The term culture shock refers to the difficulty in adjusting to a new environment which most expatriates or long-term visitors experience at some point when they move to a new country. In the case of teachers, it may occur simultaneously with other, similar, symptoms associated with teaching-related stress.
The most common result of culture shock is varying degrees of depression which may cause some individuals to give up and return home. The best way to ameliorate culture shock is to understand the nature of the process.
Culture shock progresses through a recognisable sequence of stages. Some authorities give different names to the stages and include more sub-stages. The time spent in each phase and the severity of the symptoms will vary from individual to individual.
The honeymoon phase
You have moved to a new country, everything seems wonderful and strange and you feel like you are on one long holiday. If you are only away for a short time then you may never get beyond this stage.
The crisis or cultural shock phase
The Culture shock stage proper sets in. You don't understand the language; things that had seemed exotic now simply seem weird and wrong; you begin to believe that people are taking advantage of you; you feel lonely, incompetent and overwhelmed.
According to Dr. Carmen Guanipa, at the Department of Counseling and School Psychology, San Diego State University, other symptoms may include:
- Sadness, loneliness, melancholy
- Preoccupation with health
- Aches, pains, and allergies
- Insomnia, desire to sleep too much or too little
- Changes in temperament, depression, feeling vulnerable, feeling powerless
- Anger, irritability, resentment, unwillingness to interact with others
- Identifying with the old culture or idealizing the old country
- Loss of identity
- Trying too hard to absorb everything in the new culture or country
- Unable to solve simple problems
- Lack of confidence
- Feelings of inadequacy or insecurity
- Developing stereotypes about the new culture
- Developing obsessions such as over-cleanliness
- Longing for family
- Feelings of being lost, overlooked, exploited or abused
Some people never really get beyond this stage and cope by creating a little cultural island which reminds them of their native country. They don't learn the language; and they spend all their time with other ex-pats making unfavourable comparisons between their new adopted culture and an idealised version of their original culture "back home"; and they only eat "real food" from "home".
You make friends, you learn some of the language, you start to really understand how the culture works.
If you have lived in a culture for a number of years and become assimilated, then going home may also be a problem. Your memories of "home" will not have changed over the years - but home itself will. Consequently it may feel as though you have been transported to a parallel universe where everything is similar but at the same time different. Your friends will be older, greyer and fatter, and so will the presenters on TV and the politicians. Prices will have changed, trees will have grown and children may be adolescents.
Furthermore your years abroad will have changed you in ways that will make you strange to your friends. You may also see them in a different, more parochial light.
Strangely, re-entry shock may be worse for those who never really adapted to their foreign country. This is because they tend to build an idealised picture of life back home which they then unfavourably compare their adopted country against. For instance they imagine that at "home" everybody is always polite and helpful, all drivers obey the highway code, food is always hot and tasty, teenagers respect authority figures, the streets are clean and nobody leaves litter behind them, etc. etc. These beliefs may be reinforced by the imaginations of their fellow expats. Consequently such people are totally unable to adjust when they return to a country which has not only changed in reality but which probably never really existed in the first place...
- Understand what culture shock is so that you are able to recognise the symptoms.
- Learn the local language. Ideally this learning should start before you leave your home country.
- Try to learn all you can about the country before moving so that it seems less strange.
- Avoid value judgements between cultures. Do not say things are "better" or (more likely from your point of view) "worse" than your home country. Instead learn to accept that many things are simply "different".
- Be prepared to learn to like different foods.
- Try to develop some social contacts during the honeymoon stage so that you do not feel so isolated.