Culture Shock! When does it strike?

“Culture shock is the difficulty people have adjusting to a new culture that differs markedly from their own.The shock of moving to a foreign country often consists of distinct phases, though not everyone passes through these phases and not everyone is in the new culture long enough to pass through all five. There are no fixed symptoms ascribed to culture shock as each person is affected differently.” ~ Wikipedia

In my life, I’ve had occasion on 3 different occasions to find myself living in completely distinct and different cultures.  In each occasion, I had a ultimate distinct moment when culture shock hit me like a brick wall.  It was that moment when every ounce of my being said “You’re not in Kansas anymore B****H!!!!  Oddly enough, these moments always seem to come at the oddest of times.

In Germany, I was sitting in a cafe, reading. Suddenly, it was like “Everyone is speaking a different language,” “They all dress completely different from me”  and then I looked under the table next to me and there sitting quietly was a dog, which is not unusual in Bavaria.  I finished up my cup of cocoa, collected my things, and headed home.  I cried a good portion of the 2 mile walk.  I’m not one for homesickness, but it was just a moment when I wanted to be nowhere else than back in Chicago.

The second time, I was in Afghanistan.  Needless to say, every inch of that place is a culture shock for a Westerner, but I was able to keep it all together.  I was about 3 months in, and then one day, on a day off,  I walked out of my hooch.  There were the mountains, and the sun, and the sand.  Dirt, sandbags, people in military uniforms.  The whole day a feeling of just pure distaste fell down upon me, until it just kind of became overwhelming.  As soon as I could, I went to my room, and just slept the lion’s share of the day away.  My roommate’s even came to check on me at one point to see if I was sick.   I slept about 10 hours, and when I woke, I went to the chow hall, grabbed a snack, and just spent a few hours watching movies.

Then tonight, I was at the gas station.  I was catching a ride home with a coworker. I offered to pump the gas.  She said “Alright, well I’ll go pay for it.”  As she walked in the establishment, she walked right pass the counter.  “How am I supposed to pump it if she doesn’t pay for it?”  So, I headed on inside.  A few moments later she asked me “how much was it?” I said “I didn’t pump it because you didn’t pay for it.”  She and the attendant looked at me like I was an idiot.  It hadn’t even occurred to me that you could pump it before paying for it.  LOL.  This was certainly one of those moments which sociologists live for. When one’s cultural influences so deeply affects them that notions which are common in another culture don’t even seem fathomable.

I just felt like “This place is f**king weird!  I wanna go back to Chicago!!!” I came home, had dinner, and I’m over it.  I won’t be back to Chicago in a hot minute, so I may as well make the most of things.  However, it got me thinking, and I looked up culture shock.  I thus learned (although I’m pretty sure I covered this in some class)  the phases of culture shock, and apparently, what I’ve always thought of as ‘culture shock’ is actually what most psychologists would call hitting rock bottom.  Proceed to for a complete reading of the phases.

Honeymoon Phase

“During this period the differences between the old and new culture are seen in a romantic light, wonderful and new. ”
Oh yeah, I remember this.  When the mountains were all beautiful.  The walks on the little back country roads was delightful, and every thing was “quaint.”  This was when I told myself “Well, it’s just a different setting, and probably way better than that cooped up city living.  Right!

Negotiation Phase

“After some time (usually three months but it may be sooner or later depending on the individual), differences between the old and new culture become apparent and may create anxiety. That sense of excitement will eventually give way to new and unpleasant feelings of frustration and anger as you continue to have unfavorable encounters that strike you as strange, offensive, and unacceptable.”
For those of you who talk to me on a semi-regular basis, this phase will sound pretty familiar as well.  I won’t go into details, because details are always ugly, but yes, this is akin to those moments when I’ve woken up and said “I could totally be back in Chicago by this weekend.”  Yet, I’ve persevered.  If I can do 9 months in Afghanistan, I’ll be damned if this place does me in.  However, men way smarter than me assure me that what I experienced this week, is quite possibly my lowest point, and where can you go from there?

Adjustment Phase

“Again, after some time (usually 6 – 12 months), one grows accustomed to the new culture and develops routines. One knows what to expect in most situations and the host country no longer feels all that new. One becomes concerned with basic living again, and things become more “normal”. One starts to develop problem-solving skills for dealing with the culture, and begins to accept the culture ways with a positive attitude. The culture begins to make sense, and negative reactions and responses to the culture are reduced.”

This is about the point when I’m debating on the finer points of a snowmachine vs. a 4-wheeler.  What kind of gun can bring down a fully grown black bear?  Can you bring down a grizzly with a bow?  How will I be spending my time in the summer months??? Hmm…..

Mastery Phase

“In the mastery stage assignees are able to participate fully and comfortably in the host culture. Mastery does not mean total conversion, and people are capable of not adopting some aspects of the host culture. It is often referred to as the biculturalism stage.”

Well Yeehaw!!!!!

5 thoughts on “Culture Shock! When does it strike?

  1. I can’t imagine how many other culture shocks await you around every corner in Tok. Could you send me your mailing address, I’d like to snail mail you an MP3 CD to help you through your next “phase”.

    peter at motyka dot org

  2. I’ve often wondered how you were adjusting, and while you’ve said some things in conversation, this explains so much more. I’m guessing it will be quite a while until you have hit the mastery stage.

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