I’ve been thinking a lot about culture shock lately. What is it anyway? I feel like I’ve been talking about culture shock for the last 15 years, but until recently I never really got what it was. In years past, I could never really put my finger on an emotion that I’d call culture shock. Sure I felt a little exhausted trying to communicate in Italy on our honeymoon, or I would have to remind myself that everyone around me could understand and overhear my conversation after returning home from a semester abroad in Spain. But did I have culture shock? Maybe not.
Wikipedia has a nice concise article about culture shock. They explain that there are four stages: Honeymoon, Negotiation. Adjustment and Mastery.
On the honeymoon stage the article describes it as the following:
“During this period, the differences between the old and new culture are seen in a romantic light. For example, in moving to a new country, an individual might love the new food, the pace of life, and the locals’ habits. During the first few weeks, most people are fascinated by the new culture. They associate with nationals who speak their language, and who are polite to the foreigners. This period is full of observations and new discoveries. Like most honeymoon periods, this stage eventually ends.”
I loved our Pre-Service Training for the most part. Everything was interesting and new and stimulating. We were learning a new language, trying new foods and making new friends. Will, in his typical superlative-style of expressing preference, called it the “best ten weeks of his life.” That was our first two and a half months here. Then we went to permanent site.
“After some time (usually around three months, depending on the individual), differences between the old and new culture become apparent and may create anxiety. Excitement may eventually give way to unpleasant feelings of frustration and anger as one continues to experience unfavorable events that may be perceived as strange and offensive to one’s cultural attitude.”
Our first several months at site I felt angry and irritated a lot. It was almost like we had started all over again in a new culture. At the time I just thought everyone was ridiculous and annoying. Looking back, I can see that I was clearly experiencing culture shock. I knew in my mind that the things people were doing and saying were normal in this culture, but it still made me angry. And guess what? I hardly ever feel that way anymore. Have all the Indonesians in my village changed? Of course not.
“Again, after some time (usually 6 to 12 months), one grows accustomed to the new culture and develops routines. One knows what to expect in most situations and the host country no longer feels all that new. One becomes concerned with basic living again, and things become more “normal”. One starts to develop problem-solving skills for dealing with the culture and begins to accept the culture’s ways with a positive attitude. The culture begins to make sense, and negative reactions and responses to the culture are reduced.”
And that’s where we are today. I doubt we will be here long enough to get to the “Mastery” stage. It’s not that I was unprepared for these emotions. The Peace Corps gave us multiple copies of a booklet called “A Few Minor Adjustments” that could not be more accurate about the kinds of things we will feel throughout our two years of service and our adjustment back to the United States. Every now and then when one of us feels like we are struggling emotionally, we’ll get out the book and it will describe in perfect detail what’s going on or it will remind us that maybe we need to look at things from a different perspective. Even though the book can’t prevent culture shock, it can help you navigate it. It’s been incredibly helpful in that way.
So for any future Peace Corps volunteers reading this, read your copy of “A Few Minor Adjustments,” get ready for a roller coaster, and remember that you might not know you are experiencing culture shock until you’ve come through it. But hey, you’ve got “the best ten weeks of your life” ahead of you before it hits!