Culture, The Poetry of Life

Chicken Noodle Soup for the Culture-Shocked Soul

I’ve traveled quite a lot for my someone of my ripe age, but I’m still not immune to culture shock. For several years I dismissed culture shock as a description of some superficial feeling of loss due to the absence of one’s comforts (like NetFlix or favorite bars/clubs). I judged it as materialistic and shallow. That was until I stayed in a foreign country long enough for it to actually creep up and grab me. It was when I was spending a summer in a small village in Guatemala and was not traveling around much. I was doing some research here and there on introduced fish species in a particular volcanic lake (I know, the reasons I come up with to travel…), but mostly I was just loafing around in a pseudo-routine, staying with a family I had known well for a few years. I remember being shocked and actually looking up the symptoms in my international health guidebook—it actually resembled a sickness! I judged myself for falling prey to this silly condition, but it was undeniable: when I looked at the symptoms, I fit the description of culture shock to a tee. There is a so-called “crisis stage”, during which “perceived differences in language, values and symbols between the own and the foreign culture cause feelings of anxiety and frustration” (Culture Shock- Causes, Consequences and Solutions: The International Experience). In the case of Guatemala, I started to hate all of the food, I became an obsessive cleaner, and I saw all of my relationships through judgmental eyes. I was irritated all the time for seemingly no reason. It was terrible. I found that the only way to overcome culture shock was to wait it out, and most of what I’ve read concurs. This is a frustrating prospect when you’re in the situation, but having experienced it myself a few times now, I have some further suggestions for dealing with culture shock that may be helpful:

1) Let yourself have one or two good venting sessions with a fellow expat. Be careful to limit it though, as relying on the expat community for too long can sometimes make your culture shock last longer.
2) Don’t force yourself into any new activities or relationships. It’s tempting to want to integrate quickly, but added stress during this period is only going to make things worse. Make sure that if you do find friends, you genuinely like them and are not just using them as place holders. Being surrounded by fake friends can be even more lonely than being alone.
3) Phone home as much as possible to keep in touch with family and friends, as it’s important that you feel you have a good support system even if you’re thousands of miles away from home.
4) Stop judging yourself for your lack of integration or communication abilities. You don’t need the added stress of impatience.
5) Ease into the language so that it’s not so intimidating. This means first self-study, then attending public seminars, movies, etc. where you won’t be forced to talk but can listen, then speaking in professional or distanced situations such as at shops, train stations, work, etc., and finally you will feel comfortable using your new language in casual settings to make friends without getting so stressed.

As you can see, the themes in these suggestions are relaxation and comforting communication, which is why I think of them as Chicken Noodle Soup. We don’t have to be so hard on ourselves! Culture shock is an opportunity to practice self-compassion and non-forcefulness, two practices which can do wonders for one’s growth. So if you’re feeling stuck and agitated, as I am in Germany now, remember that some day when you least expect it, the culture shock stream will turn off. For now please consider trying a little tenderness.

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