Culture Shock

I don’t remember if I have sent a blog out about Culture Shock or not, but there is a possibility I could have. However, I received another question about Culture Shock, and I could see that the person plainly didn’t quite understand what they were talking about. I decided it was time to try to explain Culture Shock again. It is important to realize that you not only can go through Culture Shock if you go to a foreign country, but you can also go through Culture Shock if you have been living in a foreign country and then try to go back to your country. There are several stages of Culture Shock. Everyone goes through Culture Shock if they go to a foreign country. No one is immune. One person may have a harder time than another person, but everyone goes through it whether they understand what is happening to then or not. You can also encounter a bit of Culture Shock if you never leave your country, but get acquainted with someone from another country inside your country. It may take time for your to get used to their ways. When you go into a country, it actually takes most people a full two years to go through all the stages of culture shock. After you have been through all the stages, then you will be acclimated to the culture and feel like everything is normal there.

Everything looks interesting in the beginning.
You play in the culture in the beginning.
Initially, the language looks interesting.

The first stage; the Honeymoon Stage: When you step off the plane, you are usually like a kid in a candy shop. Everything looks fascinating! It is all new. You find it very interesting. You want to try their food. You want to find their traditional clothing. You want to make friends and have fun with your new friends. Learning a new language seems exciting, and you are playing with their language. You can’t seem to explore enough and want to go site seeing.

You start getting bothered by not understanding.
Clearly this guy isn’t communicating, and he can’t take it.
So, whose fault is it? No one’s, but people always try to place blame.
This guy is beginning to loose it! He can’t take the lack of communication.
It is so hard sometimes to know what they expect, and they don’t seem to care what you expect.

The second stage; the Rejection Stage You start noticing that it is hard to speak their language. You have trouble making yourself understood and have trouble understanding the people of the country even if you speak the same language. You think differently than they do, and it causes misunderstandings. They don’t understand your jokes, and you don’t understand theirs. They do strange things that bother you. They keep trying to feed you strange food you just can’t eat. Their life styles, ways of thinking, and ways of doing things may just drive you crazy. You can get in fights and arguments with people. Nothing seems to be going right. Many people go home at this point and never learn to live in the new country. New friendships are broken. I have actually seen people shut themselves in their rooms or in their house and not want to talk to anyone because it is just too hard to cope. I have seen foreigners on the news wanting to blow up their host country and possibly actually blowing something up or shooting someone. Language study stops. You, as a foreigner, want to go into hiding and not talk to anyone. When I lived in Korea, there was a foreign English teacher who hanged himself, and I was asked to write an article to distribute to the other foreign English teachers to help them understand what was happening to them so no one else would go to such extremes. You stop trusting people around you. If you give up at this point and go home, it is all over. It is easy to go home. This stage could begin six months after you get there, a year after you get there, or in one country I went to, I think it began the moment I stepped off the plane and I seemed to skip the honeymoon stage. I wanted to go screaming from the country it was so hard, but I didn’t give up. If you give up, you will never adapt. You won’t be able to accomplish the purpose you went there if you give up and leave. This rejection stage is what many people think of as Culture Shock, but it is just one stage of Culture Shock.

I helped a guy from Thailand find himself a cowboy hat, and it really helped his frame of mind.
This lady learned from the Nigerian ladies how they carry their babies. She made friends. It is a sure way over the rejection stage.
Look for things you know and are comfortable with. There is Coca Cola in every country. Many countries also have McDonald’s. Eat things you like to eat. Do things you like to do.

The Last Stage; Learning to Cope: When you get to the point that you want to run screaming from the country, you must have strength. It is easier if you are a Christian because Christians find their strength in God. You have to stand up and decide you won’t let the culture overtake you, that you won’t be conquered. Studying the language really helps. You reduce the misunderstandings by studying the language and the culture. I always read about the culture. I read their history books. I study their geography, their philosophies, etc. You have to find things you like to do in the country. Yes, it isn’t like home, but there are always fun things. When I was in Romania, teaching at the university was fun, and it helped me make it in Romania. When I was in Japan the first time, I hung out with my college friends or found the closest McDonald’s and ate french fries. Many Japanese do this when they come to America too. For many people, McDonald’s is part of home, so when they travel, going to McDonald’s helps them cope. In Korea, I found my strength in Christian friendships. There are many Christians in Korea. It was also easy in Korea because it was the first foreign country I had lived in since I was in Nigeria where they had English TV. In Nigeria, I liked going to the market place because it was busy. There were so many interesting things going on at the market place. There wasn’t much from home in Nigeria, but there was Coca Cola, so I drank Coca Cola even if it had sugar in it. If you know how to cook, make food from your country, I had some Japanese girls over once in Texas and let them cook for me, and it thrilled them to death and helped with their adaptation. I took them to a baseball game at the local park because I knew that Japanese liked baseball, and they really enjoyed it. I took a student from Thailand horseback riding and helped him buy himself a cowboy hat. What ever it takes to make you feel good in your new country, do it, and it will help you cope with your new surroundings.

After you have been through these three stages, you have learned to adapt to your new country. Your Culture Shock is finished. Living in the new country becomes normal to you. It usually takes about two years to get to this point. You just have to decide if it is important enough to put yourself through it all or not. I have been through culture shock many times. Sometimes it is harder, and sometimes it is easier. After you adapt to a foreign country and try to go home again, you will go through something very similar to what you went through when you entered the foreign culture. Life isn’t always easy, but if you have strength, you can do it. It is easier if you are a Christian. In Korea, I heard about many foreign English teachers who were having such a hard time that all the time they were out of class, they were drunk because the culture was so hard on them. They were wasting their time in Korea. There are so many more fun things to do and see. Take advantage of your opportunities when you travel. Learn to cope and enjoy your life. Getting drunk isn’t the answer.

2 thoughts on “Culture Shock”

  1. My culture shock (or a form of it) occurred when I came home from teaching a year in Tanzania. Going there, I expected things to be different. Everyone spoke English, but… it certainly fit the step that even though they all spoke English, they did not comprehend American humor. I did without many things while there. When I came home… things shocked me. At the hotel, every plug in the chandelier held a bulb! (I had spent a year with one light bulb, moving it from room to room with me.) The TV was advertising all kinds of toys; and I thought, “Why are they advertising those when there are none in the stores.” And I realized that in the US, they were in the stores.

  2. I can relate. I have been through culture sock many times. When I came back from Africa, the first thing that hit me was how neat everything was in America. they even mowed the lawn beside the road! I didn’t quite get all the people in the big fancy houses. I was happy with just a small place with running water and a flush toilet which had been hard to come by in Nigeria. I am sure I have seemed odd to people in America a lot because I have come back from living in foreign countries changed every time.

Leave a Reply