Living overseas; or in a foreign country on your home continent, can be exciting, rewarding, eye-opening and extremely challenging. After living in two foreign countries, one in Asia and one in Africa, I was surprised and humbled in many ways. I thought that I was up for the challenge. It was something I had dreamed about for years, and I couldn’t wait to see all that the world had to offer. I soon realized, however, that living in a foreign culture was challenging in ways that I had never allowed myself to imagine. The purpose of this article is to explain the phases of culture shock as well as prepare future travelers for the adventure that awaits them.
One important thing to note before traveling to any foreign country is what that country’s culture is like. Many cultures seem exciting because they are so different and exotic. However, every culture has its quirks and living in another culture often involves one discovery after another.
So what kind of research should you do before booking the ticket? There are several important questions that need to be answered. For example, what does the country value? What is the system of education like? What is the government like? How are Americans (or whatever your home culture happens to be) treated or viewed? What is the cost of living? What kind of products are available (or not available)? What is the country’s dominant religion and what role does it play in the everyday life of the citizens? What will your living conditions be like? (this is a very important question!) What is the typical climate? What kinds of animals (particularly insects and small rodents and lizards) are common? What is the typical work day like? What about the food? What shots might I need to get? What diseases are most prevalent? What kind of clothing is culturally acceptable and unacceptable? (Note: females, many cultures do NOT approve of shorts or short skirts) What kind of behavior is culturally acceptable and unacceptable? (Some cultures find certain gestures or behaviors inappropriate that may be totally acceptable in your home culture) What is the appropriate etiquette to use in a restaurant? What gestures are appropriate and inappropriate? How is the public transportation system? How common is the English language? What are the demographics of the city/country? Are there a lot of foreigners living in the city/country?
This may seem like a lot of research, but the more you study the country, the more prepared you will be for your cross cultural experience. However, no matter how many questions you ask, know that there will indeed be surprises. What matters is how you handle the surprises and ‘cope’ with whatever comes your way.
Living in a foreign country can be an incredible unique and diverse experience. In fact, many people plan on living in a foreign culture for a short time, and end up revisiting or staying longer than they had intended because it becomes “home.”
Besides doing your own research on the country you are going to, try to find someone of your own culture who has been to the country you are going to. Of course, you should find people of the culture you are visiting as well so that they can answer your questions, but most likely the perspective of someone who grew up in a similar culture to you will be more valuable. They will be able to tell you what surprised them most as well as help you be a little more prepared.
Culture shock was officially identified and categorized in 1958 by Kalvero Oberg. Culture shock is not simply a side effect of living in foreign culture, it has been labeled as, “a long term psychological stress.” Sound serious? It definitely can be. Some of the most debilitating symptoms are; depression, anxiety, inability to work productively, desire to sleep too often, insomnia, irritability, loneliness, loss of identity, insecurity, lack of confidence and withdrawl just to name a few. People are affected in different ways, and in various degrees of severity when it comes to these symptoms. Some are only mildly affected by culture shock during their stay, however, reentry is more difficult than they had expected.
The stages of culture shock are typically split into four or five different phases. The first phase is titled ‘tourist or honeymoon stage.’ The visitor is fascinated by the new and exciting things they are experiencing. It is more of an adventure than a style of living, and they just want to take it all in. These ‘tourists’ are usually easy to spot, their eyes are wide and they ask lots of questions.
The next stage is titled ’emptiness or rejection phase.’ This phase usually begins when the newness wears off. The visitor begins to feel homesick, despondent, and becomes much more quickly irritated by certain elements of the culture. They may start to idealize their home culture. It is not uncommon for visitors to quit during this stage. They struggle to socialize and the toughest symptoms of culture shock appear during this stage. The visitors may feel trapped, unhappy, lonely, discouraged, and upset at themselves or the citizens of the culture they are visiting. This phase may begin about 3 weeks into the trip, or sometimes it may not appear until four or five months into the stay.
It is important to note that the rejection phase hits people in different ways. It is also important to note that it is not uncommon. Visitors should be aware and prepare themselves for this stage by taking certain measures. Support groups are important. It may sound cheesy but it will be necessary for many to have support and to know that this is a phase that is survivable. It is also important for visitors who are in this stage to not idealize their home culture. Every country has their problems, as does every phase of life.
The third stage is called the conformist stage. It is during this stage that the visitor typically accepts the culture they are in. They may not necessarily like things the way they are, but they learn to live with them, rather than put up with the stress of all the loneliness, rejection, and bitterness they have been feeling. This stage is usually somewhat of a victory for the visitor. They start to realize, “Hey, I can make it here.” The visitor is typically about 90% adjusted while they are in this stage.
The fourth stage is total assimilation. It is in this stage that the visitor can call the “foreign culture” home and appreciate it for what it is worth. The visitor feels comfortable, has friends, knows the ins and outs of the culture and generally accepts it.
The fifth and final stage may be called the re-entry stage. This occurs when the visitor re-enters their home culture.
Sometimes, this is the toughest stage of all. It is important to give yourself time! You have just been through a huge emotional and very foreign experience. Your lifestyle may have somewhat changed. Your values may have changed. Your perception and view of time has likely changed, as well as the imporance of being on time. You will likely see things very different and react to things differently. You may even be bitter towards your home culture.
Overall, living in a foreign culture is an interesting and exciting experience. Don’t be afraid to try something new, but do make sure that you prepare yourself as adequately as possible before take-off!