Morocco, Singapore, and Culture Shock in between

October 2013, Tangier / December 2013, Singapore

Morocco didn’t go so well for me.

Culture, cuisine, contrasts. “Morocco is amazing,” everyone told me. “You’ll love it.”

I didn’t though. Stomach sick three days in, then a badly sprained ankle (again) three days after that, I saw a lot inside the couple of lovely residences we stayed in – Dar Jand in Tangier, and Dar Dalila in Fes – but not much else. I was limited to relatively even surfaces and available toilets. Neither occurred in abundance outside of “home.”

The silhouette of residents walking up to the Kasbah lend an otherworldliness to reflections of Tangier’s medina

Of the little I did experience, I appreciated the hours after dark most, when the furnace of the day relented and people came outside to enjoy the night’s relief. It felt like the very walls of the medinas – the ancient cities in these towns – were breathing easier. Shadows made it easier to dial down our foreignness and the crazy light, whether from sun or bulb, bouncing around the old walls, lent a deep mystery to every corner.

Having grown up in Singapore and then lived most of my adult life in Australia, I am accustomed to “old” meaning “one or two hundred years ago,” and realities which were relateable to some degree. Mexico was the first country I met where the phrase “the weight of history” made sense. In more than just architecture and history books, people’s understanding of what they are, comes from a complex narrative that evolved over many hundreds, if not thousands of years. I found the same in Europe, and despite being limited by language, in Morocco too.

Tangier: A boy cycles up the broad, steep path leading to the Kasbah

It is always fascinating to walk on/through a space where the past exists in tangible form – time travel at its best. I find the history of everything that isn’t related to what I am, interesting to a fault, but until lately, never my own. I am a child of two ancient cultures – Indian and Chinese – and I have never known much about being either (what I do know is encapsulated in a Russell Peters joke or two). Practically, growing up in a household where one parent is Indian, and the other Chinese, meant that meals had a greater variety of food than single-ethnicity households, but also that customs concerning behaviour were terribly confusing, and inevitably meant I was continually doing/saying/thinking the wrong thing. My parents were relatively nontraditional – they had to be, to marry each other when they did – but they were respectful of wider community’s expectations, and I was to adjust myself to a set of undefined standards when anyone else was introduced into the mix.

Fes, Morocco
Night markets in Fes

This was baffling as a child and nothing has changed as an adult. Trying to engage with my chindian heritage continues to be fraught with danger. Being back in Singapore for the longest stretch since I left, fifteen years ago, means being dopey and awkward again, frozen into paralysis from being hit from a hundred sides with indicators I can’t decipher. Watching assorted cousins a decade younger than I, move through family occasions with grace, I find myself wondering again who ran the “getting it right” class they all aced. How does one learn these things when every occasion manages to be thoroughly different from all the others?

I had expected a year of living outside my comfort zone to equip me for the strangeness of the country I grew up in. It has to some degree – I can now laugh almost everything off, which causes friends and family some distress  – but in many ways “home” continues to be weirder than anything I’ve encountered in my life.

It’s not the reverse as much as it is actual culture shock. Being surprised by difference is an expected part of living outside one’s comfort zone. To find something that should be familiar and comfortable after a lifetime of exposure and conditioning, senseless… that is the shock.

Tangier, Morocco
A resident walks through a narrow alley in Tangier’s at the end of the day, lost in thought


  1. MartinL says:

    Individuality…….”the state or quality of being an individual; particularly of being a person separate from other persons and possessing his or her own needs or goals.”
    The more one travels, the more cultural assimilation takes place and the more “individual” an individual becomes – a great experience!

    1. charlene says:

      I have never had problems sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb, cultural assimilation or otherwise *wry smile*

  2. greg g49 says:

    And yet, I expect none of those cousins would or could have made these images…

    1. charlene says:

      Maybe, but maybe not :)

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