After basic training, my arrival to my first (and only) duty station came as quite a culture shock to me. I grew up in a suburb to Denver, a “typical” middle class area. A place that any ethnic foods aren’t authentic, jalapenos are thought to be spicy, and foreign languages are taught in school for credit requirements rather than necessity.
I was coming from Missouri. My basic training and advanced individual training for the Army were both at Fort Leonardwood. It had been beautiful there, with the hills and dense forests that had gone through the full seasonal change while I was there.
I hadn’t had an assigned duty station when I left for basic training, just a guarantee that I would stay stateside. When I found out I was going to be stationed at Fort Bliss, in the middle of the El Paso desert, I cried. Until then I hadn’t realized how much I had wanted to go to Fort Carson, which was much closer to my family.
Stepping off the plane that night was something else. Everything had stylings of the Southwest. The signs that said “Welcome to El Paso!” also said “¡Beinvenidos!” In fact, every sign in the airport had the Spanish translation, and in many cases, it was the English instead that was in the small print at the bottom of the sign.
I had stepped into another world. I may as well have ended up in Ancient Egypt or Middle Earth for how different it felt.
At first the city was comforting. There were mountains again, which reminded me a bit of Colorado even though they were much smaller than the Rockies I was used to. That was where any similarities to home ended. I had never seen so much sand and flat nothingness in my life. Prickly pear and yucca plants were prominent, but trees were very few and far between and the only grass that grew was on the parade fields or in the rocks of the desert landscaping.
The Army is good about routine and structure, and that helped me settle into my new surroundings without the massive homesickness I tended to get when in completely new environments. Often I was greeted in Spanish first, until I told them I didn’t understand it and only spoke English. Some would give me haughty looks, others seemed resentful about the language I spoke—or in this case didn’t speak. It was very strange.
The move wasn’t all bad or awkward. I greatly enjoy Mexican food, and what better place to find it than a border town? I was also relieved during the winter since I honestly hadn’t driven in snow before and the thought still makes me a panicked bundle of nerves to this day.
I’m not sure how long it was before I felt totally comfortable in El Paso or when it was that I became used to being the local minority. It did hit me rather suddenly though. I went home to visit family and just going to the store and being surrounded by whites rather than Hispanics was so weird to me.
It’s been the norm for me for over a decade now. Jalapenos and chili powder have become a staple in my diet and the way I cook. My pronunciations of Spanish words and names have become so natural that I was asked by a soldier I worked with if I grew up here. Somehow I still haven’t managed to learn the language though.
And now I wonder, with a move to Pennsylvania looming ahead, will I experience a culture shock again? Or will I just have temporary withdrawals without the mom and pop Mexican restaurants and bakeries around every corner?