Culture shock

Adjusting to a new life abroad

My clothes are improperly rolled so that they take up more room than if I had just folded them, in my backpack. I take taxis rather than learn how to use the bus system. I stay in hotels rather than roughing it in a hostel. I never know where to go or what to do, so I end up spending an inordinate amount of time in the local bar.

I am a lousy traveler. I admit it. When I travel, I never really know what to do. But we are not merely travelers. We are expatriates looking to make a life for ourselves abroad, though how we travel often mirrors how we adjust to a new life. And I don't adjust well to new places and new cultures. I struggle. I tend to rely upon what I know rather than experience new things, to speak to other foreigners rather than attempt to learn a new language, to eat Western food rather than order something unknown from a menu that has no English translation. And it is a constant battle to break those patterns of behavior, but when I do, that is when I really begin to enjoy myself.

But the problems we encounter as we make the transition to a new culture are unique, and deserve special attention. And so this is not a travel guide. There are too many of those around already. And this is not a cultural guide. You can learn about that on your own. The purpose of this article is to provide the inexperienced traveler looking to start a new life abroad, a place to start. You would be surprised to find how few resources are available on this subject. This article will give you some advice on how to adjust to the shock that accompanies a transition to a new culture, and how to begin to take the steps necessary to make your life enjoyable.

Culture Shock

The transition to life in a new country means adjusting to a foreign culture. But what is culture? What is it that we are confronted with? Culture is a set of shared, accepted behavior patterns, values, assumptions and common experiences. It defines the social structure, the expectations and the norms of communication for a society.

Upon traveling to a new country you will be confronted with a set of beliefs very different from your own. The degree to which these things will differ from your own culture will vary greatly depending on where you are. When confronted by a foreign culture, it is not uncommon to experience anxiety. ‘Culture shock' is a term that was coined by Kalvero Oberg in 1958, to describe just such a phenomenon. Such anxiety can cause a person to feel lost, confused, restless or unable to make decisions. According to this theory, a person experiencing ‘culture shock' will go through 5 stages.

The five stages of culture shock are:
1. Honeymoon stage: You are enamored with the new culture. You enjoy experiencing the new sights, sounds and tastes of your new environment. You love your new life, and have no regrets.
2. Critical stage: At this stage you experience a ‘crash'. You no longer feel the euphoria you had during the first stage. You begin to experience feelings of dissatisfaction, doubt and confusion. You become critical and judgmental. You are more aware of the problems that accompany adjusting to a foreign culture, and you may become easily upset or impatient. This also the stage most commonly associated with ‘culture shock'.
3. Adjustment stage: You have a renewed sense of commitment. You are taking positive steps to alleviate the problems you encounter. You realize things aren't so bad.
4. Adaptation stage: You develop a greater appreciation of the culture in which you live. You incorporate local customs into your daily routine. You have adjusted to your new life.
5. Re-entry stage: Also known as ‘reverse culture shock'. This stage describes the problems encountered during re-integration back into your home country.

This is a list of suggestions and sound advice for those making the transition to a new culture. These are suggestions for not only overcoming ‘culture shock', but beginning your new life abroad.


Though this may be a stressful time for you, it is important for you to relax and enjoy yourself. This too shall pass. Your anxiety is only temporary. There is a wealth of new and exciting cultural experiences just waiting for you, new food, new sights to see, things to do, etc.

Refrain from making serious decisions
I suggest refraining from making any major decisions for at least 3 months. With any major move, especially to a new culture, there is doubt. You may think that this is not for you, that it would be better to abandon your new job and move back home. My suggestion is to wait. You are not thinking clearly and may not be able to make a rational decision. A hasty decision to return home may be regretted later. Give yourself time to adjust before making such a decision.
But returning home is not the only major decision you should refrain from during this time. Decisions to quit your job, to break up with a long time girlfriend, to move to another apartment, are all decisions that should not be made during your initial transition.
Sometimes it is not possible to refrain from all major decisions. For example, it will be necessary to find accommodations in the first few months in a new country. In this case, make a decision only after careful consideration of all the available choices at your disposal. And it is often wise to seek the advice of others who have lived here for sometime, preferably other expats.

Be open-minded

It is a natural tendency to see the world through the eyes of the cultural concepts we grew up in and internalized since infancy. So when confronted by a culture different than our own we tend to judge that culture. We may view certain customs and traditions as primitive or we may think certain beliefs to be immoral. I would encourage you to refrain from making judgement. Be open-minded. Acceptance is the best method of keeping an open mind. You need not make a moral judgement about another culture's customs or beliefs, but merely accept that that is how it is done. By doing so, you will make your adjustment that much easier.

Learn about the culture
Immerse yourself in the daily life of the culture of the country you have chosen to call home. Enjoy learning new ways to do things, tasting new foods, seeing new things. Speak to people. Do not be afraid that they may not speak English. If they don't then you will soon find out. But if you approach people with a smile, it is likely that they will not be offended by your attempt to communicate.
There are also many books available to help you to learn about a new culture. One such book series is the ‘Culture Shock' series. I have found it to be one of the most informative books when learning about a new culture, and each book contains sections for expatriates who are starting a new life abroad. These books can be found at most major bookstores.

Learn the language
Nothing will help you to adjust to a new culture more than learning the language. Being able to speak to people who do not speak English will teach you more about a culture than any book can, and it will go along way toward gaining acceptance and respect among the locals.
Now you are probably thinking that learning a new language will take an enormous effort and amount of time. You are probably thinking that with your new job you will not have the time to learn a new language. You are right. It is likely that you will never be fluent without full time study, but learning even some basic words and phrases will make your adjustment that much easier.
A good place to start is:
• greetings
• numbers
• transaction phrases, such as ‘How much is...?'
• phrases to help you learn new words, such as ‘How do you say..?' or ‘What is it?'
• food (an essential to tapping into the local cuisine)
It is also a good idea to bring a notebook and phrasebook with you at all times to assist you.

Make friends
Nothing makes an adjustment to a new culture easier than when you don't have to do it alone. Probably the best place to make new friends is at your place of employment or school. It is likely you will want to get to know the other expats first and that is fine. They are the ones you have the most in common with, and they can provide you with invaluable advice. Remember they have been through what you are going through. But do not limit yourself to just expats. There are many locals who speak very good English who will be more than willing to show you around and assist you in settling in.

Come prepared and come early
It is important that you come to a new country prepared. It will make your adjustment much easier if your affairs have been settled at home and you have enough money to begin your new life abroad. Do some research before you come to find out how much money you will need to begin your new life.
Coming well before you will be required to start your new job, if you were hired from home, will give you time to get adjusted before you have to invest all of your time in learning your new job. It will give you time to relax and enjoy yourself and to get a lay of the land. Also, many leases on apartments are for one year and so if it takes you a month to find a place to live that means you will have to break your lease agreement at some point when you leave. Coming early means you can avoid that.

Make a life
Many expats come to a new country and never get settled. They never make a home for themselves. They consider there situation temporary. They stay in hotels, guesthouses, or bachelor or studio apartments with only a bed to call home. And as a result they never quite feel at home. Though this may seem like a good idea I would like to caution you that there are consequences. If you choose to live like a tourist, you will always be a tourist. Making a home for yourself, buying dishes and a broom and toilet brush, can go a long way to helping you to become a part of the world around you.

In conclusion

Adjusting to a new life in a new country, confronted by a foreign culture, can be a monumental task. And though ‘culture shock' is a well-documented phenomenon, it affects people to different degrees. If, for example, you have lived abroad before, then you are less likely to experience the degree of difficulty that someone might experience who has never left home. Studies have also shown that more self-aware individuals tend to experience more intense culture shock than others, but they also tend to adapt better in the long-term.

I hope these suggestions will help the inexperienced traveler, who like me, has to struggle to adjust to a new culture. But if you take the steps and see it through, living abroad can be one of the most rewarding experiences you will ever have, and others only ever dream of


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