Culture Shock

*Note: I should get come citations for this post but if I have time to do that, then I really should be working on my manuscript. You can take my word for it or google “intercultural development culture shock Bennett” and that should bring up some legitimate sources.

We throw the term culture shock around pretty casually – often to talk about moments of alterity in which we are confronted by the deep and seemingly intractable nature of our differences from others or the new culture we are encountering. Intercultural research has determined that there are several stages of culture shock and that it is something that extends beyond those moments. Culture shock is instead the process of reaction and adjustment to life in a world where the cultural understandings upon which we depend, the web of practices and meanings that are invisible to us at that the same time that they define our experiences, are not present in or applicable to our circumstances.

According to those doing research in this area, the first stage of culture shock is characterized by excitement and enthusiastic engagement of the other culture. This initial euphoria gives way to frustration, depression, a desire to withdraw, and feelings of hostility and incompetence as one encounters difficulties just living everyday life. Next comes increased acceptance of the way things are and competence in the new culture and surroundings – the feeling that you have managed to find a place for yourself in the new setting. All the same, you feel comfortable, but as someone with their own culture. In other words, as an outsider. Finally, comes integration in which you become culturally competent and comfortable and less dependent upon your own cultural perspective and mores.

So to recap:
1. Engagement
2. Isolation
3. Acceptance
4. Integration

Although these stages as treated as discrete developmental stages, in practice, one experiences many of these emotions while developing comfort and confidence in their new setting. Also, not everyone makes it to integration.

So why the lecture on intercultural development? So that you readers and I can hold out the hope that my current malaise is only temporary. That’s right folks, ISOLATION is where I am at. Take the following as evidence:
1. All I want to do is stay in the apartment and read novels, write, and play Wii FIT.
2. The other day someone laughed while I was trying to speak Chinese and I almost flew off the handle – yelling a host of insults directed at the Chinese and China generally that came to mind without the slightest trouble. Instead, I walked away.
3. My tolerance for the behavior around the kids has hit rock bottom. Whether it is the loud laughter and “Awws” we hear constantly (imagine the reaction of a gaggle of 13 year old girls who encounter an adorable bear cub dressed as a baby) or the requests for photos, I am done. The other day we were out at a tourist location. A group of teens spotted us, giggled that annoying giggle and made a bee-line for us, pulling out their cellphones and digital cameras so they could all get posed pictures standing next to the kids. They had taken only a couple of steps when I held up my hand like a traffic cop. “Bu yao![don’t want]” I barked. They stopped dead in their tracks and turned around. Soft diplomacy be damned. Incidentally, a few weeks ago we traveled to the park with some Chinese students. They were shocked and fairly disgusted by the extent to which people gawked and photographed us.
4. I am utterly incompetent in this place. Half the time I can’t even manage to get the ATM to work and that’s in English! If I get in the cab to come home, often I need to pull out an address card because the cabby cannot understand my awful Chinese well enough to hear “Zhongshan Dashue, nan men [Sun Yat Sen University, south gate].”

All this is not to say that some things aren’t going well, just that right now it feels like it isn’t worth it. Let’s hold out for better times ahead, shall we?

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This entry was posted in Culture Shock, Interculturalism, Musings and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Culture Shock

  1. Leila says:

    Hang in there, Andrea. Is this list of culture shock stages cyclical? I know I’ve been in the US since ’92 but I still have moments where I feel isolated due to what I deem culture shock.

    A musician would write a song or album based on their annoyance with something… you’re onto your manuscript about this? Good. If you’re not happy, at least you can make money telling people so. 😉

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