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Culture Shock

Whether we call it Cross-Cultural Adaptation Stress, Intercultural Adjustment Disorientation, Displacement Anxiety, or Culture Shock, it remains as a genuine part of almost everyone’s sojourn abroad. We might have our own perspectives and definitions of culture shock, through the variations of our “shocking” experiences, but there is a widely used definition for it.

Coming from late 20th century studies by prominent psychologists and sociologists, cultural shock is generally defined as a state of confusion and anxiety affecting a person suddenly exposed to a different culture or environment.  A new cultural experience will usually shock us in unique ways, so some elements of distress are inevitable. Positive outcomes do exist; however, unpleasant experiences are to be expected.

Culture shock is not an isolated phenomenon. It has four progressive and interrelated stages. The first stage is the “honeymoon” stage, which is filled with newness and excitement. Everything is new – people, sights, food, climate, language, social customs, expectations, and so on. The initial excitement usually overrides the stress and anxiety of being in a new country and culture.

Then, as the excitement wears off, the realities of living in another country sink in; that is when disenchantment and homesickness kick in and one enters the “crisis stage”. Speaking another language all day, being far from home and missing the support of friends or family may drain us. We may begin to feel sad, critical, and frustrated and doubt our ability to adjust to this new place. When things frustrate us more than usual and we find ourselves desperate for the priceless comfort of being at home and withdrawing from the new culture, we may develop an ‘us versus them’ view and want to return home. 

With time, a growing understanding of the new culture usually develops and we enter the third stage. In the “recovery stage”, we try to make the best of the time we have in our new environment. Social customs, norms and expectations become clearer, and we have found our niche in our new world, knowing where to shop and finding friends to share fun activities with.

Finally, we enter the “Adjustment stage.” Our house will start to feel like home, and we become familiar with people around our work or school. We can recognize faces and places in the streets and we can even navigate around a couple of places without our GPS. Thus, we settle in and start to feel confident and successful. We are thus becoming bi-cultural. Returning to our home country may also involve a significant readjustment. Difficulties adapting to life back home are to be expected. This is called reverse, or re-entry, culture shock.

Many people have their own individual experiences with culture shock. In interviews, people from a variety of backgrounds spoke with The Seattle Collegian about their experience with culture shock. An interesting account of a teenager who moved from Helsinki, Finland, to Charlotte, North Carolina, explains some differences, which genuinely shocked her. Firstly, she was surprised about the manner of greetings. “In Finland, a “how are you?” question will get you a long explanation about what is happening in the person’s life,” she said. In America, “how are you?” is just another way of saying hello.

She also mentioned the relatively “huge” meal sizes served in the US, as from her Finnish background she is used to smaller meal sizes. She added that the difference in units of measurement used in America threw her off, an experience shared by many immigrants to the U.S. Most countries use the metric system, including my country, Ethiopia, which makes me relate to her shock. The commonly used units of measurement in America, inches, miles, and feet, are rarely if ever used in other countries.

Another woman, this one an immigrant from India, said she was shocked when she saw a couple kissing in public. She said, “In India, people would go on rallies holding banners begging the government to separate boys and girls”. To see such public displays of affection was very strange to her.

In the documentary “God Grew Tired of Us”,  a remote tribe of Kenyan boys who lost their families during the war are brought to America as refugees. We see these boys facing a hard time adapting to their new surroundings. On the flight that was taking them to the U.S. they were given chocolate, which they described as tasting like soap. Additionally, being used to boiled potatoes, they did not quite enjoy fried chips.

This is not where the cultural confusion stopped for them; they described how people traditionally offer strangers refuge in their homes, yet in America if someone sees you wandering around in groups, they will notify the police immediately. “People are not friendly” they said, filled with gloom about their new experience. One of the sojourners said “I don’t know how we are going to survive this” at the conclusion of the documentary.

Going outside the US, we see the experiences of a British man in Vietnam. He articulated his first eight months in Vietnam as being filled with moments of “that’s nuts”. He talks about how the lack of a proper traffic system was a huge shock to him as a person coming from a Western country. He also tells of how getting used to how loud people speak was a challenge for him. “Initially, I thought the people were about to fight… until I realized they were just having a normal conversation”, he said. Disorder is not just on the road with traffic jams, he adds. He mentions how lack of respect for taking turns and not forming cues frustrated him. “It all took time for me to get used to it. But even after living here for two and a half years, there are still things that upset me at times”, he concluded.

China might have people with similar looks, yet they have very diverse traditions, which for many people are challenging to get used to. One such challenge is the lack of choice or limitation of freedom. The conservativeness of the Chinese government is reflected in its culture. There is somewhat of a lack of choice. Curfews are common restrictions. Gates are closed at night, preventing entry or exit. For foreigners who are used to going out at night and getting beer with friends, China might not be the best place.

In China, some foreigners speak of experiencing what’s called the far – away stare (tropical stare). I would argue however, this is common in many countries where the locals stare at sojourners. A shocking difference in what are considered manners for newcomers and Chinese locals exists. Often, people in buses do not get up from their seats for elderly. In addition, burping or spitting in front of others is not that repelling. People in the big cities are considered to be against these practices, but the acts are still up for interpretation.

‘Where did you say your foreign exchange student was from?’

Ethno-relativism is the awareness that develops as one realizes there are other valid ways of dealing with the world – whether we agree with them or not. For example, one may go from saying “I don’t like the way they do this – it’s stupid” to “now that I can do it this way, it doesn’t seem so bad, even though I may still prefer to do it my way”. Although the process of culture shock is indeed shocking, the result is genuine understanding leading to harmonious coexistence.                 `

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