Tuesday, April 3, 2012

How to: Navigating Culture Shock

Culture shock is kind of an ambiguous, abstract term—difficult to grasp until you are deep in the belly of it. Growing up, my family would occasionally go to Mexico when spring-break tickets dropped to  now-unimaginable prices below $200. There was no mistaking that we were foreigners in a foreign country, but these trips offered a shield to the more advanced stages of shock; we did, after all, spend most of our time in a strategically controlled environment that had been fabricated for the comfort—or, uh, tastes—of us foreigners.

When I went to Europe for my first solo trip as a 23 year old, I didn't feel culture shock so much as I felt loneliness or physical hunger—mostly because I was alone and too broke to buy more than a meal a day. When I did experience culture shock was when my mom picked me up at the airport in Minneapolis and brought jet-lagged me straight to Byerly's—a high-end supermarket. I stood at the deli case, crying softly—possibly because I was so overwhelmed by the pre-package mayonnaise-based food options and definitely because I realized I was trying to convert the prices from U.S. dollars into U.S. dollars. 

The time I spent working in New Orleans from August–October 2011 brought a braaaaand new type of culture shock. At a dinner party one evening, I told a group of friends how perplexed I was at the degree of shock I was dealing with during one particularly trying week: “I mean, it's so strange,” I said. “I'm having the strongest culture shock of my life. That should be impossible because…” I searched for my meaning, “because New Orleans is in the United States.”

“No!” shouted a California-dissenter who had lived in New Orleans since arriving to help with post-Katrina relief work six years prior. “No, it's not! New Orleans is a third world country.” 

Social scientists propose a four-step model to demonstrate the stages one experiences when exposed to a foreign culture:

The honeymoon period is the stage where you find the differences between your home culture and your host culture charming. “The food is so delicious!” you might say. “Look at all these adorable children selling bracelets,” you might note.

The negotiation phase is labeled “Culture Shock” in the diagram. This is the part where all the little differences—the food, the traffic laws, the hygiene, the etiquette—are no longer charming. “Why is everyone screaming on their cell phone?” you demand to know “Why is this freak standing in my personal space?” 

In addition to the psychological toll of this stage, especially concerning the loneliness and exhaustion that stem from difficulty communicating, you're facing physiological stressors, such as circadian rhythm disruption, which causes insomnia and daylight drowsiness, and gut flora adaptation (and its unpleasant side-effects), which is caused by the introduction of new bacterias from the unfamiliar food and water you're consuming.

The adjustment phase is where you no longer see things as black and white, good vs. evil. You develop a routine as well as coping mechanisms from learning what to expect. You see neutrality where you once saw only discomfort.

In the mastery phase, you are fully navigating and participating in your new culture. It doesn't mean you have undergone a magical conversion or transformation; you've still retained your old self and pieces of your home culture, but you can feel at home now.

It doesn't necessarily end here. Sociologists propose a model that looks like this:

This is more accurate because it demonstrates that this is not a one-set cycle. You will love your host culture one day. and loathe it the next while spending a lot of time somewhere in the middle. 

No traveler experiences the same exact symptoms of culture shock, and despite documented trends, no one is on the same timeline. But when you end up deep in the belly of the valley portion of this sine wave progression, what is to be done?

Here are some tips for navigating the darker moments of culture-shock:

Document the good times.
Whether it be through photographing your favorite meal or sculpture or writing an email or blog post revering the positive aspects of your experience in your host culture, this can be a beacon to turn to when things get rough in a week or two. Make a list of things you think are more interesting/ progressive/exciting than your home culture. Refer to these when the inevitable happens and you're yearning for a cheeseburger back home.

Don't equate discomfort with failure.
There are a scant amount of individuals who claim they've never experienced culture shock, even when traveling for long periods of time, but these are outliers. Or sociopaths. Hating something, being miserable or pining for home does not make you weak. It is more than perfectly normal: it just makes sense.

Give yourself permission to commiserate.
You don't have to try and cheer up. Revel in self-pity and anguish if you must. Write it down. Dramatize it if it helps. Many are embarrassed to admit they travel not so much for the adventure—not so much for the cultural understanding it imparts—but mostly because of the story. If you're one of these, this misery will be the most entertaining part of your story.

Laugh at yourself for being such a baby. Laugh at the oddness of what you're seeing. Imagine your most uptight friend or relative back home being subjected to the peculiarity you're experiencing, and laugh at that. 

These are just a few tips to help you through the darker days. They are not cure-alls by any means. Because when you are puking your guts out in Cambodia and the only available food is roasted locusts and grasshoppers, no amount of reviewing photos of your hike to the butterfly waterfall a month ago will make you not want to throw up in the lap of your host culture as punishment for your discomfort.

What are some of your best culture-shock stories and remedies?


  1. I found when I went to England that the honeymoon stage was over after about three days. Maybe it was because the only bathroom in my building was a floor below me so when I had to go in the middle of the night I had a terrible choice: Go downstairs and go, guaranteeing I would never get back to sleep because nothing wakes you up like a flight of stairs; or go in a peanut butter jar and then deal with the terror of getting caught with your peanut butter jar full of pee when you bring it down to empty in the morning.

  2. When I was 16 (a very long time ago) I decided to take the bus up to my Grandma's (UP of MI) ALONE. After realizing on the first day that the only thing you could get on the radio was 'tradio'(this is where the town folks sold or traded their used bunt pans,wringer washing machines or other priceless treasures)and my options for shopping were a small Sears store and Ben Franklin, I felt suicide might be my only option. Fortunately, Grandma's cooking didn't mess with my gut flora. Needless to say, it was a very long two weeks. Obviously, my experience pales to yours, but it's the best I could come up with.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this. I spent last summer in South Africa and worry about my friends who are traveling abroad this year. I plan on passing this post around so maybe they won't be quite as negatively impacted as I was.

    1. Mckenzie—thanks for reading! I think there is a lot of power in expectation and resisting the urge to feel disappointed in yourself, as if you've failed, when you have the darker moments of tension.

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