Culture Shock

I have thought a lot about things I miss from home. A colleague of mine at the university, who has lived in Germany for some time between fifteen and twenty years has said that you forget what you miss after a while. I imagine it is all aspects of one’s own personal journey with culture and culture shock, since it is a process after all.

Everyone, I think has an idea of what exactly culture shock is, it has been studied and there is quite a process to it. People might imagine that when people initially think of ‘culture shock’ they imagine the feeling they notice when they attempt to interact with others while in another country, or perhaps just the perceived differences between cultures one might notice when they are immersed in another country.  These feelings or perceived differences might fade or be completely diminished after some time has been spent in the new country, or the person might just think, “I’m only here for a week (or two)” just accepting the new culture as separate and different or ‘quaint’.

In reality, culture shock looks something like this:

Culture Shock

from the Berkley International Office

And it is defined by “a feeling of confusion and anxiety that somebody may feel when they live in or visit another country (OALD)” with four distinct parts as show here:

  • 1. The Honeymoon: “Everything is great!”  – In other words, this initial phase can be called “Cultural Euphoria”. This is the phase that really lets you point out whether you would like to or not, just how much you thought you knew about the culture and way of life of the new country you are in. People likely laugh at you behind your back because of the things you do or say (or don’t do or say). This stage can also be characterized by a sweet wide-eyed deer-in-the headlights look of constant amazement and wonder, often with mouth agape as if you wanted to catch a fly or two for a cheap snack. More of us have been there than care to admit, so ultimately it is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about.

When I first arrived in Germany, things didn’t really seem that different, outside of the language. The weather was great and the people were nice. Never mind that the professor I worked with that first year had established quite a base of German students to help me adjust and get settled. I don’t think my first few weeks would have been so great without the help of those wonderful people.

  • 2. All at Sea: “This place sucks, home is better.” (Confusion, depression, anxiety & resentment can all be felt here.) This is also known as the “Cultural Confrontation” stage. Here, you are likely to see your home country through rose-colored glasses and those of your host country through shit-covered glasses which may vary in thickness depending on how many of ‘your own’ type of people are around you (other people of similar nationality and comradery, or other expats). It is amazing at this stage how just going to the grocery store or posting a letter can seem to take all day because of the language and cultural landscape one must transverse. In truth, it isn’t ‘their’ fault or yours, you are likely just a little home sick – even if you thought you hated home, simply because even the ‘tough things’ were likely easier than where you are now simply because the language is not as well-known and the cultural social cues are unfamiliar. This stage may cause people to drink heavily, often with other people in a similar boat or, alternatively it may drive some to become slight shut-ins obsessing over the latest teen-love-triangle literary/film series and eat a lot (not that I did that or anything though).

I personally, felt this off and on once the semester started, even in Orientation, when I took my first ‘German course’ which was not adequately named as it was the absolute WRONG way to be exposed to a language and its teachers (language representatives). This orientation was so traumatizing that it scared me off the German language for nearly four months, nothing like a good start right?! It was more like torturing my brain without my body fully realizing it until after class had finished daily.

I also realized how privileged and apparently spoiled I had been at my home university in America as the technology available at this university is far inferior to the technology (on campus, in the library, off-campus access, in the classrooms) available at home. I can somewhat understand why American students go into debt being able to fund their universities. I would willingly pay more for that access again! In retrospect, I felt a little naive to think that a university is a university is a university. Naive and disappointed at the facilities on offer at my new university. I have grown accustom to the standard here and know that I can successfully do a lot with a little. Also, in the end I was being naive and this allows me to attempt to be a better teacher standing alone without the latest advanced technology because that is something that not all schools and universities across the world will have. However, the standard expectations on a students and on a teacher are vastly different here compared to at least Oregon and generally do not favor the student in any way, especially the new student – extra-especially the new student who struggles to speak the language. There are many other examples but I will keep it at that, for now.

Once my parents retired, my mother was all excited to travel. I am definitely my mothers daughter! My father had spend his entire life working – in America) and yes, they had traveled to Mexico and Canada, as Americans do. They had not really traveled farther than that together though. My father usually let my mother travel with her sisters or in organized travel groups while he “held down the fort at home”. Never mind that whenever he left for more than a day he felt things would fall apart and break. The trip my mother had planned was to Thailand for ten days. Upon their return my sister and I learned that my mother ate all the street food and my father ate McDonalds food and was simply disgusted with my mother’s wild abandon and utter lack of care for street vendor cleanliness. The funny thing is, my mother never got sick, but my father did. He has since said, time and again that America is big enough and he needs to explore it. My mother has convinced him to go on other exotic trips (New Zealand) but none as exotic and memorable as that first one.

  • 3. Adjusting: Searching for understanding amongst the differing cultures. The lack of self-confidence you felt in stage two gives way here to a new blossom of hope. At this stage you, in theory, are interacting more openly and freely with the locals, assuming the locals will actually talk to you.

 I feel I actually do this daily, over and over and over again otherwise I don’t think I would be writing this. A common comment I hear from both Germans and outsiders is that Germans, especially from this region are rather ‘closed-off’ from others if they are not in their immediate circle of friends or family. To dispel this idea I would like to submit into evidence the fact that a number of people I walk past in the morning or when exercising do say, “Morgen” or “Hallo”, never mind that the rest of the day no one says much, at least in the morning they are full of hope and happiness. Perhaps it is supposed to be a secret.

  • Acceptance/Adaptation: (and appreciation of differences amongst cultures and people) – Some days I am here, accepting and adapting while other, I am so NOT here. For example,  friend recently came back from living in my home city for a year and basically described me-now in comparison to me-a-year-ago like this: “You were so, ‘Yeah, whatever, it’s okay, no problem’ before I left and now you seem so much more like, ‘No, absolutely not – without question.'” whether that is clear enough of an explanation, remains to be seen but, I have somewhat accepted the differences I have uncovered and obviously as my friends description of me is any indication, adapted as well. Not that I necessarily like the differences, or am I saying that it is better or worse here or back home. It simply is what it is.

Whenever I would travel at before moving to Germany, I would attempt do so for longer periods of time whenever possible. My first big adventure was a semester in England when I first began college. It was amazing, I think during the whole six and a half months I was in the honeymoon stage. Then, upon reentry into America, I would go directly into ‘reentry shock’. My own processing of culture shock were a little out-of-order and at times, somewhat brief, so much so that I didn’t know when that was part of culture shock. Yet, then again, that is the point, most people are likely not aware of these stages and so, are not aware of their own progression through them.

Whenever I would arrive in a new place, immediately from America, I would feel a great sense of adrenaline and excitement. I would then arrive at my hotel/hostel/home for the next ‘X’ number of days/weeks and have a mini crisis of personal faith followed directly by a quick recovery and acceptance that whatever happens will be good because it is new unchartered territory for me, that all of it is just part of my own ‘vision quest’. After that I would be able to explore my new home with an amazing openness (honeymoon?) and acceptance. I generally travel without knowing too much about where I am going, and that has worked out well for me thus far (Great Britain, Ireland, Western Europe, Czech Republic & Slovenia, Australia, Fiji and South Korea). I have found this to allow me to be pleasantly surprised and appreciate more what I encounter in each place. I understand too that this is something of a luxury of western living and that this way of traveling might not work in the East or Africa, especially because I am a woman and because I am white.

Sources:

“Cultural Adjustment” Berkley International Office: University of California. 2011. http://internationaloffice.berkeley.edu//cultural_adjustment. 17.09.11.

Paige, R. Michael, et al. Maximizing Study Abroad: A Students’ Guide to Strategies for Language and Culture Learning and Use, Second Ed. Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition – Office of International Programs. University of Minnesota, 2009.

Parrish, Patrick & Jennifer A. Linder-VanBerschot. “Cultural Dimensions of Learning: Addressing the Challenges of Multicultural Instruction.” International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. 11. 2. (05/2010): N.P.  PDF. http://www.uh.cu/static/…/TD/Cltural%20Dimensions%20of%20Learning.pdf  .17.09.11.

Tomalin, B. & Stempleski, S. (1993). Cultural awareness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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