Blog: Culture shock and awe, whether you like it or not

By Taylor Griffin

NEW YORK – I’m going to be honest: I’ve never developed a huge tolerance for people of different cultures. Not because I was incapable or unwilling; I’ve simply never been around more than a few of them at a time.

During my college years, I’ve had opportunities to talk to others about political affiliations and have gotten into civilized religious debates, both instances opening my mind to new ways of thinking and solidifying my own personal beliefs. But aside from that, my familiarity with the races, origins and languages outside my home was something I didn’t possess. Though Texas is arguably five states in one, we don’t see a drastic difference in ethnicities and creeds springing from each of these parts.

Welcome to Culture Shock City.

While I’m constantly experiencing the “new” in New York City, it wasn’t until this weekend when I saw the bizarre Broadway smash, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” that I truly reflected on the melting pot of gold in which I was living. To my surprise, I came out of the show with much more than a head full of glam rock tunes and a signed Playbill.

As an inveterate fanatic of the killer television series, “Dexter,” I decided weeks ago I would be there to see the TV show’s darling, Michael C. Hall, take over for Tony Award winner Andrew Rannells as the titular character in the musical. Going in, I knew very little about the production other than that people went bonkers when Neil Patrick Harris opened the revival this spring.

Essentially the show is a two-hour extended monologue performed by Hedwig, the “internationally-ignored” glam rocker from East Berlin living with a botched sex change, and her back up band, The Angry Inch. Just by the description, it’s obviously not the snappy narrative style common of toe-tapping musicals—no set changes, little plot and no intermission (yes, Hedwig never leaves the stage). I sat front row to this masterpiece of a show and was quite literally in the “splash zone;” Hedwig spits water on her captive audience and crushes tomatoes together at the end.

Among the seven wig changes and 12 sassy songs—each more daring than the previous—a moving story of redemption, acceptance and platform heels stomps its way to the surface. It’s unorthodox, of course, but unashamedly intoxicating. And even at his third performance, Michael absolutely nailed it. As he transformed more into “she” during the show, Michael’s glittery blue makeup fell victim to the sweat from his brow and streamed down his face, making her tale all the more tragically beautiful.

Coming out of the show, I immediately ran to the nearest Best Buy a few blocks away to buy a copy of the soundtrack. Yes, I’m the one who skews the Spotify demographics, so says my roommate. Upon listening on repeat since Saturday, I’m now hearing the lyrics paint the show’s message more clearly and eloquently.

For all the skeptics out there, the show means much more than cross-dressing, debauchery and fishnets. It’s a story of a troubled soul aimlessly searching for self and societal acceptance, most of her attempts in vain. Beyond the camp and innuendo, we see her pain and vulnerability in rejection, something to which we all can relate. Suddenly, her fluttery lashes filled with tears are no longer of a clown, but of a human soul, and by the end, her sorrow turns into a requiem for her past and a celebration of her future.

I’ve already explained the importance of Broadway in my life in a previous blog post, and this show solidified its significance to me. I love that upon further reflection, a play can have so many interpretations and meanings left to be discovered.

Especially at a time when I’m learning new ideas daily about cultures and myself, this show’s message has had an enormous impact on me over the last week. Besides having new material to jam to on the subway, “Hedwig” has allowed me to open the door of my mind to other cultures and groups of people I would have otherwise shut out.

In a city this size, there’s no avoiding the diversity; in fact, it’s possible to hear five languages spoken in the same subway car. Frankly, it used to make me irritable and uncomfortable to be stuck in a small cacophonic space. Now, I like to listen in and try to imagine what they’re saying.

I love how now I’m so hypersensitive to seeing people of different races and origins that it’s so difficult to pinpoint exactly where a person might be from based on what they’re wearing or what shade of skin they have. Whether or not they are born Americans, immigrants or visitors, each person has a unique story. In that sense, while we can separate people into subgroups based on similarities, it’s impossible to classify just one person.

Among the lessons I’ve learned this semester, I’m most grateful for the opportunity to experience culture shock in the way I have as it’s opened my eyes to my own discovery. I’m flourishing in the constant dialogue circulating about society as a whole that although everyone is distinctive, we all share much more in common than we choose to believe. Despite skin color, religious affiliation, country of origin or sexual orientation, it’s possible and probable to gain a better understanding of self through acceptance of others.

In all, I’m reminded of one of the characters from the musical who introduced Hedwig, cynically saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not…” I guess the same can be said of coming to New York; there will be culture shock, so be prepared. In my time here, I’ve come to enjoy and accept all the cultures I’ve encountered. Though they show me a new element of the world, they have also helped me embrace my full self, whether you like it or not.