The Gorilla’s Arse: Reverse Culture Shock.
Just a few days after returning to the UK having lived for a decade in the Altai Republic, Siberia, I found myself in Norwich staying with a friend. The morning after my arrival, my friend suggested we walk into the city centre together so that I would know my way around. I was touched by her consideration as I wasn’t good with street maps and besides, everyone in Norwich spoke English.
We hadn’t gone far, just ten minutes down the hill and along the river when, as we made to turn right across the bridge, we were faced with a life-sized gorilla in psychedelic attire. ‘That’s the gorilla’, she said. ‘Oh, ok’, I said knowingly, which is what I normally say when I suspect I may just have missed an inter-dimensional shift. Apparently, every year Norwich city chooses a different animal and has several of them made and decorated in different styles and placed at points throughout the city to make a themed trail for visitors to follow. Later the model animals are auctioned off raising money for charity. So, that explained the garden gorilla.
We walked on towards the cathedral. I was keen to see the library, as I needed a quiet space in which to prepare materials for the translation project I was doing with Altai elders. The whole of the front wall was made of glass. The reading rooms were light and spacious and to my surprise another gorilla painted in silver chrome plating stood in the entrance hall….
The next day I came to the library with my laptop tucked into my orange backpack. I tried to work in the library but was so tired I fell asleep at my computer. I had a latte coffee and a piece of carrot cake in the café opposite which made me feel sick, so I left.
Just outside the café opposite the entrance to Primark I noticed another life-size gorilla. It was facing away from me gazing in the direction of the cathedral so I was approaching it from behind. The snow leopard expedition through the Altai Mountains that I had recently participated in where the snow leopard could be seen ‘live’ in its natural environment was fresh in my mind. There in the mountains, creative representation of wild animals could be found in the rock art that marked the landscape and held secret meaning for the communities that had lived there so many centuries ago.
By comparison with a landscape still ‘intact’ the gorilla seemed a preposterous example of the animal kingdom and Norwich city centre such incongruous habitat for the beast. Here, the only large animal to be seen had its backside painted in flowers. I sensed an intense wave of confusion rock through my body faced with the lack of logical order that existed in the space between culture and local landscape I had totally forgotten could exist. I was distressed and dizzy.
Nearby a couple of street musicians were performing. I stopped to listen hoping their sounds would quiet my mind. I squatted on the concrete steps opposite them half-expecting a ‘babushka’ to wave her hand at me in despair predicting that my womb would fall out as had once been the case when I was lost in the Moscow underground. The musicians were singing ‘Wish You Were Here’, by Pink Floyd. I listened to the words and felt lonely for Altai and for my newfound Russian capoeira friends. How I wished they were here, or that I was there, somehow together again. I put some coins in the musician’s guitar case.
Then they played ‘Hallelujhah’ and listening to this song I could not hold back my tears. What could be the meaning of a gorilla with its backside painted in beautiful flowers dominating the slabs outside Primark, just 2 minutes from the awesome beauty of a Norman cathedral? What did oysters have to do with the tube station? What had happened to my family?
I heared the sound of dry rustling leaves that were crawling along the pavement in the breeze. The sound of the leaves reminded me of the sweet language of the waterfalls and forests of Altai and I looked down at them with gratitude only to discover that there were no leaves, just the white plastic lid of a MacDonald’s milkshake carton, which must weigh little more than an autumn leaf. I yearned for Altai in this moment, for its meaning, its nature where one could always return and be greeted with kindness.
I wanted to reach across the thousands of miles and cry out to my close ones in the mountains: “It’s not too late! Don’t let this happen to your land! You can still choose for your culture to sing the song of the spirit of sacred Altai and for the language that whispers in the air to be that of grace and not a worldwide hamburger fast food chain!”
I could no longer contain my emotion. I turned my face away from the musicians, stood up, and made my way through the streets. I was mad with confusion and intense loneliness. I thought back over all the weird things I had witnessed whilst living in Altai, like how on International women’s day, celebrated at the onset of spring, a woman in the local store had punched me in the stomach because she had burned her new saucepan, or how the throat singer had stopped the rain storm by whistling to the birds when the orphans were getting dripped on in their beds at night. None of that had seemed strange. Had I so thoroughly grafted my soul into Siberia that even my own homeland had become alien to me? I stared at the gorilla’s backside painted in pretty flowers and felt the burning insult of my disorientation. I could only expect it to fart.
I walked as far at the restaurant near the pedestrian crossing and saw a man sitting on the street in a doorway with a small Jack Russell tied to a lead which was wrapped around his ankle. He was rolling a cigarette behind the dog bowl. I called out to him, ‘Hey mate, do you think I could get a cigarette?’ I knew he was taking in my teary eyes and he said: ‘Sure mate.’ He searched for a paper and asked: ‘Are you alright?’ ‘Yes’, I said. ‘I’ll be ok. Are you alright?’ ‘Yeah’, he said and proceeded to tell me the story of how his dog had saved him from a boat fire. Having chatted for a while, panic left me. We were both displaced. He was homeless. I’d stared reverse culture shock right in the face and found it to be a gorilla’s arse.