Ages ago, back in China, I wrote a post about culture shock. Here is a bit of it:
Culture shock is 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.
I don’t generally think in term of engagement, isolation, acceptance in integration when characterizing life outside of the U.S. In part this is because I think that cross-cultural experiences are so frequent and potentially powerful within national and even local contexts. Many of my most poignant cross-cultural encounters have occurred in the context of relating to in-laws; being a subsidized school-lunch-kid from the rural, small Peaks Island community who moved to the city middle school (to the extent Portland, Maine offered such a thing) and got tracked into classes with kids who didn’t have the local accent and tended to have more educated parents, better paid parents from elsewhere; heading off to the University of Chicago as a first generation college student.
Culture clash happens all the time. I like living abroad in part because feeling like an outsider in another country can often be attributed to geography – so much more benign and excusable a cause of culture shock than many of the cultural distinctions that exist intra-nationally.
In my experiences, the academic life has often been both the cause of and an aid in the adaptation to cross-cultural living. For example, I arrived at the University of Chicago because I had been a good student and bookworm. Those same characteristics provided me sufficient material on which I could establish relationships with my generally more privileged peers. Through those relationships I developed other cultural competencies.
I am thinking about all of this because I recently attended a sociological conference here in Sweden and found myself in a cross-cultural situation in which my school-ish self was of no assistance and was even implicated in cultural conflicts. In short, I am here to work in a Swedish academic environment so my safe zone, being academic, is the subject of cross-cultural negotiation in a way that it never has been before.
Interesting. Interesting and difficult.