Culture shock is a common phenomenon experienced by everyone who has lived abroad, though it affects each person differently. While moving and living overseas is generally an exciting and thrilling experience that allows one to explore other parts of the world and expand one’s worldview, culture shock can cause emotions to turn upside down and particularly affects those living far away from home.
In general, there are four stages to culture shock. From my own experiences and observations, culture shock can take months to develop and overcome. The length of time each stage lasts, how each stage affects each person, and the order in which the four stages appear all can vary.
1. Honeymoon Stage. During this stage, you’re enthralled by your new country, and you’re fascinated by everything about it — the food, the culture, the people, the architecture. You’re on the greatest adventure of your lifetime. You feel as if you’re in another world and your senses are fully engaged.
It seems I completely bypassed this stage for this move. The excitement over the prospect of another overseas move wore off quickly for me — after less than one week after my husband accepted his job. The rest of our time at home was spent making decisions and figuring out the logistics of the move. The first two weeks after our arrival was fairly fun, but compared to the level and length of the enthusiasm I felt for Thailand, this stage felt practically non-existent this time.
2. Frustration/Depression Stage. During this stage, the novelty of your new country has worn off. The fatigue of adjusting to a new environment and culture, and the challenges of re-learning how to do everyday tasks, has set in. You’re more focused on the differences between your new country and your home country. Every little thing feels like a major catastrophe that sets you off. You are homesick for the familiar and for your friends and family at home.
To me, this is the most painful stage of the process, and this is where I’ve been for the last two to three weeks. I’m already tired of the challenges of daily life, such as figuring out how to get from point A to point B; a new school day routine; learning where to buy certain items, how much things cost and how much they should cost, how and where to get repairs done, and where to find resources and activities for my son; dealing with the constant heat.
Then there are the everyday “problems” of a leaky faucet, occasional slow Internet, waiting for the elevator. These issues obviously are not a big deal, but they feel that way. I feel frustrated and helpless that I can’t just call the repairman myself to have things fixed and have to depend on others. The challenges feel never-ending and relentless — everything requires mental energy and planning ahead, and it is exhausting. I’m so over it. I long for the days when I could go through the day effortlessly, without any thought at all.
Emotionally, I feel downright deranged! I wrestle with hundreds of emotional states every hour of every day. One minute, I’m giving myself a pep talk, encouraging myself, and feeling hopeful, and the next minute, I’m feeling sad and crying about the life we gave up, frustrated and angry about all the challenges we’re facing, and regretting our decision to move here. It is not a pretty sight.
3. The adjustment Stage is when your frustrations begin to subside as you become more familiar with your new surroundings, the new culture, and your new life and routine. You have established your community and circle of friends, you’ve gotten to know your city better and are able to get around more easily, and the culture doesn’t feel so foreign anymore. You still experience some highs and lows periodically, but your sense of humor returns. You’re no longer as emotional as you were during the last stage, and you are open to deeper learning about the culture, gaining a new perspective about your new country and the world.
Because I went through the first stage of culture shock so quickly, I am crossing my fingers that I will get through the second stage just as quickly and get to this stage soon. In Thailand, it probably took me at least six to nine months to reach this stage.
4. Acceptance Stage. Once acceptance arrives, you no longer struggle emotionally. You are comfortable in your new culture, are able to put together the resources for your needs, and feel content with your new life. The differences in your own culture and the new culture no longer affect you negatively, and you’re able to live and work to your full potential.
I probably took a full year to reach this stage when we moved to Thailand. Our second year there was noticeably different from our first. In our second year, everything felt easy and “right,” and we were able to enjoy our life much more fully.
Tips for Coping with Culture Shock
When my family and I first moved to Thailand, it took me a couple of months before I moved to the second stage of culture shock. Even then, I didn’t recognize it as part of the process of culture shock. It was very difficult to make sense of what I was feeling and thinking, and I blamed myself and others for what I was feeling and going through. But now that I recognize my feelings and behavior as one of the stages of culture shock, it is much easier to make sense of them. It is also easier to deal with these feelings when I know they are temporary and will pass at some point.
It’s not only important to understand the different stages of cultural adjustment, but it’s also important to analyze and reflect on your situation and feelings. Be flexible, expect the unexpected, be patient with yourself and give yourself lots of time to process your new life, and try to focus on the positive and the humorous.
Find and locate people and resources that offer support — meet new people, keep in contact with family and friends at home, participate in groups and activities that interest you, explore your new surroundings and take time out to get away, and learn the new language.
While culture shock may be one of the toughest parts of life overseas, with some planning and strategies, you can come out of it stronger for it, and enjoy your new life to the fullest.