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What Cultural Experts Say About Culture Shock

I have been reading several articles online written by people who have traveled, but I can tell that they don’t know what the experts say about culture shock, and after I wrote my article about going through culture shock in Nigeria, I realized I hadn’t made myself very clear either.  I have have studied cultural issues at three different universities and read books by the leading experts.  When they talk about culture shock, it is a little different from what the regular traveler says when I read their blogs.  People seem to think the term “culture shock” merely means that they are shocked by another culture, but there is much more to it than that.  It is about our reaction to another culture, but not just about being shocked  It is about going through psychological stages when we enter another culture until we are acclimated to that culture.  It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with us that isn’t normal, but it a psychological reaction.  When I talk about culture shock, I have been influenced by those experts and have a tendency to think of the definition of culture shock the way they do. I don’t just think that culture shock is, ” Oh my! This is different, and I am having trouble handling it!”  That is just one stage of culture shock.  There are actually four different stages we must go through to acclimate to another culture: 1) the honeymoon stage  2) the rejection stage  3) the acceptance and adjustment stage  4) the acclimated stage,  and I will explain them.

jet cloud landing aircraft
You have to change where you are to start the process. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When we first get off the plane or whatever brought us to the new culture, we begin by going through the honeymoon period.  It lasts different amounts of time for everyone.  When we first enter, we are excited about the place and the people. We like seeing all the different things and different ways of doing things.  We think it is cool.  In Nigeria, I liked those lizards and the banana trees in the back yard.  In Romania, I liked the fruit tea my new friend served me and the long German house I stayed in. In Hungary, I was overawed by the chandeliers, the wall paper, and the brocade furniture.  I loved it!  In Japan, everything seemed so clean, so calm, so peaceful.  In Korea, the TV had English! In Korea, the buildings were the tallest I had ever seen, and I lived on the 24th floor my first year and had a balcony the length of my apartment. In the honeymoon stage, we are seeing things that are different, and we are like tourists and enjoying those differences.  This is the first stage of culture shock, the honeymoon stage.  The length of the honeymoon stage differs from person to person.  We enjoy our new surroundings.  I always wonder what happened to the couple who went home after the first weekend in Nigeria because they got through the honeymoon stage quickly and ended up in the rejection stage the first weekend. That is the quickest I have ever heard of anyone getting to the rejection stage. Usually, when people first step off the plane, they are in a Disneyland mode of thinking like a tourist.

portrait photography of smiling woman
She likes everything like someone going through the honeymoon stage.Photo by Rosemary Ketchum on Pexels.com
close up photography of person s eye
She doesn’t understand!  She can’t! She doesn’t like it!  Really, do people do that!? Do they expect her to do that to?!  No one understands! Pexels.com

It takes everyone different amounts of time to get to the next stage, the rejection stage.  Different people go through it harder than others.  This is what most people think of as culture shock, and it is, but there is much more to culture shock. When I was in Nigeria, I began feeling like I had fallen off the face of the earth because things were so different and I was on the other side of the world.  You begin to notice things like lack of communication, dirt, uncomfortable beds, misunderstandings, crooked stair cases, pushy drivers, food you just can’t eat, etc.   You begin to feel like there is no way you can live there.  People say and do things that just don’t make sense to you even if they are speaking your language.  You are not in the honeymoon stage anymore.  I liked the market place in Bukuru, Nigeria, but at times, it was bad. There was a naked man who at times stood talking to a wall all day on one side of the market.  Someone hit a pig with their car one day in front of the marketplace, and they just left it there to rot and stink in the street. No one moved it.  In Romania, there were drunks passed out in the middle of the street laying in pot holes.  The gypsy neighbors invited me in, and their furniture was covered with black mold.  The relatives of the German guy we rented our house from in Romania decided to scream about the garden because they didn’t want us to use the garden even though we had rented it from their brother. My husband had had a confrontation with one of them and wouldn’t let them plant their things in the garden, but he and the Germans didn’t understand one another. They figured out that I understood what they were saying when they spoke Romanian, and so came into my house screaming following me everywhere. I went into the bathroom to hide, and they followed me into the bathroom screaming about the garden. We didn’t rent it from them, but from their brother, but they wanted money too. Here in Korea, a teacher took me out to eat and they put live octopus on my plate and expected me to eat it and got offended when I couldn’t.  I could just go on with the list, but you get the point. Many people go home at this point. They never acclimate.  They may shut themselves in their houses and not want to come out, and I have seen people do that more than once.  There was a girl in Japan who shut herself in her bedroom for a week crying and wouldn’t talk to anyone.  Someone called her mother in America and let her talk to her mother, and that helped.  I have seen Japanese girls shut themselves in their bedrooms in America too.  Things are just too different, and we begin feeling those differences. I used to work with the international students in America who were going through this stage, and it is very hard.

woman standing in hallway while holding book
She is figuring it out.  She studies language. She reads history. She learns to cook.  She makes friends. She finds things she likes to do. Photo by Anastasiya Gepp on Pexels.com

The next stage is learning to adjust.  We have to figure out how to get across those problems or just accept them or we won’t make it in the new culture. In Nigeria, I ignored the crazy naked man talking to the wall and focused on the good things at the market.  I really enjoyed it when drummers showed up and gave performances.  In Romania, we moved to another house and set different ground rules, and the people still didn’t understand renting.  They were just coming out of Communism when no one rented.  We finally figured out we had to buy a house if we were going to stay because dealing with landlords just didn’t work in Romania.  In every country, I have studied the language because if you understand what is going on, you can stop the misunderstandings.  Here in Korea, until I learned a little Korean, I didn’t know they were overcharging my daughter when she rode the bus.  She was 14 years old, so should have been paying the student fair, but she was paying the adult fair because to a Korean, she looked like an adult. Korean adults can look like American 13 and 14 year old kids. I saved money by learning the language.  If you learn to speak the language, you have an easier time making friends, and friends help you understand the country better and explain things to you.  When we were in Romania, my oldest son had a hard time, and I thought we were going to have to go home because he just would not calm down, but wanted to cry a lot.  I made his favorite foods. We encouraged him to find things he liked and do them.  He took karate and guitar lessons. He watched cartoon network and World Wrestling Federation on TV, and it helped him. My cooking and learning to cook from scratch has always helped me as well as others around me.  To eat, I don’t have to eat raw fish, but I can go home and make something that is more palatable to me.  I enjoy learning language, and have a knack for it, and it has always helped me adapt.  We have to understand that we are not in charge.  We don’t make the rules, and we have to be humble enough to live by their rules.  If they say, “take your shoes off at the door,” then we do even if we don’t understand why.  If we are teachers, and the school says we have to take role, we take role, or visa versa. If the school says they can only show up for tests, and it is okay, we have to accept it. We have to learn to accept the differences we can accept and learn to overcome the differences we can’t accept.  I don’t go to the shinchil bangs in Korea because I can’t handle a room full of naked women walking around.  I just stay away just like I stayed away from that wall where the naked man talking to the wall was in Nigeria. If I go on a retreat with the school or the church here in Korea, I know they sleep on hard floors, so I take my air mattress, etc.  There are ways around most things.

close up photography of woman sleeping
She can relax and enjoy herself because she has made it over the hump and learned to function in her new culture. She is acclimated.  Photo by bruce mars on Pexels.com

Once you have learned your way around, it is the final step. You are acclimated. Being acclimated is the final step. You have been through the stages, and you have won.  It wasn’t easy.  If you leave when you hit the rejection stage, then you will probably never go back.  If you leave when you are still in the honeymoon stage, then you are like a tourist.  You didn’t stay long, and you are lucky you never hit the rejection stage and go home only with fond memories.  It takes a good two years at least to completely go through all the stages.  Different people go through them at different times and have different reactions. As I think about my time growing up, I became acclimated to England when I was a little girl and even came out of it speaking with a British accent, but my parents moved so often after that, that I think I spent my time not acclimated to anywhere accept England for years.  If your parents move a lot like mine did because of my dad’s job, kids have trouble. I mentioned that teenagers can get on drugs while going through culture shock just trying to cope with what is happening to them.  Some kids withdraw. They don’t understand what is going on and become very unsure of themselves, and that is what happened to me growing up.  I was extremely shy.  I was an American who knew nothing about America and spoke with a British accent.  The things that brought me out were the friendliness of the Christian students at Oklahoma Christian College and the acceptance I felt when I was in Japan as a student too. My personality was  a lot like a Japanese personality, and that coupled with me speaking Japanese and looking like I could be part Japanese made Japanese feel comfortable with me and accept me.  I finally found some confidence and began talking to people.  Culture shock effects each person in a different way, but when we travel, we all go through to it to a certain degree, and it is not always just the rejection stage, but there is much more to it.

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