Teaching internationally can be very rewarding and enjoyable. You’ll most certainly pick-up new skills, experience a new culture and become part of a new and diverse community. For some, however, the move to a new country can be a big ‘shock to the system’.
Culture Shock – a much used term for those who travel. But what does it mean exactly?
Culture shock is what you experience after leaving the familiarities of your home culture to live in another cultural or social environment. Even those who are open-minded and well-travelled are not immune to culture shock. Symptoms include homesickness, anger, loneliness and boredom. Everyone will experience culture shock to some extent, but there are ways to deal with it and minimise the effects.
Firstly, understand what you are going through and why you feel insecure or anxious. You are faced with a different climate, unfamiliar with your surroundings, as well as people with different values, attitudes, lifestyles, and political and religious beliefs, and oftentimes, you can’t even understand them due to language barriers! Understanding why you feel the way you do will help you to overcome the feeling.
Once you understand, the next step is to accept and adapt to your new culture. Just because something is different, doesn’t mean it is wrong, so learn to do things the way the locals do, and accept that it’s the way it’s done in your new home.
Learn as much as possible about your destination before leaving home. Be open-mined and it will be easier to understand the differences and see things from a different perspective. If you know why people do things the way they do them, it’s easy to accept the differences.
Having a positive attitude can make all the difference. This goes with anything in life, but is especially true when travelling and interacting with new people in new surroundings.
Stay in touch with those back home. But… if you spend all your time connecting with family and friends back home, you’ll just keep feeling homesick and won’t feel up to making new friends. Rather spend your time exploring and meeting new people, and then you have something to tell loved ones back home when you do chat.
Don’t compare your home culture to your new culture! Noticing the differences is normal, and can be fun, but see the differences as just that – different and exciting, not inferior to home. Take the opportunity to learn as much as possible about your new location and culture.
Keep yourself busy. Particularly enjoy the things you can’t do at home. Try new foods, swim in the sea, explore, make new friends, take full advantage of the time abroad rather than being afraid and hiding in your hotel room or apartment. Don’t have regrets later by saying ‘if only I had done this or seen that…’
Laugh at yourself! If you get lost, just think of it as a way to discover a new place that you didn’t expect to see. Surrounding yourself with positive people can make all the difference. Don’t get sucked into the inevitable groups of ‘grumpy old expats’ who should have gone back home long ago, and now love trashing their new home.
There are different phases of culture shock, and knowing which you are going through will also help you to overcome it.
The Honeymoon Phase: This is a fun time, when all is great, exciting, and new. You embrace the differences, go out of your way to try the weird and wonderful food and relish meeting exotic new people. This phase can last days, weeks, or months.
The Honeymoon is Over Phase: During this phase, you start observing differences, however slight, and not always in a good way. You’ve had enough of the food, and miss home comforts and tastes. The local attitudes annoy you, and things are just so much better at home. During this phase, you may feel sad, irritable, angry or anxious. You miss holidays from home such as Christmas or Thanksgiving, and feel sad when you miss out on events such as birthday celebrations back home.
The Negotiation Phase: Now you decide if you will give in to negativity or power-on past it to make the most of your experience. If you’re successful, you regain your sense of perspective, balance, and humour, and move on to the next phase.
The All’s Well, or Everything is Okay Phase: You start feeling more at home with the differences in the new culture. After a while, you may feel as if the culture isn’t in fact new, but that you belong here now, or you may not exactly feel part of the culture, but you’re comfortable enough with it to enjoy the differences and challenges. You don’t necessarily have to be in love with the new country (as in the honeymoon phase), but you can navigate it without unwarranted anxiety, negativity, and criticism.
The Reverse Culture Shock Phase: This happens to most who have lived abroad a while. Once you’ve become accustomed to the way things are done in a different country, you can go through the same series of culture shock phases when you return home.
Culture shock can present itself at any time, and it’s often the small things we feel the most – like navigating a grocery store with unfamiliar products in currencies we are not familiar with. Working abroad has its own challenges, as aside from day-to-day cultural differences, there are also the differences in the work place. For example, if you are typically organised and punctual, you may struggle to adapt working to a culture with a more relaxed working environment. Or, if you’re a woman, you may find it difficult to adapt in a country where there is gender inequality.
It’s most important to be patient – in time, things that once were strange will be the norm. Be kind to yourself, and don’t place high expectations on yourself until you have adjusted to your new life. While moving to a new country is daunting in many ways, it can be equally rewarding, and by not giving it a try, you’ll always have regrets.