When I first came to China I didn’t think much about culture shock. Truthfully, I didn’t know much about it. I had traveled outside of the United States more than most Americans and never experienced it (as far as I knew). I think, like most people, I’d mostly heard about the negative aspects of culture shock. I never realized that the first symptoms are often thinking all things in the new culture are wonderful. Everything is new and exciting. The food, the people, the language, the culture itself, everything is interesting. This is often known as the honeymoon phase. In retrospect, I think I’ve experienced this phase of culture shock many times. I simply never stayed anywhere long enough to experience phase two.
The second stage is what we think of as classic culture shock or frustration. Suddenly, NOTHING about the new culture is good. We miss everything about our home culture. All things “normal” (meaning normal in our home country) are good, and there is so much wrong with the new culture. It often hits after a period of immersion in the new culture. This is the stage of culture shock most of us are familiar with. It often manifests as fatigue from constantly trying to understand unfamiliar language, gestures, signs; and from being unable to communicate in stores, restaurants, and other places. Little everyday incidents like losing one’s keys, missing a bus, having to get someone else to “babysit” when going to the bank or being unable to order for oneself in a restaurant lead to extreme frustration. Often this stage is accompanied by varying stages of depression. At Sias, this stage often hits during the month of November, about 3 months after arrival. Homesickness and a desire to go home are common during this stage.
That’s when it hit me too. During November I was dealing with a low-grade depression. I was easily frustrated. I was fatigued almost all the time. My fatigue was out of proportion with my actual activities.
Fortunately for me, this phase only lasted a few weeks. Then I moved into stage three. The third stage is the adjustment phase. Things in the new culture become more familiar. A new comfort zone begins to be established. Shopping and other activities become much easier. Friendships and support systems are established. Frustration is minimized. “Life” begins to feel normal again. You can sometimes accelerate this phase by asking questions and relating to people in the new culture person to person. Asking questions about what is acceptable and not acceptable, where it is OK to go and not to go, and asking (with genuine interest) about the culture. These are ways to let people know you care. In turn they too will care. These things will accelerate and ease your transition from phase two to phase three.
Finally stage four, acceptance, is reached. This doesn’t mean the expat completely understands the new culture. However, to a large extent, the ability to function in the new culture has been attained. There is finally a more realistic view of the new culture. Just like in your native culture, not everything is good. Neither is it all bad. The important thing is that the expat is able to function comfortably in the new culture and accept cultural values and practices. This does not mean that the expat shares all of them, simply that he or she is now comfortable living and working there.
The last thing to know is that the stages are cyclical. Before the final acceptance phase is reached, the expat may go through a few cycles of honeymoon, frustration, adjustment, and acceptance. Hang in there! In the end, living in and exploring a new culture is an adventure not to be missed.
Have you traveled or lived in another country? What phases of culture shock did you experience? I’d love to hear from you. Also, if you have any questions, please drop me a line.