I didn’t know it at the time, but thinking back, it is clear as day – when I first moved here I had a serious case of culture shock! As a newly arrived expat, I often struggled to parse the cultural cues and make sense of day-to-day life in an environment where I had yet to figure out the context for much of what was going on. Sometimes I think I still experience it, some 20 years later. Coming to live in a foreign country, regardless of how prepared you are, is bound to produce moments, or periods of feeling like you don’t fit in, or that you are not able to read your surroundings. The good news is that the mysteries of your new culture will eventually become second nature. Not everything will feel natural, or even make sense to you, but you will develop the context in which to read the cues.
So, what is culture shock? To know culture shock you need to understand what culture is and how it binds people and communities together. Simply stated culture is the common traits a community shares; it can be as simple as how you shake hands and say hello, to more complicated matters of what kinds of things you find funny. As Globiana’s culture coach Lisa La Valle-Finan says in her course: “Anyone who has relocated internationally will tell you, the problem with culture is not the stuff you can see, like food, music or language… it’s the imperceptible stuff like body language, ideas about time, attitude towards authority and decision-making that are usually to blame”.
If I had been aware of culture shock as a phenomenon, I would have been able to consciously consider my situation and perhaps allowed myself the time it takes to adjust. I would have known that “whatever it is I am feeling, it’s normal”. As it was I recognized feelings of frustration and alienation, but I didn’t really know why or what to do about them. It would have been a great comfort to know that there is a typical pattern of cultural adjustment with four distinct phases: honeymoon, crisis, recovery and adjustment.
The honeymoon phase is what it sounds like, a period where you experience feelings of excitement and optimism. The crisis phase is typically described as the “culture shock-period” where you have feelings of anxiety, confusion and disorientation. The recovery and adjustment phases are different for everyone. How quickly you recover and adjust depends on individual skills and circumstances. Typically, it is gradual as you start developing an understanding of your environment and its people.
There is no way to completely avoid culture shock. However, by knowing about its symptoms and by being aware of some of the effects, you may be able to proactively work to lessen its impact. On the UC Berkeley International Office’s website the list of possible symptoms includes:
- changes in eating habits and sleeping habits
- acute homesickness; calling home much more often than usual
- being hostile/complaining all the time about the host country/culture
- irritability, sadness, depression
- frequent frustration; being easily angered
- self doubts; sense of failure
- recurrent illness
- withdrawing from friends or other people and/or activities
In regards to my own current case of culture shock – or maybe culture confusion is a better description – it has everything to do with graduation preparations for my high school senior. I have realized that I feel so overwhelmed because I have no context for what is going on. I come from a place where we celebrate high school grads with a ceremony and a speech or two. There is a reception and certainly, the graduate will go to a party. However, it doesn’t come close to what is going on here: the sheer number of emails over the last couple of months have me exhausted. There are daily communications regarding everything from pictures to prom to yearbooks and speeches, graduation rings and gowns, and flowers and money (and more money) and the list goes on and on… I feel completely ill prepared! I think I’ll let my American-raised husband be the point man for this one.
By: Felicia Shermis