Coming out of culture
shock is a lot like emerging from a long period of depression
. If you haven’t experienced either of these, you will probably not be able to understand the depth of the hopelessness, sadness and frustration
that both of these subject their victims to. Having experienced both of the above at great length and profound intensity over the last decade
, I can say with certainty, that little matches the natural elation
of closing another period of either of the two.
Culture shock is a tricky thing. No one really wants to admit that they are affected by it. The name of the condition sounds so extreme, so abject that to say you have it is like admitting defeat. In actual fact, the feelings of culture shock are subtle, and the situations from which they arise, are seemingly benign. The name, culture shock, leads one to think of seizures and fits, of a violent reaction or quick and short-term condition. Culture shock is anything but quick or short term. It is a persistent, nagging feeling of a certain je ne sais quoi quality that undermines your sense of self worth, confidence and general contentment.
Culture shock affects everyone differently, but the underlying feelings of anxiety, a lack of self-confidence and frustration seem to be present in almost all cases. Anger plays a big role as well, and even the most accommodating and calm of us become temperamental at the smallest thing. Rarely does culture shock jump upon you, unawares. Instead, it is a feeling that slowly grows and festers, making the completion of your daily tasks more and more difficult. Even once you have concluded that you are indeed suffering from it, there is little you can do to make it go away quickly and effectively. There is no pill, potion or powder to make you right as rain.
I believe that much about culture shock is shaped by perception and perspective. The misunderstandings and confusing situations that seem funny and challenging in your first few weeks in a new culture, turn into small nightmares the longer you live in your new home. Let me give you a small example. I eat raw carrots. This may not seem so shocking to you, in fact you might be wondering why I have even allotted that simple statement a full sentence of its own, but read on. I was happily eating a carrot as a mid-morning snack in the staff room, going about my work, when I began to notice that the other teachers had stopped what they were doing, and in small groups, were nervously and giddily peering over at me. Whispers. Giggles. Nervous laughs. I looked up to see what was going on and started to wonder if I had accidentally written something on my forehead or if my hair had suddenly gone electric, when one the teachers piped up, “Are you a horse?” At this, all those gathered completely lost the plot and for reasons unknown to me, I was the laughing stock of the staff room.
Later I found out that the Japanese don’t eat raw vegetables. They do, however, not only eat raw fish, but also beef and horse. If this situation had occurred within the first few weeks of my arrival, I probably would have laughed along. I had, however, been in the country for more than six months and these things happened with such frequency that I was beginning to have enough. All I wanted was to eat my carrot in peace and quiet, move on with the rest of my day. Instead, I was put in a position where I knew that everyone was looking at me, examining me and, worst of all, laughing at me.
Please do not misunderstand my story. I am in love with all the people that I work with, and out of the large number of foreigners working in Japanese schools, I have one of the best and brightest work situations. I know that they were not laughing at me, directly, but at something that to them seemed absurd and unnatural to them. The problem lay in being the agent, the messenger of such a small cultural difference. Furthermore, it was the fact that many of the things that I did, that to me were so natural and normal, won me such unwanted attention and the amusement of my peers.
However, these are the differences that make living and working in another culture so inviting, exciting and interesting. You can read about the things that shape and colour a culture, but until you have lived in it, with all of it idiosyncrasies and subtleties, you will never get the whole picture. The whole picture, however, is what lies at the root of culture shock. One definition of culture is: the total way of life of a group, including everything that the members typically think, say, do and create--- their system of attitudes and feelings. When you find that all the things that you take for granted, your beliefs, values and assumptions are, on a fairly regular basis, confronted and challenged, there is little reason to wonder why you might react in less than a graceful manner.
You people eat raw chicken!!!
And you think I am weird for eating an uncooked carrot!!!
Culture shock can never be fully eradicated from your life abroad. Even the most experienced are prey to its vicious mood swings. It comes in waves and even when you have reached a plateau of biculturalism, after years of practice, it will still attack you from time to time. The most important step in learning to live with it is to admit that you have it. Do not try to find other reasons for your source of cultural discomfort and do not blame yourself or the people around you. Admit that there is a clash of culture and attempt to move beyond it. You are not going to change an entire nation from its traditional ways, so although you might not agree with elements of the society into which you are transplanted, or have transplanted yourself, there is little you can do.
Also vital is that you remain true to yourself. Do not over-accommodate or over-adapt. If that means eating raw carrots to the mortification of everyone else then so be it. Although there is a level of adjustment to new ways that must be made when you live abroad, make certain that you are not changing or selling out those parts of yourself that you hold most beloved. It is important to be sensitive to the silent social rules of your new world, but it is just as important to not accept them blindly or at the risk of devaluing yourself.
Lastly, remember that there is an end to culture shock. If you take care of yourself, stay healthy, utilize your support system of friends and family and make as much effort as possible to realign your faltering perspective and perception, you can come out the other end, a stronger and better person. Culture shock, although it can be a mentally debilitating affliction, need not end your time overseas. As Nietzsche said, that which does not kill you makes you stronger.