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Moving Abroad: Expat Culture Shock

Expat Culture Shock - The Typical Phases of Culture Shock

Culture Shock is Inevitable!

No matter how well you prepare to immerse yourself in your new country's culture, you will almost inevitably experience culture shock. Most expats typically progress through a few phases of culture shock. Having a general understanding of these phases can help tremendously.

Desi Downey, author of Ni Howdy! An American Woman's (Mal)Adaptation to Life in the People's Republic of China, wrote a hilarious article entitled, Culture Shock: It's the Little Things That Count in the Biggest Ways. In it, Desi provided a colorful overview of the stages of culture shock and how she experienced them. Below is the full article (it's just too funny to summarize!).

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The Stages of Expat Culture Shock

Culture Shock: It's the Little Things That Count in the Biggest Ways by Desi Downey.

One of the first things I noticed about China was that all the men carried purses and the women held hands. This phenomenon shot straight to the top of my list of "Weird World Wonders" and stayed there until a mere five minutes later, when I went looking for a bathroom at the airport and came face to face with my first squatty potty.

This was culture shock, pure and simple, and I was already moving from the first stage of it - the honeymoon, or tourist, stage, which I had entered before we ever left the States - into the second, the irritation-to-anger stage. Culture shock can mean many different things to many different people, and any kind of move - whether it be across town, across the country or across the planet - can create different kinds of trauma in different kinds of people. Kalvero Oberg first identified the five distinct stages of culture shock in 1958, and we know them today as:

  • The honeymoon, or tourist, stage;
  • The irritation-to-anger stage;
  • The rejection/regression stage;
  • The integration/assimilation stage;
  • The reverse, or reentry, stage.
When my husband's company offered him an expat job in China, we jumped at the chance. This would be the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to see the world, a great way to experience a new, exciting and mysterious culture. And get paid for it!

I was really excited. The first thing I did was run down to the local bookstore and buy a whole bunch of books about China, the Chinese people and how to speak Chinese. I even hired a Chinese friend from Taiwan to teach us the language (and whose first lesson of course was to explain that Taiwanese Chinese was completely different from Mandarin Chinese, but fortunately for us he spoke both).

We had a whole three weeks to prepare to move abroad, and ready I was going to be. I would walk like they walked, talk like they talked and think like they thought. I would eat their food (I loved Chinese food!), drink their (warm) Tsingtao beer, dress like they dressed, dance like they danced, learn to sing kari-yucky (karaoke - the Chinese national past-time second only to staring at the foreigners) and sleep on a bamboo-grass mat.

(I can be really naive sometimes.)

I was going to China! Wow.

Things like this just didn't happen to people like me!

Those three weeks flew by, of course, and before I knew it we were getting off a plane in Chengdu, Sichuan. I had not yet figured out that Chinese food in China was not anything like Chinese food in America, and I had not yet developed a taste for warm beer. But I could say hello, thank you and goodbye in Chinese, I was excited and happy to be there, and I was more than ready, willing and able to start my new life in China. The honeymoon wasn't over yet, and I just didn't have a clue.

The first stage of culture shock is the honeymoon, or tourist stage; this is the fun part. This is the stage where everything is new and novel and exciting and fun and different and cute and quaint and happy, and all the quirky little cultural anomalies you run across make you smile. Since I actually entered the first stage of culture shock while we were still in the States, it did not take me very long after arriving in China (like, the next day) to go from happy little tourist to spoiled, ugly American. I went from "Aren't those pedicabs cute?" to being mad at all the pedicab drivers because they didn't speak English. I went from being fascinated with China to being nauseated by the sight and smell of Sichuan food. I went from desperately wanting to learn the language to not being able to stand the infernal racket of their constant, unintelligible chattering, and of course there was no doubt in my mind that they were all always talking about me. As I moved into the third stage of culture shock, I began to reject everything that China and the Chinese had to offer.

Depending upon whom you ask, the third stage of culture shock is either known as the rejection/regression stage or the acceptance stage. This sounds like a contradiction, but really it isn't. Perhaps a better name for this stage would be the turning point stage, as this is the place where you either stay angry and continue to reject your host country and its culture and people altogether and turn tail and run home, or you begin to accept all those quirky little cultural anomalies and decide to stay, live, learn, work, and play, in their country, on their terms. You realize that it is not their job to speak your language, but your job to speak theirs, and you've even managed to pick up a few phrases of the local lingo. As you become more comfortable with your new surroundings and more familiar with your new country and its culture, you're not afraid to venture out anymore. You don't feel so much like a fish out of water.

The fourth stage of culture shock - the integration/assimilation stage - is, in many ways, a lot like that old honeymoon stage, without all those silly old honeymoon delusions. You've arrived, and you've finally decided to go out & enjoy it. You are no longer a prisoner of your own design. You have learned to adjust, adapt, accept, communicate and enjoy your new life in your new country. You are truly grateful for the opportunity to live and work in a foreign land and experience another culture first hand. You've accepted the food (well, okay, maybe not the really spicy Sichuan food), the drinks (except for bai jiu, that awful-smelling, awful-tasting white rice wine), the habits (except for the spitting and the staring) and the customs (with the exception of the squatty potty) of your host country, and may even find some things preferable to the way things are back home (traditional Chinese massage comes immediately to mind). And when you think about going back home, you think about all the things you are going to miss about your host country, and you know in your heart that you are making memories you will cherish forever.

For most expats, the various stages of culture shock will run their course over a six to nine month period, although not necessarily in order. Some people bounce back and forth between the different stages, and others might skip a stage altogether, perhaps reverting back to it later. Not everybody is affected by culture shock in the same way, but just about anybody who spends any time at all outside their own country will experience some symptoms of culture shock. My own experience with culture shock felt like a roller coaster ride through the Twilight Zone, and I often found myself thinking that if somebody had just told me about this or if I had just known about that, my adapting to life in China would not have been so, well, (mal)adapted.

However, there are several things expats can do to ease the pangs of culture shock, and being realistically prepared is key. It was always the littlest things that caused me the biggest problems, and if I had been better prepared I would not have been so culturally challenged when I discovered that I couldn't buy a dozen eggs in a carton (I would have brought my own along) or whenever a 40 watt light bulb (which was all I could find) blew out and exploded over the top of my head (I would have ducked every time I flipped a switch). If I had known that most restaurants didn't have forks (okay, duh, this was China, after all, but like I said, I can be really naive sometimes), I would have arrived with a fork in my purse or, better yet, learned to use chopsticks before I ever left the States.

I don't know that anyone can ever truly be prepared for the sight of their first squatty potty, but perhaps if I had been warned I wouldn't have been so horrified at the sight of my first one, or so flabbergasted when I discovered that they didn't come stocked with toilet paper. What kind of place doesn't stock their public toilets with toilet paper? I wondered. This was all much too primitive for me.

(Go ahead, laugh. And call me an ugly American if you will. But squatty potties are an abomination, and even the Chinese have now actually begun to do something about them. For instance, Beijing, eager to put its best face forward for the 2008 Summer Olympics, has begun installing high-tech self-cleaning toilets near many of its more popular tourist sites, like the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, and promises to keep them stocked with toilet paper. And dial-a-loo, a phone line people can call to find the location of the nearest public privy, was recently introduced at the first-ever World Toilet Expo hosted in Shanghai this past May.)

Another great way to minimize the symptoms of culture shock is to make lists, and then have them translated. I'm a big fan of bilingual lists (your language for you, their language for them), and in China I made lists for everything. (If your host country's language is character-based, like Chinese, remember to include the romanized translation as well, (i.e., pinyin), which will help you learn to speak the language, too). I made food lists, every day household goods lists, phone number lists and address lists. With my grocery lists, I could go shopping without a Chinese babysitter. With my phone number lists, I could call the bank, the phone company, or a taxi (I couldn't communicate with any of them, but at least I could call them if I wanted to!). With my address lists, I could run all over the city and never get lost and if I did, so what? All I had to do was show the nearest taxi driver my address - written in his language and not mine, of course - and go home. Freedom, baby. These lists were freedom and, like my fork and my toilet paper, I learned to never leave home without them.

The fifth and final stage of culture shock is the reentry, or reverse, stage. Just about the time you become accustomed to living overseas and being called a seasoned expat, it's time to go home. And once you get back home, you are going to discover, much to your surprise (and sometimes, dismay), that you, and just about everything and everybody around you, have changed. Your favorite corner market is now a parking lot. There is a strip mall where there used to be a cornfield. You've been off on a great overseas adventure, but nobody really cares. Life went on without you, and nobody wants to hear your stories or look at your pictures. I taught English in China for six years, and my students all treated me like a queen. When we moved back to the States, I was just another American again, just like everybody else. I wasn't important anymore, and I didn't feel special anymore. It was hard, not being queen anymore.

So, once you get back home, whenever you find yourself struggling with reentry shock, remind yourself that you've been there, done that. You've gone through all the stages of culture shock before, and it all turned out okay. You know what to do, and you know how to get through it. You've got some great memories, and you've no doubt made some great new friends.

And if that doesn't work, just click your heels three times and try to remember that there's truly no place like home.

Wherever that may be.


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Related Links:

Desi Downey

Jim Kayalar

Emilie Udell

Ange Teo

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