There have been two spots I traveled to that left me with a profound sense of "culture shock." Israel and China. Israel first.
Israel - In 1998 I was sent to Israel to work on a project that involved bringing together Palestinians and Israelis for dialogues on tolerance and understanding. Additionally my work would involve getting to better understand the divisions within Jewish society and helping various groups of Jews work toward better understanding and tolerance of each other as well.
I will not detail the work here because that is an essay in itself.
As someone who is passionate about history, ancient cultures, theology, archaeology and architecture, the trip's possibilities for discovery in all of those areas had me bursting with excitement.
Also, as someone who had, to that point, studied and worked for human rights, peaceful resolution and peace around the world for more than 13 years the projects created excitement and expectations of boundless interest as well.
All that being said, nothing prepared me for what I found when I got there. The sense of history that lives in every speck of dust and building and mind, the stories and meaning imbued in every square inch of space, every stone, every ruin, every building. The realities of hyper-present identity politics, the deep political and religious beliefs of those I met. All of them supercharged and all of them hitting yo in the gut like an unexpected punch.
The animosity, hatred and sense of mistrust and separateness. The politicization of every gesture, word, symbol.
Every corner imbued with the origins of Western civilization, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Standing in a spot in Jerusalem where two hundred yards in any direction would place you at the holiest sites of the three major monotheistic religions.
I spent time traveling all over Israel and I spent time in the West Bank towns and camps.
-The tension you could always feel in the air.
-The dichotomy of being in a democratic country that at the same time is a religious State
-The strange dynamic of witnessing the lives of 4.1 million Palestinians living not as citizens, not as refugees, not as prisoners but in some ways living as all of those.
-The contrast between poverty and wealth (on both sides of the borders)
My time there was an incredible time of study, discovery, pilgrimage, exploration and learning. The projects I worked on taught me much about myself, my beliefs, worldview and capacity for doing good and my limitations as well.
It was a place where everyone on both sides tried to do their best to go about their business normally but always with the undercurrent of impending confrontation. Always with 3,000 years of history floating over their heads. Always with the imprint of the Hebrew, Phoenician, Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Ottoman, British and European cultures imprinted on the faces and places of the present.
To experience Israel and Palestine is to experience the uncounted cultures, wars, rulers, religions, philosophies, successes, failures, fears, hopes, potential and limitations of 3,000 years of history in every breath.
It is a paradox of a place eternally frozen in time and yet always hurtling forward.
The shock is the visceral nature of it all and the way it creeps into your mind, body and soul and leaves a permanent imprint on who you are, how you think, and where you go when you leave.
I took a lot home with me when I left. I brought home antiquities, rocks, dust, books and clothing.
I took home a new perspective on how what happened there and what happens there informs and affects almost everything that happens here in the West. I brought home a shocking sense of how much the smallest word, piece of land, gesture, symbol and interaction is actually important in outsize proportions that I hardly could have imagined before.
Ultimately I was shocked into the realization that some hates and loves are so deeply seated that seemingly nothing can change them.
How do you explain a young college student murdering a prime Minister for negotiating with the leader of 4.1 million stateless people? How do explain a young man willing to strap a bomb on his chest and killing himself and 20 people on a bus?
You cannot explain it, but you can, through hard-won experience understand them as a part of the culture, a part of a 3,000 year continuum. And in the end, it was shocking.