When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves. – Viktor E. Frankl
Do you find yourself somewhere in the expatriate journey? You might be busy planning and preparing for the big move overseas or you might have already made the leap a few months ago. One thing is definite though, somewhere along the road you will experience some form of culture shock. But what exactly is culture shock? It can be described as “the deeper cultural differences in mindset, customs and interpersonal interaction that cause this phenomenon and turn cultural transition into a struggle” (Internations, 2014).
So, about that ‘struggle’. Globalization, warfare, trade, travel and technology are all major reasons people uproot their lives (and their families’) to seek happiness, adventure or riches elsewhere. For anyone spending more than a holiday in another country, feelings of loneliness and isolation will hit home, but the degrees of these feelings differ per person. In September 2010 I moved to Holland from South Africa to be an au pair for a year. The culture shock was palpable. The language, the food, the way of life and definitely the temperature were all factors that substantially affected my adjustment. Some were more enjoyable than others as you can see on this photo of myself in The Hague. I knew I would miss my family and friends but I hadn’t realised that the feeling of remoteness would be so all-encompassing… and I made the move voluntarily.
The Lost Boys
The Lost Boys of Sudan are thousands of boys between the ages of 7 and 17 years that were separated from their parents as a result of the ongoing civil war in Sudan. These boys had to travel vast distances to seek refuge and mostly ended up spending many years in refugee camps in Kenya. Some of these Dinka youth were eventually resettled in the US where they faced many challenges adjusting to their new environment. (IRC, 2014) A few years ago I watched a National Geographic video clip about the ‘Lost Boys’ arriving in America. I have never forgotten that feeling of seeing real culture shock. It gave me a new perspective on the way we ‘Westerners’ take things for granted.
Could the Lost Boys’ culture shock have been prevented? Probably not. But preparation for such a journey could soften the whack. My advice? Expect the best but prepare for the worst. Preparing for culture shock entails comprehending what it is and what emotional rollercoaster you can expect when moving abroad. Also developing some cultural acumen is key to a prepared adjustment.
Four Stages of Culture Shock
When I first came to Holland I was fascinated by all the rows of identical little picturesque houses with perfectly manicured gardens. Every living room window had a visible display and it just seemed like I was lost in a dolls house. This was definitely my Honeymoon stage- also the first phase of Culture Shock. During the first few weeks or months individuals are fascinated by the new. (Oberg, 1960)
The second phase starts when the foreigner has to start coping with the mundane conditions of everyday life. This constant battle is emotionally frustrating to the foreigner and this creates a hostile and agitated emotion toward the host country. (Oberg, 1960) Homesickness can also occur during this phase. To me, the second phase was evident when I started to feel that all those picturesque little houses became cramped, monotonous and suffocating. I missed the open spaces in South Africa, the unique houses and imperfectness. How peculiar when I think of my thought-process back then. Fresh off the boat I would say!
The third phase is Adjustment. Usually this phase is linked to learning a bit of the language, getting to know the environment and being able to find your way. It’s not only smooth sailing but the foreigner takes on a “this is my cross and I shall bear it” attitude. Lastly, the Acceptance stage is when you accept the customs of the country and live predominantly without anxiety. (Oberg, 1960)
The Magic Cure
Reality Check. There is no magic cure. Each person’s experience is a one-of-a-kind journey and there is no unambiguous process to follow to make the adjustment an easy one. However, there are tools and strategies to speed up the process. Overcoming culture shock boils down to educating yourself: put some effort into making sense of why the cultural differences exist, know what the norms and values are and of course get au fait with the language. This will help fast-forward your state of mind to the adjustment stage and hopefully full integration will follow soon!
Need some help on educating yourself? Please stay tuned for my next post! Or have a look at some of these awesome resources:
In the meantime, please leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you!
Internations. (2014). What is Culture Shock? Retrieved from Internations.org: http://www.internations.org/magazine/what-is-culture-shock-15332
IRC, T. (2014, October 3). The Lost Boys of Sudan. Retrieved from Rescue.org: http://www.rescue.org/blog/lost-boys-sudan
Oberg, K. (1960). Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments. New York: Technical Information Clearing House.