Understand Culture Shock

Culture Shock Hit Them Hard

One chilly September morning, I drove to the university campus housing to check on a group of five Chinese young women. My husband and I had picked them up at the airport a few days ago.  The Chinese Five were jet lagged, but starry eyed, expecting wonderful things of this university, this city, this new country, “The Golden Mountain.”

Carrying blankets, quilts and throws, for the Five to use in the crisp fall weather, I walked up to their front door. I wondered how they were adjusting to their new life. When my knocks at their apartment door were not answered, I felt concerned. Like a mother hen, I worried, “Are Lei, Lili, Ying, Zhiwei,and Xiaoqing doing okay?”

Finally, a very sad Ying answered the door and invited me in.   The sight that met my eyes confirmed my worst fears. They were not doing well. The girls sat in pajamas and robes in the living room too depressed and exhausted to face the day. Their faces no longer sparkled with anticipation. Xiaoqing was still talking on the phone with her mother in Shanghai. When she hung up the phone, she burst into tears. Her tears started a chain reaction and soon all the girls were sobbing.

Ying led me into the room. I handed out the warm blankets to the shivering girls. The girls gratefully draped them around their shoulders. My mother hen instincts sprang into action. I gathered them together and asked them to be honest and tell me what they needed and how they were coping.  Slowly and shyly, they did. I felt honored that they would trust me, an American, with their problems. Lei related that there was no rice for breakfast so they were hungry. Zhuwei said their apartment needed several repairs. Lili was sure she would never find her way on campus.  They talked; I listened. They cried; I cried, too.  They were homesick. I supplied motherly hugs and encouragement to face the challenges ahead.  Together we solved some of their immediate problems (like rice).

I continued to mother  them during their years at the university: inviting them to holiday dinners at our farm house , teaching them American culture, carving pumpkins, listening to their dreams over pizza and coke, taking them to Michigan tourist sites, answering countless questions about cooking, English, driving, shopping, etc.  When my husband and I attended their graduation ceremonies, we took photos of them in their cap and gowns. I couldn’t help but remember that day long ago with their tear stained faces and blankets over their shoulders.  These Five had made it. Success in America was theirs. But to be honest, the beginning months were difficult.

Culture shock had hit them hard.  Actually, it hits most ex-pats hard.  Feelings of anxiety and stress overwhelm anyone who leaves their birth culture to live in another culture. It is a normal physical and emotional response to your body being under great stress. People compare it to being a fish out of water, or being a round peg in a square hole, or being an alien from outer space, or being hit by a Mack truck.

6 Stages of Culture Shock
It’s like being invited to play a new game, but no one tells you the rules.  If that isn’t enough, in this new game with a weird language you don’t understand, they expect you to play the game without knowing the rules and speak their language too.  If you cannot, too bad for you.  They give penalties for offences you had no idea you were committing. You will always lose the game.   Unfair, you protest.   Yes, it is.

Yet, there is hope. Culture shock is normal. There is nothing wrong with you personally. Also ,it is temporary. Best of all, you will get through it. At the end, you will find it has been an unwelcome but necessary friend. Conquering culture shock brings new depths of understanding of other cultures, “foreign people,” the world, life, and most of all yourself.

The best way to conquer Culture Shock is to understand its nature, stages, and symptoms.  Cross-culture experts have outlined four to six stages.  They use similar but slightly different terms for each stage. My version calls the stages by “D” words: Destination Deadlines, Disney World, The Dumps, Downs and Ups, “I DID IT” and De javu.
Please note: Each individual goes through these stages at her own pace. Some may have shorter lengths of time; others longer. Much depends on the individual personality and the circumstances she has come from and is going to. The time frames mentioned here are averages based on many ex-pats’ experiences.

Destination Deadlines

Before a long journey, the activities of getting the proper visa and passports, packing luggage, getting travel tickets, saying goodbye to friends and family, rushing to the airport and boarding the plane make you exhausted. You are sleep deprived before you leave home. Often, you meet frustration, delays, and unexpected problems on the journey. Your  emotions and stress levels increase. Only the expectation of finding your dreams at the end of the journey keeps you sane.

Disney World

Your dream come true. For the first several weeks/months in your new country, you really feel like a kid at Disney World. The adventure, the excitement, the newness of everything thrills you. You love the new food, music, fashions, entertainment, sports, media, and new friends.  Everything is wonderful!  Time frame : from two weeks to several months.


The Dumps

Americans use this idiom to mean feeling very depressed. The dumps literally mean the garbage dumps. Yes, that disgusting!  Once the newness wears off, you begin to feel like fish out of water. You realize this is not a vacation. You will not go home in a few days. You will live here in this foreign culture for a long time.  Things that were once delightful are now frustrating. The language barrier creates misunderstandings and embarrassing situations. You see the new culture as irrational and irritating. Often you blame the people in the new culture for making this stage of culture shock worse. “ Why do they drive on the wrong side of the road?” “ Why don’t the supermarkets carry the kind of spices and rice I need?”” How rude these Americans are!”

Symptoms for this stage vary, depending on the individual.  Eating too much, or not enough. Drinking too much. Sleeping too much or having insomnia. Feeling incompetent at work or university. Being angry over insignificant things. Losing self-control. Avoiding people of the new culture. Crying over nothing.  Feeling physically ill. Severely criticizing the new culture. Extreme homesickness. Immobilizing depression and anxiety.  Associating only with those who speak your language. Wishing you had never left your home country.  Time frame:  The average is 6-9 months. However, if the ex-pat isolates herself and never engages with the host culture, this uncomfortable stage may last for up to several years. If you know someone trapped in this stage, get her help immediately.

Downs and Ups

This phase evolves gradually. Small victories and small defeats mark the ex-pats progress. As language communication improves, so do the social relationships in daily life. One day, you may be on top of the world, thinking I CAN do this cross-cultural thing with ease!  The next day, some small remark or misunderstanding may plunge you into the dumps again. That is why this stage is more like the ups and downs of a roller coaster ride than a straight line. The secret is to start each new day with the determination to try again. Correct mistakes in culture and English. Mistakes are not fatal and failure is not final.

Learn all you can about the host culture. Make friends with the nationals.  Slowly but definitely, the cultural adjustment gets easier and easier. Suspend judgment about things that are strange or irrational. Ask questions to find out why they do things like that. There may be a logical reason for the weird custom. Seek to understand before judging. Make the word,”YET” your favorite English word.  “ I don’t speak English well… YET.” “ I don’t understand this culture… YET.”  Perseverance and endurance will give you victory … YET.

“I DID IT!!” 

Congratulations !! You have attained the stage where you are NOT PERFECT but you realistically adapt to this culture.  You don’t have to deny your home culture nor who you are as an individual with your special talents, values and beliefs. Forever, you will be you. But you have added a new dimension to your personality, your horizon is widened, your worldview is open and accepting. You realize there are good and bad attitudes, beliefs and values in both your old and new cultures. You can choose the best and shed the rest.  Your friends include Americans as well as fellow ex-pats. Sure, there are still good days and bad days, but you know from experience that you can handle the downs and ups.  Life is basically good. Time frame 2-3 years to attain, a lifetime to perfect.

Until…… you go back home for the first time since your departure…….

De javu

Home again. Your family, your friends. Your language, food, culture.  You enjoy all the comforts of home again.  At first, they give you a hero’s welcome. You absorb all the sights and sounds and tastes and smells that you have dreamed about while away.  “Here I BELONG!”

Funny thing though. Just as life has gone on for you in another culture, life has gone on for those in your old culture as well. You expect to be reabsorbed into their lives where they were when you last saw them.  You are excited about sharing your photos, videos and experiences of “Life in the United States.” They listen politely for only 10 minutes and then interrupt the conversation to share something in their lives that they want to share with you. The implicit expectation is that you should enter their lives now that you are back.

The Disney World return degenerates into the Dumps and the Downs and Ups. De javu. Haven’t I experienced this before?  Right. You have. Call it Reverse Culture shock. It’s a double shock because you were not expecting the return home to be similar emotionally to your first days in America.

Relax and enjoy the ride

You are the experienced cross-cultural traveler now. You can do it again.  Just remember when your family and friends show disappointing interest in your new life abroad…. They were not there. They cannot understand what they have not experienced. So be gentle with them.  Time frame: until you return to your cross-cultural home.

As we review the stages culture shock and talk with many ex-pats to learn “how they did it, we find several commonalities. Cross –cultural specialists and ex-pats agree that these next items are absolutely necessary for success in cross cultural acculturation.

– Learn the language well.

– Make American friends.

– Proactively seek support from the host culture.

– Engage the host culture in as many areas as you can.

– Keep your support system with your own ethnic group.

– Suspend judgment about puzzling things in the culture.

– Allow yourself time to adjust.

– Adjust your expectations to meet your life situation

– Be kind to yourself. 

– Remember the power of YET.