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Life Lessons from Overseas: The Shocking Reality of Culture Shock

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Culture shock can hit you anywhere, even Paris (or in this case-Georgetown).

Here’s the thing about culture shock, it’s a total misnomer.

You hear the phrase “culture shock” and it sounds like something that should happen that moment you step off the plane and feel that first hot wet slap of near-suffocating humidity.  Or it should happen on your way home from the airport as your driver swerves around cows and potholes and drops you off at a gated compound full of houses that look nothing like they did “back home.”

It should be how you feel the first time you go to the grocery store and realize that you’ll be paying $10 for every gallon of milk you buy for the next two years…and that you will be buying it from a store in which rats run amok and the refrigerated section hasn’t been refrigerated in years, if ever.

But no, that’s not how it works.  Those first moments are never as bad as you think they will be and, in fact, you might even revel in them.  I know I have.  The books call it the “honeymoon phase,” I call it manic denial.

You so desperately want to avoid feeling like a narrow-minded scaredy-cat.  You so badly don’t want to spend the next two years hating your life every time you walk out the front door.  So you put on your brave face, you post tongue-in-cheek “can you believe this?” pictures on your blog, and you tell all of your new friends at Post that yes the traffic is a little terrifying crazy but the food is just so amazing and you are adjusting just fine.  Really, everything is fine here, we’re all fine here, how are you?

You tell yourself and your concerned spouse (who gets to go off to work everyday to an office full of other Americans, consistant internet access and made-in-the-USA staplers) that you’ve got this living-overseas-giant-life-change-everything-is-completely-upside-down-and-different-thing totally under control.

And for a while, you do, you really do.  You can pat yourself on the back for mastering the rudimentary language skills, haggling skills and thick skin necessary to navigate your new everyday life.  The traffic that was once so terrifying fades into the background and you learn how to cross the street with the practiced, death-defying, nonchalant attitude of a local.

But then, just when you think you should be all done with “transitions” and mental anguish, it hits you.  Or rather, you hit it: the bottom of the that infamous culture shock “U.”  Using the bountiful art supplies that came with our Exec-U-Stay apartment, I’ve drawn you my own version of that normally rather understated diagram:

culture shock diagram

You made it through the U!  Here have a cookie!

Somewhere around 6 months in, everyone bottoms out.  Being experienced and open-minded and well-read might help soften the worst of the blows, but no one, no matter how cosmopolitan or well-traveled, is ever completely immune.

The hardest thing about culture shock, and the reason that I wanted to write this post, is that sometimes when you are fighting for your sanity at the “bottom of the U,” its really hard to remember that your fight isn’t against the seemingly horrible, cruel and totally bonkers world outside your new front door, it’s a fight against your totally normal, totally understandable reactions to it.

Because I’m out of creative bits of literary magic, I’m going to paraphrase myself now from this interview on La Vie Overseas:

a tour abroad will always bring you moments of joy, elation, great insight and adventure. On the flip side, it will also always bring moments of crabbiness, resentment, disappointment and anger. All of those yucky things are part of the deal– but it’s how you deal with them that will make or break your experience. Understanding that they are normal, inevitable and usually justified reactions to a new and difficult experience is often half the battle.”

There are lots of different ways to overcome culture shock, but there are also lots of different ways to experience it.  If you can at least recognize your feelings and behavior for what they are (totally normal), and remember that it’s just a phase to be endured (for just a few months usually), it makes the experience of culture shock not only slightly easier, but also more rewarding in that “I’m learning all of these important things about myself and the world” kind of way.

So, let’s talk about what culture shock looks like and feels like today and in later posts we’ll talk about ways to cope. So often the books and the power-points attempt  to gloss over the low points of culture shock, without actually telling you what it looks like and feels like.

They don’t tell you that for some people, the experience looks a little like depression.  It makes a person want to hole up in their living room streaming too much Hulu over the VPN and avoiding all human contact.  They don’t tell you that for other people, culture shock manifests itself as inexplicable but intense feelings of rage that can be triggered by something as innocuous as a smarmy cab driver.  One minute you are an apparently sane and mild-mannered housewife, the next minute you are sputtering obscenities like some sort of over-boiled potty-mouth teakettle.  They don’t tell you that culture shock can sometimes make you feel like you are slowly turning into an ugly, hateful person.  Or like you are marooned on a lonely island of yuckiness that no one else seems to understand.

I tend to experience culture shock mostly as a sort of claustrophobia, interspersed with fits of indignant “it shouldn’t be this way!” judgments.

In China, it hit me about the same time the sun stopped shining for the winter and just after we found out I was pregnant.  It really was exceptionally poor timing in that regard, but whatever.  Culture shock would have gotten me one way or another.

I remember staring out our apartment window, unable to see across the street for all of the pollution in the air; and suddenly I felt almost panicky at the thought of spending one more minute, much less another 18 months in that place.  All of a sudden the apartment felt like a prison cell and our tour felt like a prison sentence.  What was I doing to my unborn baby by living in this place?  What was I doing to my own health?  What was I thinking signing up for this gig?

And then all of a sudden, I could not stop thinking about not just the health of my own family but about all of the millions of Chinese who spend their whole lives eating foods with poisonous additives, breathing unsafe air and chain-smoking cigarettes as if they can’t wait to get sick fast enough.  I remember just wanting to scream “you people could do something about this mess if only you cared about something besides getting a new Louis Vitton bag!!”

Later, I would learn that people do care, albeit in different ways—but that’s a topic for a different blog post.  For now, let’s just say I spent a few months feeling both incredibly trapped and incredibly frustrated by the pollution and the scary food issues and the apparent apathy I saw all around me.

I couldn’t let go of my convictions that “things should be different,” I couldn’t just let myself enjoy the good things about Chengdu.  Whenever anyone had anything nice to say about the city we lived in, I’d find myself jumping in with a rebuttal or a counterpoint.  This conversational tic made me a real joy to have as a guest at dinner parties, I’m sure.  I always hated myself the second the whiny words came out of my mouth; but it was as if I just couldn’t help myself.

At the time I truly believed that the only logical reason I should feel so indignant and so unhappy was because Chengdu just had to be the worst, more horrible place ever.  Looking out my window, I thought my reactions couldn’t be just culture shock, they were “real,” real reactions to real things.

And truly, they were real.  Most people’s complaints about a new country are “real,” the stuff we hate the most actually happens, it’s actually horrible sometimes.  That’s what makes those things so hard to get over.  There is no disputing that life in China comes with some serious downsides; but what could I possibly do to change any of it?  And why was I so dead-set on feeling so miserable if there was no hope that my misery could change anything?

One of the wonderful things about living overseas is that it often gives us the chance to put our good-intentioned, good-deed-doing money where our mouths are.  Not in China perhaps, but in many other places, there are wonderful opportunities to volunteer, to donate, or to just treat everyone, from beggars to vegetable vendors the way we want to be treated.

It’s just that sometimes for Americans, with that “you can do anything you set your mind to” mantra etched in big red, white, and blue letters on our souls, its hard to remember that sometimes we can’t fix everything; and that constantly feeling bad about something is not the same as working for a solution.  There are some things we can do, but there are a lot of things we can’t-and perhaps have no right to do-as brief guests of our host countries. Getting over culture shock is not about changing the world around you (though its wonderful if you can try to), its about changing how you feel toward it.

For me, aided by a well-timed R&R, the arrival of spring and a happy sonogram visit to Singapore, the rise from the bottom of the “U” was mercifully quick and speedy.  I ended up leaving Chengdu feeling like I learned so much and that I mostly enjoyed our time there.

But of course, that’s just my take, that’s what culture shock felt like to me.  Here are some other perspectives from bloggers who can express what culture shock feels like far better than I can:

From Sara who is currently in Addis Ababa (and who also just wrote this awe-striking post that made me cry and made me think)

Everything that seemed interesting and new about Addis Ababa is starting to be annoying and frustrating and heartbreaking at times.  This past weekend was the first time I wanted to hide in my house and at the same time felt suffocated by the four walls around me.  I wanted to pack the kids up and take a walk to a park, drive to the Mall and get a burrito, go to the movies with my husband, hug my sisters and parents.  It was the first time since we’ve arrived that I looked around and thought it would just be better if I went back to bed and didn’t get up the entire day.  We all know that didn’t happen, but I wanted to.  I knew I was in trouble for wishing it.”

And from another blogger who was in Manilla, this wonderful post about the sorts of things that can drive a person nuts living overseas, but also about humility and thoughtfulness and making peace with one’s surroundings.

And from another former Manilla-based blogger who writes about coming to terms with life as an expat–a sort of culture shock experience in its own right.

And finally an oh-my-gosh this will give you shivers and make you hug your kids and your spouse extra-tight tonight story about how, when tragedy strikes, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, it just matters that you are in it together.

Also, I’d like to throw it out there that, while I’ve described a lot of hardship post-type circumstances in this blog post, culture shock can strike no matter where you are, whether its Switzerland or Swaziland.

I have a friend who moved to Ireland after living for years in places like India and Egypt.  She said the culture shock she experienced in Ireland was far worse than anything she’d experienced anywhere else.  Why?  As she put it, living in a place like India, everything looked so different and felt so instantly different that, even when things were difficult, at least she wasn’t expecting them to be just like back home.

In contrast, it was a complete and difficult revelation for her to realize that, even though the Irish may look like Americans, speak the same language as Americans (mostly) and enjoy most of the same first-world amenities; everything about the culture– from their worldview to the way they conduct interpersonal relationships– is as different from the American way as the American way is different from the Chinese way.  “Garden spots” like Paris, London, Sydney seem like they should be so “easy,” but more often than not, they can be just as jarring and destabilizing as moving to a place like India or South Africa, if not more so.  Just something to remember.

What have your experiences of culture shock felt like?  Were you able to recognize it as culture shock at the time?  What were the strategies you used to get over the worst of it?

Next week we’ll talk making friends overseas.  Send me your stories, links, experiences!

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20 thoughts on “Life Lessons from Overseas: The Shocking Reality of Culture Shock

  1. Oh, Dani….
    I can’t even begin. I don’t really want to! I’ve had SUCH an incredibly hard year. Every time I open my mouth or go to post a new blog entry- I just feel like it’s better to shut it and press on. If it was any longer than two years, I fear this place would get the best of me. I never had that euphoric “honeymoon” phase here. I’ve been a miserable shut-in since we arrived a year ago. Thank god for my medevac to the gorgeous safe-haven of Jo’burg (don’t hear that very often..) And super duper thank god for the product of said med evac. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t get out of bed most days. NO LIE. So not only struggling with new identity as a “trailing spouse” in a very unwelcoming country, but new identity as a mother, housewife, and about the only person at this mission that’s not employed at the embassy. My saving grace is that things can ONLY get better from here since people say unanimously that this is the crummiest post out there. Not a badge I wanted.
    Excellent post. I’m looking forward to more of your ragtag roundups.

    • I can’t even imagine what life must be like there Eve, I honestly can’t. And then throw in the whole “trailing spouse” adjustment, a new baby (which lifesaver, yes but also a big adjustment) and wow. As I was writing this post I actually thought of you and said to myself, “huh, do I mention that there are some places that can’t be “gotten over” no matter what you do or how hard you try?” SInce I’d already written a freakin’ novel by the time I finished, I left out that disclaimer. But it should go without saying that 1) You are in a tough tough spot and 2) yes, next post has to be a gazillion times better than Luanda!

  2. I love this! I need to write my own culture shock post, as it took a while, but now that we hit the one year mark, I’m right there. (I’m the ragey type one that slaps cabs when they almost hit me, and other type of odd reactions.) I know so many people that come to Manila and can’t get over the little things, and here you can soooo easily forget you’re in a third world country, but you ARE and once you leave your little bubble of fancy malls, people take things too personally around here. I think going on too many trips to cool places made me more resentful of Manila (even though I can afford to go on so many trips BECAUSE we’re here), and also finding out our next post, took something away from here as well… R&R in a couple of months might help though 🙂

    • I hear you on the rage! Its so crazy isn’t it? R&R definitely helps though. Remind me, where are you guys headed next??

  3. I can relate so much to this. I just have to take a deep breath and remember all the blessings in my life. THanks for a very insightful and honest post.

      • Hi Dani! We’ve been here for a year now. We still have two more years to go. It’s not to bad but my mistake was that I thought it was very similar to BKK, South East Asia, after all. However it is nothing like BKK and there are many frustrating things about living here, but like always. there are always good things and great friends that help with the adaptation process… =)

  4. Right on. The question I keep circling back to though is this: is it worth it? Part of the reason I thought this lifestyle was for me is because I get bored super easily. I really do like change. But man, it’s rougher than I expected. And as you say, culture shock isn’t just reserved for hardship tours. It happens everywhere. There’s no escaping it. Do I really want to spend my live moving through this up and down and up and down cycle again and again? I don’t know.

    • Is it worth it? Such the question. I think sometimes its a little like parenthood. If you think about the long term it just seems impossible. If you break it down into chunks of minutes and hours, its doable-and enjoyable even. You guys are bidding this summer? When does the list come out?

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  9. I can totally identify with what you shared here. We were in Macau, very near China, for 3 years. Coming from Singapore and being Chinese, you would have thought I would have an easy time settling in there. But no. Took me almost 2.5 years to adjust and actually like the place enough to want to stay on. But it was a little too late by then as we had to move home (where I had ‘reverse’ culture shock and had to learn to readjust to being home again). Yes, and it is always especially hard to stay positive or sane when the Sun seems to have been swallowed up. Hugs!

    • Oh wow, I can imagine how hard Macau would have been!! It’s not quite China but it’s also nothing like Singapore and it’s just such a different, different place, that must have been such an adjustment!! Wow! And then, yes, the reverse culture-shock! That’s always rough. Can’t wait to read more of your posts!

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