew you were part of her pack if she led you to the raised beds at the back of our yard. This small act of hospitality reminded me how simple giving to our friends can be. People were delighted to share her tomatoes, and not just because she was adorably offering them. I don’t think relationships require much, and I often need to remember that generosity and hospitality can start with simply sharing a few cherry tomatoes off the vine.

Linked with Lisa-Jo Baker’s Five Minute Friday, a time to sit and write without editing for 5 minutes.