My first real experience with culture shock was when I moved to Vietnam - and I was absolutely blindsided by it.
I grew up in a military family, so as a kid I moved to a new location every few years. As an adult, I've moved several more times, and I've done my share of vacation traveling through third-world countries. New places are nothing new to me.
When I got a job in Vietnam, I was excited to be going back to Southeast Asia - I had loved living in Thailand as a kid, and I was sure that I would love Vietnam as well. I arrived there with giddy butterflies doing somersaults in my belly. I was going to live in Vietnam!
A few short months later, I was ready to pack up and go home. Forget packing - I wanted to set fire to my luggage and toss it out the window. I was so frustrated, disappointed, and disillusioned. I was angry that Vietnam wasn't what I wanted it to be.
Recognizing Culture Shock
Thank goodness I stumbled upon an article about culture shock. As I read through the article, I began to realize that my frustrations were due to simple culture shock and not to my own personal ineptitude.
The surprising thing is that my culture shock wasn't that obvious to me. I wasn't irritated because the food was different (yum!), or because the streets were swarmed with scooters (fun!), or because no one spoke English (duh!), or even because they loved Tom and Jerry reruns so much (*raises eyebrow*).
Instead, I was frustrated because after three months in the country, I still hadn't made any Vietnamese friends. I was disappointed because all the shops and restaurants in the town where I lived closed at nine o'clock every night. I was disillusioned because I couldn't learn to speak Vietnamese to save my life.
After reading about the stages of culture shock, I realized that I hadn't suddenly acquired some personal attribute that kept me from functioning normally. I just wasn't fluent in the local culture. As soon as I understood that, I was able to start making some changes.
What Is Culture Shock?
When people think of culture shock, they are mostly thinking of what is called the Rejection Stage. When you first think about moving to your new country, you are often giddy with excitement. You go out and buy maps and books and language CDs. You surf online for information about your new home. It's the only thing you can talk about.
Then you hit the Rejection Stage, and things start to get messy. After just a few weeks, you're frustrated, depressed, confused, irritable. You start doing things that make other people angry, too. And most of the time you have no idea why.
That's the paradox of the culture shock cycle: most of the time you don't even know you're in it. How can you cope with it if you don't know what the problem is? Awareness is the key.
What You Can Do
If you are getting ready to move to another country, please understand this: You will suffer from culture shock. Don't think it won't happen to you. It will. Even if you move to the town twenty miles away from where you grew up, there will be things you don't like about it, things that you wish were like they were back home. There will always be unforeseen differences that will rattle you in your new country. Be prepared.
Once you're in your new country, pay attention to when you feel frustrated, irritated or depressed. For example, you might feel isolated because you don't have any friends in your new location when it was so easy to make friends at home. Or maybe your landlord pops in at all hours, invading your personal space, and no matter how you try to let him know that it makes you uncomfortable, he keeps it up. You might even keep a journal to record these annoyances. It will give you an outlet to vent your exasperation and it will make the source of the problem more noticeable to you.
As soon as you discover something that consistently irritates you, then you will be able to ask yourself why. Why can't you make any friends in your new location? Maybe it's because you don't speak the language well enough to communicate. Maybe it's because you're too aggressive. Maybe it's because you're not aggressive enough. Once you have a list of possible reasons, you can start working on possible solutions. Not all of them will work, but hey, life is a series of errors anyway. Become your own personal social scientist. Conduct an experiment. Make adjustments.
Most importantly, no matter how frustrated you become while living in your new country, keep smiling at the locals. You can vent of course, but do so privately in your journal, and with your friends and family back home, who aren't the object of your irritation. No matter how annoyed you feel, remember that you are a guest in this country. Be polite.
I spent seven months in Vietnam teaching English before accepting a teaching job in Shanghai, China. While I'm here I'll be learning Chinese in hopes of decyphering life in the Middle Kingdom. Follow my adventures!
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