Culture Shock Blues

‘Culture shock’ is a word we use quite liberally these days – “moving to that part of town was a bit of a culture shock!” or “there was quite a bit of culture shock when I changed schools’. And all of these things are valid – change isn’t easy!

That said, when we throw that term around as much as we do, we can forget just how profound the experience of culture shock can be in a completely different country.

Culture shock can rear its head in the form of loneliness, tiredness, isolation, homesickness, withdrawal, irritability…the list goes on. You might find yourself missing a food you never even liked that much before – it just reminds you of home. You might find yourself getting emotional because of a smell that reminds you of your family’s cooking. You might even find yourself lacking the energy to leave the house, because being surrounded by all the new sounds, accents, and maybe languages, is draining.

4 Phases of Culture Shock

We commonly think about culture shock in four phases, and these phases will last different lengths of time and manifest themselves a little differently in every person.

I like this illustration from the Swedish for Professionals website

We start with the Honeymoon Phase: these are the golden weeks where everything seems new and exciting. The locals seem charming and the food is delicious and the weather is beautiful. This was the best choice you’ve ever made.

If you’re on a quick holiday, you might find that you never get past the Honeymoon Phase! If you stick around a little longer though, you’re going to run into some difficulties. Next up is the Frustration Phase (also known as the Anxiety Phase.)

This is the part where you start to realise all the things you don’t know about this country, and the list of things that make no sense to you is probably growing with every minute you’re there! Why do they talk to me like that? Why can’t they just eat normal food? What do those signs mean?

It might feel like you are notoriously different, chronically out-of-the-loop. It might feel like there’s no hope for you to ever feel at home here.

But there is hope, because all of these things become easier with time. That’s what the Adjustment Phase is about.

You’ll start to learn your way around, and gain independence. You’ll be doing your own shopping, maybe even chatting away in a new language. You’ll start growing friendships and building community around you, and you might start finding answers to some of those niggling cultural questions.

And then, after all the hassle, frustration, and learning, there’s one final stage. It might take months, it might even take years, but it exists: the Acceptance Phase.

This doesn’t mean you fully understand your host country, or are necessarily fluent in the language. But it means you’ve found your place there: you’re settled, and that’s where your life is now. You’re thriving, or at least, at ease in this culture that used to be so strange to you.

These phases aren’t clear-cut or prescriptive, but they are a really helpful guideline to give you an idea of what to expect, and to justify what you might be feeling. You can prepare yourself before you leave: know that there will be difficulties, and that that is completely normal.

Nobody ever said crossing cultures would be easy. It takes time and patience – both with your host country and with yourself! But it is possible, and it will get better.

Love, Dani

  • What elements of culture shock have taken you by surprise on your travels?
  • What are your tips for dealing with culture shock?

Stephen: TCK Care

Migration means leaving things behind. It moves you into a disoriented world which doesn’t add up in the way you were used to. You have to start putting things together in a new way.

Ruth Padel, The Mara Crossing

My name is Stephen Black, and I grew up in the bush in Nigeria.

I had a rich childhood, full of excitement and adventure and a fair share of grief and loss as well. I grew up in farm country where I had the freedom and safety to be a kid in a way that I’ve never seen again. And I gained the ability to learn languages, cultures, and people which has served me well time and again in my adult life. To be real, I lost more friendships, endured more stress, and encountered more violence than a child ever should. And I wouldn’t trade it.

I have found that sentiment to be a common theme among TCK’s – that there were difficult, painful aspects of their mobile, multicultural lives, yet that the experience as a whole has shaped their identity and their culture. It’s given them skills, strengths, and an awareness that they never would have found otherwise.

So I talk to people about what it means to be a TCK and how to care for a TCK, taking advantage of those benefits and processing the losses and the grief. I have begun collecting those stories, strategies, and supportive conversations in the form of a podcast: TCK Care.

Stephen now works as a TCK Care Worker, and uses his podcast to discuss and share TCK stories and experiences, connecting with a range of people who have grown up abroad, and those who have researched these themes. He describes it as ‘a podcast for those with a multicultural childhood, past or present.’

Jude: Human Amongst Robots (Poem)

Jude was born in Brazil, and moved to Italy when he was 11 years old. He moved to England as a young adult, before later returning to his beloved Italy.

When I was 24, I decided to leave Italy and have a ‘London experience’. I arrived there alone, and I had to start from zero – that meant a new job, new house, new friends, and a new culture. It was the most wonderful, painful experience I’ve ever had.

London is amazing – loads of culture, hundreds of things to do…but mostly you are alone. And when you come from a Latino/Mediterranean culture, you are taught to expect a ‘mi casa es tu casa‘ welcome. In the UK, I had to face the fact that ‘mi casa es tu casa…if I want you here.’ I was living with deep depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

For the first three years, I had a love-hate relationship with the country.

I didn’t share my experience with other immigrants that were in my position. It was only after I published my poetry book ‘Words/Wars’ that a few people reached out to me: “I thought I was the only one that lived in that loneliness.”

I would say this: this might not be the last place you live in. Give yourself the opportunity to live more experiences and see more places. Don’t build boundaries; be open, because life changes, and you will change with it.

LND
The fog is in town and
my heart is gone.
I am drinking a hot cappuccino
in Starbucks,
and voices are all around me.
Memories of my life get
louder in here
because this place is so empty,
and people
look like crazy robots.
I don’t miss being a robot.
I am real now.
A human amongst robots.
I have a heart that pulses hard.

Jude tweets at @JsaintJude, and his debut poetry book is for sale on Amazon.

“Have You Heard of London?”

I’m pretty British. If you asked me where I was from, I would say Britain. When I was living in England, a lot of people would look at my Spanish name, or pick up on something different in my accent and say, “No, no – where are you really from?” And I would think about it, and shrug. “Britain?”

My mother is Scottish, my father is South American. I was born in Scotland. I lived the first four years of my life travelling with missionary parents, and then we moved to England. I lived there for about seventeen years, before moving to China, and now Scotland.

So you see, it’s confusing for me when people tell me I’m not really English, because…what else would I be?

Languages Are Suspicious

There’s a joke in Catherine Bohart’s satirical video ‘How to be an immigrant British people like‘* that “British people are suspicious of people who speak more than one language…why do you have a secret code that only you and your friends understand?” Because the thing about your average Brit is, they don’t have a good reputation for language learning.

*This video is full of British humour, which is very dry and sarcastic! It’s meant to poke fun at some of the racist stereotypes in society today, not to be offensive.

In my family, we started learning Spanish as kids. And then when I had to start studying French at school, I was good at it because a lot of the grammar and vocabulary was similar to Spanish. At university, I jumped at the opportunity to learn some Mandarin Chinese. I love languages – every time I travel to a new country, I’ll try to learn at least the basic phrases to get by. I’ve collected bits and pieces of Swahili, Zulu, Rufumbira, German, Thai, and Indonesian along the way.

Now, of course there are so many British people that also love to travel and learn languages. But that wasn’t the case for my friends. They would get annoyed with me for going to European summer camps, or to visit family in Scotland every school holiday – “You just disappear,” they’d say. “We never see you.” And now that we’re adults, I keep missing reunions because I just live too far away. My school friends all live in the same county that we grew up in.

Have you heard of London?

I loved living in China, partly because Chinese people would accept my ‘English-ness’ without question. They wanted me to comment on English politics, or cook English food for them, or recommend some British TV shows. And I could, because I grew up British, more or less.

The only problem was, when I met other British people in China, they couldn’t identify me as one of ‘their own’. I remember taking a group of British students out for dinner, only to have one of them turn around and say, “Oh, Dani, I forgot to ask – which state are you from?”

Another time, someone at my church stood up to give a notice in a perfect cockney accent. I went up to talk to him after the service, introduced myself, and said, “Whereabouts are you from?”

“Well,” he said. “Have you heard of London?”

Have I heard of London?

“I’m British,” I said, and he quickly changed the subject.

I’m not offended by things like this. I know that my accent changes, especially when I’m outside of the UK. But it does make me feel a little like a fraud, that I almost shouldn’t be telling people I’m British if my ‘country-mates’ can’t back me up on that.

Fake-British

When I was in England and people would do the whole “Where are you really from?” thing, I would just tell them I was Scottish, and that would usually satisfy their curiosity.

Now I live in Scotland, it’s pretty obvious that I’m not really Scottish. I don’t do small talk quite how they do, my accent is different, and I’ve never heard of half of the famous places here! The only problem is, Scottish people actually know what an English accent sounds like, so “I’m English” doesn’t really cut it here, either.

It’s not at all that I’m ashamed of my South American heritage – I love being with that side of my family, and I love visiting in that part of the world. But I’ve never lived there. My Spanish isn’t even that fluent. It’s part of my identity, and so is my British-ness.

I was sort of hoping that writing this up would lead me to a conclusion ‘British people don’t really think I’m British, but I’ve learned…’ That would have been a really nice way to end. But I don’t have a neat answer. Sometimes it still hurts me that people from a country that I identify with so strongly don’t accept me as one of their own. More often, these days, I’m trying not to care.

I’m trying to enjoy the places that I get to live and explore, and to remember that in the grand scheme of things, nationality is a social construct. We (humans) drew up borders and claimed ownership of them, and those borders have changed, are changing, and will change. We’re all just people living in cultures and within land boundaries that other people pretty much just made up. That’s not to say those things aren’t important, just that they are not permanent.

So to be honest, you can ask me if I’ve heard of London. (I have.) You can ask me about my accent, or my name. It’s okay. I’m going to keep calling myself British, though, because at the end of the day – who’s to say I’m not?

Love, Dani

Zoë: Homebird

From age 2 to 10, Zoë grew up on two missionary/charity ships. She and her family lived with people from over 45 nations and cultures, while moving from country to country every few weeks. She moved back to the UK in 2009.

A good friend of mine was explaining why I’m such a ‘homebird’ (despite still being terrible at remembering to tell my family when I’ve arrived somewhere safely!), and why I feel most comfortable with my family. Wherever I am, whether it’s a ten minute car ride or a twenty hour flight away, I have to make myself fully at home, be fully with the people I’m with at that moment. I think it’s because I don’t know how long I’ll have with them.

As an MK (Missionary Kid), my family were the only people who understood me, and what I’ve been through. Throughout all of the moving, they have been the only stable (human) thing in my life.

I’ve always struggled to understand people that don’t get on with their families, but I’ve realised that family has a different meaning to some people. For me, they are the stability throughout the change. There’s this bond between us, an understanding that might not be there in other families.

We went through so much together – illness, university, turbulent plane rides, summer camps…there’s a bond that can’t be broken or understood by ‘outsiders’. That’s what family means to me.

Now I’ve started university, and am living away from my family for the first time. I’ve struggled a lot with having people around me not ‘get’ me. I feel this loss of something, this sense of loneliness. But I’m also learning that the people I’m surrounded by now are also the people that will experience and understand this season with me, and it’s okay that it’s not my family I’m sharing it with. I’m thankful for them, and I’m thankful for a God I can rely on through all of these changes. He’s the only other stability I’ve had in my life.

So if you’re in a similar situation, take heart. You will be okay. I will be okay. He’s got us, and in every season there’s a new opportunity for growth.

Girls Abroad

Disclaimer: every country has different stereotypes about different groups of people, and I am by no means saying that white girls are the worst off here. I am saying that I have only experienced travel as a white girl, and as such all my examples will be from this perspective. Thanks for listening!

Dear fellow women, here’s what you should know before you travel anywhere.

People in the country you’re travelling to may never have met someone of your race before. They may be basing their presumptions about you on what they’ve heard, or seen on the news, or have been told via Hollywood movies. And ladies…it’s not always positive.

There are probably people at your destination that think – through no particular fault of their own – that white women are without exception rich, immoral, and promiscuous.

I had a Nigerian friend once, who came to England for his studies. After a few months he wrote on social media to his friends at home something along these lines: “England is great, but I came thinking white girls would be easier. If you’re thinking of coming here to find a girl, I don’t recommend it.”

Now, all of the examples in this post are one-offs, and only represent the views and misconceptions of individuals, rather than the countries they are from. My point, though, is that there are people who think like this, and it’s better to know that than to be caught off guard.

I remember sitting crammed into a little public bus in Rwanda, setting off on a three hour trip. The guy next to me was delighted that I could communicate in French, so we started chatting. It was very chill – an absolutely normal conversation. After a few minutes, he said to me, “Shall we get a hotel room after this?”

I was so shocked that someone who had been politely chatting a moment before would ask me a question like that! “No,” I sputtered, too shaken to think of anything else to say, and ended the conversation.

“What?” he said. “Don’t you think it’s romantic to sleep with someone while you’re on holiday?”

We sat the rest of that journey in silence.

I don’t think that man meant me any harm – I didn’t feel in any danger, and the friend I was travelling with was close by! But somehow, to my embarrassment and offence, he felt like that was a reasonable question to ask me.

These aren’t just the perceptions of keen men – let me take you to China for one last little anecdote. I was in Beijing, a city that is pretty accustomed to foreigners in most areas. I was being eaten alive by mosquitoes, so made my way over to a pharmacy to get some cream.

I walked into the store, and realised I had no idea how to ask for bite cream. The shopkeeper, a middle-aged lady with a slightly disapproving expression, made her way over to me as I fumbled with the dictionary on my phone.

“Don’t worry,” she said, taking my arm. “I know, I know.”

She led me over to the shelf of condoms.

Not that there is any shame in needing to buy condoms, but I was surprised that her first, confident guess of what this awkward white girl needed was contraception. Not sanitary products, not make up…condoms.

In case you’re interested, I did find the word for bite cream, and the shopkeeper suddenly became a lot more friendly.

So, why do white girls abroad have this reputation? Do we earn it? Maybe in part. Maybe foreigners haven’t been as careful about respecting the local moral code as they should have been. Or maybe people have just been misinformed by the movies and TV shows they’re fed, where women are often sexualised.

But what do we do about it? I personally don’t want people to hit on me because they assume I’m ‘loose’, or an easy target. I don’t want people to think I’m immoral because of what they’ve seen of my country in films. But I also think getting angry or overly-offended about these things isn’t the answer. (That is, unless you have had a crime committed against you in which case please do make a fuss! Report it.)

Here are my general tips for women travellers who want to shake free of those stereotypes and unwanted advances:

  • Talk to women who know the area. Not just the country – cities and even streets will have different reputations and varying levels of safety, so do your research. If possible, talk to women of your race! They’ll be able to tell you how modestly you should dress, whether it’s appropriate for you to go out alone, or if you should stay with a group. It’s also worth asking if it’s normal for women to go out at night, and which establishments might be seen as ‘immoral’ (for example, in some countries respectable women don’t go to pubs). Take all the advice you can get, and do your best to respect your host country’s culture. When in Rome, do as the Romans do – because you’ll be much safer, feel much more comfortable, and you’ll be a much better and more respectable ‘ambassador’ for your country!
  • Question your local friends. Wait, was what I said accidentally flirty? Is it normal for a guy to hug me? Is spending time with him giving the wrong impression? Cross-cultural friendships can be a minefield for this sort of thing, so be brave and quiz your local friends. They’ll know what’s up, so trust what they tell you and act accordingly!
  • Watch the alcohol. If you can’t trust yourself to make good decisions and continue respecting local rules and customs when you’re under the influence, you need to watch how much you’re drinking. British people in particular have such a bad reputation for this – we are the noisy irresponsible tourists! If you want a holiday just to get drunk, choose a country where that won’t be as scandalous. In fact, in some countries, you’ll need to avoid alcohol altogether. Do your research, and put safety and respect before your right to drink alcohol.
  • Wear a ring. When I went to Marrakesh, one of the items on my suggested packing list was a fake wedding ring. And to be fair, if you are going somewhere for a short visit and don’t have the language, what better way to wordlessly say ‘please don’t even try’?
  • Walk confidently. I use this tip wherever I go – it doesn’t matter if you’re lost, if you have nowhere to go, or if you’ve suddenly realised you’re walking in the wrong direction. Move confidently. Walk with a purpose. Don’t keep checking your phone. Wandering or looking obviously lost can make you look like a target for unwanted conversation or flirting, or worse.
  • Be kind. Ultimately, if you don’t like the way people view you, don’t be the negative stereotype. There’s no need to get preachy about it – be your kindest, truest self and show people that there are other types of foreign girls: that there are nuanced, respectful people from your country that they can befriend. The only way we can beat this kind of stereotype is to be an exception.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were all judged for ourselves rather than the media that portrays our people? That works both ways – let’s not base our ideas about people on fiction. Let’s meet people where they’re at, with love and respect for their countries and cultures. Let’s be people that prove the movies wrong.

Oh, and girls? Stay safe!

Love, Dani

  • What are your experiences as a women abroad? Have you ever had any problems?
  • What advice would you give to women travellers?

Eleanor: Fluently

 “But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are.”

Anthony Marra , A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

My name is Eleanor Chin.  I was raised in the United States, in the Bay Area in California.  Best known for its veritable traffic jams, increasingly bizarre tech unicorns, the astronomical cost of living, and extremely liberal political bent, it is also home to a significant Asian-American population. 

My father is Chinese-American, my mother is Caucasian.  Adopted from China at six months, I grew up speaking only English, and mostly spending time with other purely Caucasian families. 

From a young age, I had a natural inclination toward foreign languages and mythology traditions from other lands.  I was very good at Spanish, I taught myself French, and I played around with a few other languages.  I was a hopeless dunce at mathematics and sciences, however – a trend that would continue into my later schooling. 

At age eleven, I began attending a Chinese school with many Taiwanese immigrant families.  I was wildly in love from day one – the tones, the script, and of course, the miniature toys the teachers would bring us as homework motivators.  For the first time, I began to be conscious of my Chinese heritage, noticing that my family’s values, priorities, and habits were significantly different from other kids in school.  I used to hang out with a bunch of white girls, but I started seeking the company of other Asian-Americans.

I took my first trip out of the United States at age fourteen, to Vietnam.  It was a significant experience, and I came home with a renewed love for Asia and its languages.  I got more serious about Chinese, finding a private language tutor, reading more books about Chinese history, and actively pursuing friendships with people from China and Taiwan.  I also began to read memoirs about Chinese-American experiences.  Outstanding: Growing Up Asian, by Cynthia Meng, and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua brought into striking relief a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t an “authentic” Asian American. 

As I observed my family and community, I found myself to be at odds with myself in multiple directions, enhancing this belief.  First it was the academics.  There is typically a lot of pressure in an Asian-American homes to bring home excellent marks in school, particularly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related subjects.  I never experienced this kind of pressure, and as I was a complete dunce in maths and sciences anyway, I was extremely grateful.  But still, I felt that I was cheating somehow, that I should experience that kind of pain to legitimize my experience as “truly” Asian-American.

Then there was the violin.  I started playing of my own accord.  My parents never made me practice, and I never partook in any violin competitions, let alone win any of them.  This bothered me a lot.  A common theme in the “real” Asian-American world is the prevalence of developing inner discipline through a musical instrument.  I played the violin, like a “regular” Chinese kid, but I wasn’t very good, because I didn’t practice enough—to me, it was worse than if I didn’t play at all.  I was really ashamed of myself, as if my credibility in being Chinese-American hinged on how many violin competitions I won. 

Finally, there was Chinese.  I was very, very good at learning Chinese.  I had more fun in Chinese school learning words than I had in youth group throwing water balloons.  It might have been the drug of being so spectacularly good at something so effortlessly, but I was totally, completely in love.  I think I poured so much into learning Chinese because I desperately wanted to have a meaningful relationship with my Chinese self.  A relationship that wasn’t at odds with the cultural norms, and that would also be understandable to my non-Asian friends. 

 I went off and lived in Taiwan and China, one year in each place.  In both places, I found that I was more culturally American than I thought.  Despite my significant language abilities, and sometimes in light of them, I found myself once again estranged.  Now, I was not only a bad Asian-American, but also a bad Asian. 

Why did I ever learn Chinese? I asked myself.  The last ten years have been an extreme waste of time.

Jhumpa Laheri, author of In Altre Parole, once wrote of missing the Italian language, “that emotional distance is always more pronounced, more piercing, when, in spite of proximity, there remains an abyss.”

My Chinese had already hit a glass ceiling years ago, so I subsequently tried to define myself more fully as a linguist by pursuing Japanese and Korean, which are close cousins.  Fluency evades me though; my emotional connection to these languages is just not as deep.  Or maybe it’s because I’m still burned out from a decade-long linguistic journey that brought me right back to where I started. 

Language shapes existence, and so despite being thankless, onerous, and insanely demanding, I remain in awe of and inspired by foreign tongues.  The word I cannot pronounce may not be in Chinese, or for that matter, in any language I know.

I trust that someday though, I’ll speak it fluently.