It always amazes me. I have years of experience in working with teens who have decided to go on a high school exchange year to another country. I spent another high school year in another country, studied abroad while at university, volunteered abroad and finally moved abroad to another country. I have been to many countries and lived in some of them, although I obviously got stuck in Japan. I prepared so many teens for their big exchange adventure and I met so many people while living abroad and it seems no matter your age and your experience, rarely anyone is able to escape the infamous culture shock monster. Myself included. Doesn’t matter how many times I moved, even to Japan (my third time now). It still hits me every time.
People with a thirst for wanderlust sometimes laugh about it and proudly declare that they will be an exception. Because they have been interested in the new country’s culture for many years and know so much about it. Because they traveled dozens of (exotic) countries and are oh so open and tolerant. The problem is, a culture shock can hit everyone and the even bigger problem is, that a culture shock won’t hit you while screaming “it’s me, culture shock, don’t worry, I will pass”. No, a culture shock is most often not visible to the person who experiences it (would be too easy, wouldn’t it?!) and can result in some pretty stupid decisions or just weeks and months of being extremely miserable.
Many of us think of themselves as super tolerant and maybe we are, but after a few weeks and months of being in Japan, we suddenly start comparing everything with how things are back home. It starts with small, random things (sizes at McDonald’s in Japan are smaller) and continues with much bigger issues concerning mentality, education, culture and character. And overall, it seems as if everything was better back home anyway. The reason for this does not lie in the dormant patriot that just awakened but the over-comparing and over-judging results from what psychologists simply refer to as “culture shock”.
If we look a little bit more scientifically, a culture shock refers to a sudden and extreme emotional state that emerges when a person with a certain cultural background encounters a different culture. The nasty thing is, we do not recognize it as such but think that the other culture – simply put – just stinks. You can’t predict when it hits you and how long it hits you. But once you know about it, chances are actually higher you can recognize it. When I was working with exchange students, I always asked them after their return whether they had experienced a culture shock and most of them would affirm as well as tell the exact time when they had it.
So, how do you recognize one?
As I already said, you can’t predict it for sure but there are times when it is likely to hit you. The anthropologist Kalervo Oberg identified 4 stages of culture shock, that are still commonly acknowledged in the scientific world.
First, you arrive in the so-called honeymoon-phase, where you experience the otherness as exciting. We know the feeling, everything is awesome, cool, delicious and just great. I remember my friends who arrived at the same time with me in Japan (first time for them here) and to me they seemed like they were high on drugs. Everything was amazing. Like kids in a toy store.
This initial state of euphoria is, however, brought to a sudden halt and suddenly changes into the complete opposite – the state of culture shock. Suddenly, the otherness is perceived as plain wrong, as threatening and everything is compared with how things are done back home. One’s own culture is placed on a pedestal and one is extremely prone to (emotionally) overreact. Someone bumps into you on the subway and doesn’t apologize? Oh, these Japanese are all so impolite. You tried really hard to befriend someone but nothing came out of it? Oh, they are all so shallow and superficial. I have encountered these statements thousands of times and made them myself. I always tried to prepare my exchange students the best way possible but once you are abroad all alone, no one is standing beside you and telling you to calm down because you are being irrational.
But there are signs you as well as the people around you that know you (or back home) can recognize. When you are suddenly overreacting to someone bumping into you or telling all your friends and family back home that everything is much worse in Japan when at first you were really excited, try to step back and think. Were you always this patriotic? Did small things always keep you angry/depressed/crying for hours and days? Are you isolating yourself more and more? To recognize these extreme emotions as culture shock is not easy but it can help if you are prepared for it. From experiences I can say that a culture shock often hits you after the first couple of months. Are you starting your new life in Japan in summer/fall because you will attend university/language school? Chances are high, it will hit you after one to two months, maybe just in time for Christmas. For many people, Christmas is already hard enough being away from home and family but having a culture shock at the same time is sure to make adjusting even more unpleasant. My friends who arrived with me? They suddenly got very quiet, criticized Japanese culture (“This is ridiculous, why do THEY do it like that?!”), and just looked very gloomy after being over-the-top excited about the tiniest things in the beginning. It happened around 2 months after they arrived. I could have set the watch for it.
So, a way to handle the infamous culture shock is to mentally prepare oneself for it and try to analyze one’s emotions and actions more rationally. Three times I moved to Japan and back to my home country. First time I moved here I had a culture shock so intense that a small “incident” had me crying horribly in home room class surrounded by my Japanese classmates when I was an exchange student. Second time, I was so full of myself and thought I won’t have another culture shock because “I already know the country, duh”. Yep, I was wrong and it hit me strongly because I wasn’t expecting it. Third time it hit me (just half a year ago) I was better prepared. I was gloomy and depressed but always pulled myself back. Because the timing was just perfect again, since two months after I arrived, I started to feel depressed about being in Japan. Coincidence? No. I knew I wanted to be in Japan and as I have always been living far away from my family and most of my friends due to my studies and work, it just couldn’t be a sudden feeling of homesickness. I gave myself an ultimatum; if things aren’t better after one year, you can start considering returning home. 12 months might seem long but I knew that it can take at least six months to really settle in. And things settled in.
Because there are a couple of things you shouldn’t forget even though having a culture shock sounds rather bad: it is completely normal and understandable to have a culture shock but keep in mind that it will fade away. Even though it can be very intense, things will get better after a couple of weeks (3rd phase). It takes a couple of days for some people, for others it can be several weeks. Be careful not to isolate yourself or else the culture shock might become something much bigger.
But once you got over it, the best phase starts; you have adjusted to your new surrounding and the supposedly new place has now become your place (4th phase). The exciting new place has become a little bit less exciting but now you can see everything clearer and enjoy things more. Sometimes, normal isn’t so bad.