7 Things to Know About Culture Shock

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The first time I crossed a cultural boundary; I was but 1 year old! And no, it wasn’t my parents whisking me off to some far-off tropical land; it was my family returning to the US after a term of service in Pakistan. My mother says that my older sister and some of the children travelling with her (you should hear THAT story sometime) spent hours in the London hotel bathroom flushing the toilet because they had never seen such a thing before. Obviously, I have no memories of that experience.

My second cross-cultural experience, and the first one that I remember, was 6 years later, when, once again, my family decamped from Pakistan back to the US for a year. I remember that things in the US were different, but don’t remember much ‘culture shock,’ because at that age, so long as your parents are nearby and you’ve got other kids to play with, that’s all that matters. I do remember the easy access to candy, though!

After that home leave, we returned to Pakistan for another two years, before returning to the US permanently. I was 14, straddling 8th and 9th grades (a confused age anyway), so I have vivid memories of the culture shock I experienced then. I’ll spare you the details, but what I remember most clearly is the feeling of alienation, of being different. In Pakistan, I was different — that was simply a permanent state of affairs. What tripped me up when I moved to the US was feeling different in a place where I was supposed to belong!

Then I learned to live in China, and now I am learning again to live in the United States. I may not be an expert a culture shock (who wants to claim THAT title?), but I’ve certainly had lots of experience. Herewith are seven important things about culture shock that I have learned along the way:

  1. The term was coined by Cora DuBuis in 1951, but popularized by Kalvero Oberg in 1954. Workers who served overseas before that no doubt experienced all that we now call ‘culture shock,’ but they just didn’t have a fancy word for it. Maybe they just used the word “hard.” I asked my mom, who began serving in Pakistan in 1956 if she or my dad or her co-workers had ever heard of that term when they went. “Nope,” she said.
  1. There are typically four stages of culture shock: 1) “Yippee! I’m here.” 2) “Whatever was I thinking?” 3) “I can do this.” 4) “It’s beginning to feel like home.”
  1. Each person cycles through and experiences those stages at different rates and duration. This can be especially complicated when spouses or children or teammates are at different points in the adjustment cycle than you. I remember a teammate in my first year in China (1984) who was furious with me because I was still in the “Yippee!” phase while she had already crashed into “whatever was I thinking?” “This [cultural difference] doesn’t bother you, and that makes me mad!” she said as she stormed out of my room.
  1. It’s about the rules. You are in a new place that has a completely different set of rules. Your rules from ‘back home’ don’t apply, and you don’t (yet) know the new rules. What makes this so alienating is that these rules are the basic stuff of life – how to eat, how to communicate, how to get things done. Sometimes the unfamiliar rules have to do with the role you are playing (teacher, doctor, student, preacher). As Don Larson, my mentor in this area used to say, “learn the rules to play the roles.” Good advice, I’ve always thought.
  1. There isn’t a point at which you ever say, “There! Done!” Remember those cycles? Well they go round and round and round. This means that if you have been in a place for years and years, you can still experience the confusion and alienation (and even disgust). Culture shock is a part of cultural adjustment, and that is a forever endeavor.
  1. Learning the language can mitigate the effects of culture shock. There are few things that can make a person feel more alienated than not being able to communicate with those around her (or him). So it stands to reason that learning the language – learning how to communicate – is a big help. It allows you to enter their world and learn how they understand and process reality. It allows you to learn the rules, and to communicate to the locals who YOU are. This is incredibly freeing.
  1. Learning the language can exacerbate the effects of culture shock. As you learn the language you encounter the deep structures of the culture – the values and the beliefs about right and wrong. In some cases this can make things more difficult as you encounter values and beliefs that are diametrically opposed to yours. Adjusting to different eating utensils is one thing; adjusting to looser understandings of truth and justice is another thing.

When dealing with culture shock and cultural adjustment, I have always taken solace Paul’s admonition to his brothers and sisters in Colossae:

“At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:2-6)

 Wherever you are in your adjustment process, may this be your prayer as well.

And finally, here are some excellent resources on culture shock and cultural adjustment:

The Art of Crossing Cultures 2nd edition, by Craig Storti

The Art of Crossing Cultures 2nd edition by Storti, Craig published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing Paperback

The Art of Coming Home, by Craig Storti

The Art of Coming Home

Cultural Intelligence: People Skills for Global Business, by David C. Thomas

Cultural Intelligence: People Skills for Global Business

Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility, by Duane Elmers

Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility by Elmer, Duane unknown Edition [Paperback(2006)]

{Note: A version of this post was first published at Velvet Ashes on August 15, 2014.}

Living Well Where You Don’t Belong (Full Version)

Last month I wrote a guest post for the blog “Communicating Across Boundaries” on living well where you don’t belong. At the same time, I posted an abbreviated version here.

Here is the full version that went up on the other blog:

I have spent most of my life overseas, that is, not in my “passport country.” I am an American, but I spent the first 14 years of my life in Pakistan, where my father was a professor and pastor, and have spent the past 28 years living and working in China. This means that I have lots of practice in living where I don’t belong.

“Belonging” of course has multiple layers of meanings. One is purely internal, referring to how I feel about my place in whatever space I find myself in. Do or can I FEEL like I belong somewhere, regardless of the circumstances or living conditions?

Another aspect of ‘belonging,’ however, is external – how do the local residents view me? Do or can they view me as belonging, or will they always consider me an outsider who doesn’t really belong here.

What does it look like to live well where I belong, and to live well where I don’t belong? Here are 8 tips that I have found to be helpful over the years:

1.  Cultivate a tolerance of ambiguity. According to Dictionary.com, ambiguity is defined as “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention,” which is just another way of saying you don’t know what the heck is going on. As those of you who live (or have lived) cross-culturally know, this is permanent state of affairs, as you grapple with a language that is different, customs that seem strange, and social systems that are often opaque. Those with a low level of ambiguity tolerance may experience more culture stress than those who can say (honestly) “I don’t have a clue what’s going on around me, and that’s fine.”

2.  Remember that the burden of change is on you, not on the locals. The locals have been doing things their way for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, and they aren’t going to change just because you showed up, not matter how noble your reasons for being there.

3.  View everything as a privilege, not an entitlement. The American sense of entitlement is strong, and often not helpful when living cross-culturally. It is true that we have many rights for which we should be thankful, but we need to keep in mind that they are not automatically transportable. In China, for example, I am not entitled to speak freely on any topic anywhere or form some kind of assembly or social organization. But in many ways, those are the easier things to deal with. What is harder is to remember that I am not entitled to the level of convenience and efficiency that I am used to ‘back home.’ If we can leave behind our sense of entitlement, we are then free to view everything (whether they bring joy or annoyance) as a privilege.

4.  Don’t take yourself too seriously. Maintain your sense of humor. Look for the humor in everyday life, remembering that YOU are often the main source.  You will find yourself in many funny and perhaps embarrassing situations. Go ahead and laugh about it. Laughing beats fretting every time. One of my former colleagues in China used to say that he was convinced that the main role of a foreigner in this society was to provide entertainment to the locals. I think he was right.

5.  View cultural mistakes as learning opportunities.  It’s important to remember that if you are living cross-culturally, you WILL make cultural mistakes. Fortunately cultural mistakes are not fatal, unless of course the cultural mistake you make is not crossing the street properly. In most cases, locals are very gracious towards foreign sojourners in their midst who are making obvious attempts at learning the language and culture.

6.  Limit yourself to one “why” question per day.  One of my favorite quirky Hong Kong movies is a mad-cap adventure called “Peking Opera Blues.” The movie itself is entertaining, but the poorly translated “Chinglish” subtitles add to the humor. In one scene, the beautiful damsel enters a garage and finds it littered with dead bodies (the mafia had just paid a visit), and utters (according to the subtitles) “WHY IS IT LIKE THIS?” Those of us who live cross-culturally find this question on the tips of their tongues pretty much all the time. We look are around and see so much that is unfamiliar and confusing and want to shout WHY IS IT LIKE THIS? If the question is driven by a true desire to understand, then it is fine; however, most of the time, it simply means “it’s not like this back home, so it shouldn’t be like this here,” and excessive use of the question just opens the door for a rant. So…make a rule. Only one “why” question per day.

7.  Be prepared to adjust /modify your own behaviors. In his book “The Art of Crossing Cultures,” Craig Storti suggests that cultural adjustment is really adjusting to two things: to new behaviors of the locals that annoy, confuse, and unsettle us, and adjusting or weeding out those behaviors that we have that confuse and annoy the locals. Truth be told, that’s the harder adjustment sometimes.

8.  Strive to be an ‘acceptable outsider.’  I live in China, which is an insider/outsider culture. There are two kinds of people in the world: Chinese and foreigners, and they are as mutually exclusive as Jew and Gentile. There is nothing I can ever do to be considered an insider in Chinese culture.  The best I can become is an acceptable outsider, one who is active in learning the language and culture and taking steps to gain access to the world of the insiders. It also means that I try not to settle for not being offensive; rather I make it my goal to be polite. Sometimes I even succeed! In my case part of ‘belonging’ means coming to terms with my permanent outsider status.

What tips would you add?

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