Cultural Shock: The Emotional Roller-coaster Ride
A Guest Post by Sara-Elly Shimabukuro, from TheGlobalUs.com
Cultural shock: the emotional roller-coaster ride
My family has a long history of cross-border marriages and geographical mobility. If there was an incarnation of “the global family”, we probably would be a good fit because we truly are a melting pot of living multiculturalism.
Despite this seemingly “cultural-shock proof” background, I lamentably failed to pass the cultural shock test without going through an unexpected and unstoppable emotional rollercoaster ride.
I spent nights digging in internet and books to get to know more about my host culture and have been excited like a child on Christmas day for many months discovering new aspects of the country. I also touched bottom and probably went through a small episode of depression. I had this cruel moment of unexplained hatred and rejection toward my host culture.
This passionate relationship is something we all experience and laugh about afterward but it is definitely not a spontaneous mechanism to be able to identify what is happening to us when we are going through the hardships of adaptation and integration.
Culture is like a big iceberg
No matter how much we prepare ourselves, or how much we think we are prepared, only when we reach the end of the ride do we realize that culture is more than a floating concept. It is hard to grasp its full meaning, in fact culture could very much be
described as a big iceberg.
The visible part is made of obvious things and stereotypes we can be mentally prepared to deal with. On the contrary, the larger underwater part is subconscious for the most part, unperceivable and inaccessible to outsiders unless we have a powerful imagination, or a strong capacity to believe in the fact that we are not the center of the world. In other words, one must be able to detach himself from his own landmarks and subjectivity. In an ideal situation we should be able to apprehend the world like babies would. For most of us, this is impossible.
The unwritten rules of the social game
To get the new “unwritten rules of the social game” (as Geert Hofstede defines culture) we must then go through different stages. Eventually and with perseverance we can all overcome the trauma we experience when moving into a culture different from our own.
Cultural shock “is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. These signs include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves in the situations of daily life.” (Oberg, 1960, quoted from Gibson).
Even if each one of us live and feel this shock in a unique and personal way, a few patterns have been pointed out to be commonly present in our numerous experiences.
At the Honeymoon stage, we find ourselves curious and smart, we try to understand with an open-mind and are full of optimism. Everything is fascinating; we take tons of pictures and completely take over our friend’s newsfeeds on Facebook by commenting on every dish we eat or place we visit. This stage is bliss and we are extremely vocal about it.
Nothing prepares us for the second stage: THE CULTURAL SHOCK. We start by being more realistic and quickly shift toward a cynic vision and mockeries and end up seeing only negative aspects of the culture.
Looking back, I clearly went through a small depression at that stage. I was frustrated and confused. I felt anxious and helpless. I could not get over the language problem no matter how hard I studied, and I just did not get why they were reacting in such weird and unpredictable ways. “What is wrong with these people!!!! ”.
That is also called the “morning after” stage. Probably the worst place to be if we professionally deal with important projects or assignments.
The adjustment stage is like a warm sunrise after a long stormy night. We finally adjust. We have built a routine, feel settled and start acquiring a greater knowledge of the local culture and language.
I am not sure if it is because it coincided with the arrival of spring and the start of a new job, but I finally opened up and found my good old self back. Around then, I regained motivation, a sense of humor and happiness in general and accepted differences in thoughts and behaviors. I realized that I (and my culture) was not the center of this world and that other thinking systems existed out there. They might be different but they are not weird (in the negative way), wrong, or to be feared. That sounds obvious, but even the most open-minded ones among us can be reduced to such simplistic thoughts when these strong psychological mechanisms take over our reasoning. Ask anybody who has spent more than a couple of years abroad or who has been repetitively exposed to different cultures.
This whole process leads us to the final stage of genuine enthusiasm and culture mastery. I realized I had developed a strong feeling of biculturalism. The host culture had taken a considerable place in how I define myself. I started acting like my local friends, sometimes without even noticing. At some point I could not help but bow all the time like Japanese do, even to my French friends who were shocked about what I had become. I also turned into an apologetic person. “I am sorry” came out left and right (sometimes along with the bowing…I was clearly a nut case according to my friends back home).
I realized how much this society had to offer and I was finally in peace with its negative aspects. Even if my compatriots might think the contrary, it is not as if we French were perfect anyway. I even started favoring certain aspects of Japanese culture over my own. Japanese people are polite, clean and know how to live together and respect each other (even in the midst of terrible natural disasters, like the 11th March earthquake which took the lives of thousands of people).
This foreign culture I am talking about is the Japanese culture. I was born and raised in France but I am half Japanese. I am not sure whether or not this factor made my experience more complex or on the contrary easier compared to other people without this pre-existent condition, but for sure this tells you that, really, we can never really be prepared enough for cultural shocks.
However, being aware of this unavoidable rollercoaster ride, and accepting it as a natural process, will help us in handling cultural shocks.
French-Japanese, with Italian, Sicilian, Spanish and North African roots, Sara-Elly Shimabukuro comes from a circus family, a tribe of bohemians and globe trotters. As they toured around the Mediterranean, building circus theaters in the cities they visited, the circus absorbed a bit of everything on the way, bringing unique colors to her family. She continues to make this patchwork of cultures: recently she added Canadian and Taiwanese beauty to her family lines. Her son holds four nationalities from birth. Some might see it as a spell, she calls it a miracle.
Despite the fact that being global is almost part of her genes, she still questions and strives to understand this constant puzzle. Global village ? Regionalism ? Resurgence of states… or not… ? Global community and opinion, global citizenship. What are all these?
The many questions related to the global dimension of our world keep her up at night so she decided to gather a few people who share this “we are global” feeling and started TheGlobalUs. TheGlobalUs shares with us real stories showing how globalization has changed every aspect of our lives. No big theories. No meaningless claims, just people like you and me raising their voices and trying to understand better various problematics.