Culture Shock, Pediatric Cancer, and Packing for India

IMG_1841Soon. We leave for India soon. The main things are in order. All visas approved and passports back in our possession. We’ve seen the doctors for our travel consults. Shots have been given, prescriptions filled. House-sitter arranged, Ginger-sitters (her favorites) secured, and sub plans begun. We even have the correct converters to charge our devices.

But nothing’s packed and I have a lot of reading to do. Joyful reading though. I’ll be spending the next four months immersed in Indian poetry and literature.

I’ve been thinking about culture shock and the adjustments we’ll need to make. Today in Fairbanks it’s -2 F / -19 C. The weather alone is going to throw us a bit. Especially the girls, who tell me, “Mom, it’s a scorcher today,” when it’s 70 F / 21 C with little humidity here in the summer. Even in January they are going to have to adjust to the heat.

There will be other adjustments. Some I can imagine, some I can’t. Fulbright prepared us though. We got training in culture shock, in how to adjust.

At the training, I was surprised to recognize that life prepared us too. Just about a year ago our younger daughter was diagnosed with Wilm’s Tumor, a pediatric kidney cancer. Her cancer was discovered after the deadline for the application for the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching, but before I learned I was a finalist. I assumed I’d have to drop out of the application process, but the oncologist encouraged me to continue, reminding me treatment would be done for six months by the time we’d leave.

One year later, we’re packing and getting ready to leave. So far all scans have been clear and there’s only one more oncology check up before we get on the plane.

And so, in preparation for leaving, here’s my journal entry from the hot August day I spent in the air conditioned meeting room of a hotel in Washington DC, learning how to prepare myself for culture shock. That day I realized that cancer has its own culture and its own kind of shock.

The consultant tells us to turn to page fourteen in the handout. He wears a suit and has a laser pointer that shines on the screen as he talks.


He has been brought in to help us prepare for the culture shock we’ll experience during our time as Fulbrighters abroad. The India Fulbright Alum sitting to my left leans in and says, “He’s great!” I take him seriously. I will be traveling from Alaska, a state with fewer people than many of the cities will visit, a state that offers the most crystalline version of ‘Murican do-it-myself individualism to India, a country with many opposite cultural assumptions: external locus of control, strict hierarchy, indirect communication, centralized management styles. Not Alaska, for sure.

I know I will experience culture shock in India. I’m surprised as I read the handout to find that the last six months have been a culture shock in themselves, with wave upon wave of aftershock. The list reads like a primer for being a cancer parent.

Taking culture shock into consideration and some other aspects of your new situation, most of you will have to adjust to some of the following factors: 

1. From being in control of most circumstances to being at the mercy of many circumstances that are beyond your control. 

2. From having high self-esteem and self-confidence to having low self-esteem and low self-confidence.

3. From people looking at you for guidance and direction to having to look to other people for their guidance and direction. 

4. From being in a position to make things happen to having to wait for things to happen.

5. From having a support group to having to be much more self-reliant.

6. From working within  a well-defined structure to having to create your own structure. 

7. From understanding most of what’s going on around you to not being sure about much that’s going on around you. 

Yes. Yes to everything but number five. I have six months of culture shock under my belt. I didn’t know until now.

1. I know I control nothing in my life. That what we love most could be lost in an instant.

2. I have felt the lack of confidence that floods in when you’re not sure if your child is going to live.

3. I know what it’s like to accept the guidance and direction of doctors, nurses, social workers, counselors, to hand your baby to someone and wait outside in a hard plastic chair. In that moment, everything you don’t know in the world slumps in the empty chair next to you, squeezing your hand.

4. I have waited for news, for results, for pathology, for medication to take effect, for my own mind to stop reeling so I could finally sleep.

6. I once woke up in the morning and went to work, where bells would ring between classes, and then suddenly I slept in the guest house and wheeled a child back and forth to the hospital whenever our nurse said to go.

7. “Not being sure about much that’s going on around you” is my perpetual state of being. The new normal.

And then there’s number five: From having a support group to having to be much more self-reliant.

Not that. Yes, we were separated from home, from half our family, from all our friends. But so many of you held us. So many of you helped us. In so many ways. We did not feel alone. Gratitude for that, dear ones. The other six would have broken us without that.

This is not to say cancer has prepared us for India. Not true. It’s just that today the handout was completely relevant to my life in a way that left me breathless. That has never happened to me in an inservice before (teachers, you hear me?). In the past six months, our family went somewhere we didn’t understand. We didn’t want to go. It’s not so simple to say we’re back because we can’t be back to what was. It’s just strange for the first time in so many months to feel like I’m looking in a rearview mirror at a place I was, while the car, dented, mud splattered and loaded with baggage, rolls on.


3 thoughts on “Culture Shock, Pediatric Cancer, and Packing for India

  • Yay! Such an exciting adventure for you all!

  • Your writing is exquisite. Your experiences are ours. In fact, your experiences are universal. All can relate – the true sign of honest writing. We know India will provide a respite from last year. “Respite” may seem a strange word to use given the exciting things you will see and do, but all of your shared family experiences will bring a sense of welcome relief. Have fun!

  • Dear Nicole,
    I wish you all the best to you and your family in this new adventure!



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