What To Expect And How To Minimize It
Culture shock is exactly what the name implies. It is an emotional shock induced by finding yourself in an unfamiliar situation, dealing frequently or even constantly with behavior patterns you may find strange, unusual, offensive or even immoral by the standards and values you are used to.
Nothing is familiar anymore. People drive on the wrong side of the road. The beer is warm. The food tastes awful, and you don't dare eat it or drink the water. The people don't understand you and you don't understand them. The stores are full of stuff you wouldn't dream of buying, and when you need something, you can't find it. People speak in a strange language and you can't understand a word, and they can't understand you. Their idea of fun is not your idea of fun - you're bored to death and there is nothing to do, nothing! You offend them at every turn, and they offend you. And there's no one to talk to. How on earth will you ever adjust?
There are a few values, expectations and behaviors that you will have to consciously adjust or change in order to fit in, and a lot of expectations of your own that you need to change to avoid getting upset needlessly. Here is some golden advice from expats who have lived abroad for many years that will help you overcome your culture shock:
Culture shock is going to be your biggest problem by far. Get the book from the resources below for the countries you are considering, and read up and learn about what you are letting yourself in for. It may be overwhelming, but knowing some of the local tricks - and sensitivities - can help you out a lot. That is why the resources below are so important.
- Make yourself as comfortable as possible when you first arrive. Moving out of your fancy home in the suburbs of the U.S. and into a tiny, noisy, cold-water walk-up flat in an overcrowded, dangerous city in a strange country is a guaranteed way to get you off to a bad start. During your first year, you will be making the most emotional adjustments; don't add to them unnecessarily. So get into comfortable living quarters as quickly as you can manage.
- No matter how difficult things get, keep your perspective. Don't let it get you down. Take life with its problems one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time as necessary. You'll amaze yourself at what you can get through and accomplish if you keep this perspective. Don't let worry crowd out your happiness.
- Humility gets a lot more done than being demanding. North Americans are used to customer service and accountablity, and expect that people are going to do their job because that is what they are being paid to do no matter what, and see nothing wrong with venting their anger. Approach people in almost any other culture with that attitude, and you'll get nowhere fast. Always, and I do mean always, approach bureaucrats, sales people and customer service representatives as if you are asking a favor of them, even if this is your fifth trip back. Keep this attitude no matter how severely you are provoked. Get huffy or allow your annoyance to show, and you're done for. An expat in Costa Rica who had lived abroad for many years once told me, when my phone went out, that I would never get it fixed; I should order a new line and be patient while it was put in, then cancel the old one. He said he'd never succeeded in getting his phone lines fixed, and I wouldn't either. Well, I went to the same phone company office and talked to the same people, asking them for the favor of fixing my line, had it working again in five days, even though it did take four trips. Humility works wonders.
- You can be alone in a crowd - and you are going to be far from home. So affiliate - make among your highest priorities the finding and affiliating with people who have interests and/or needs similar to yours. Not only can they often effortlessly solve problems that are enormously difficult because of your inexperience, but their friendship will make all the difference, especially in having a shoulder to cry on. Don't just wait for life to happen, because it won't. Go out and build a life. Reach out to find and cultivate friendships. A good place to start is the local English-language newspaper if there is one - subscribe and watch for references to groups of interest. And check Yahoo for email lists that are relevant to your particular area and interests.
- Learn the language. Inability to communicate with the locals adequately is the number two reason expats fail to adjust, right after boredom - and the two are closely related, much more than you might suppose. The frustration, difficulties and problems that failure to communicate can cause, will enormously complicate your adjustment, besides adding to your boredom and frustrations. And if you are making an effort to communicate in their language, people will be enormously more sympathetic to your situation and more inclined to help out, even if they are frustrated by your primitive vocabulary and bad grammar.
- Find something to do. And keep busy doing it. Volunteer for a charity. Put in a garden. Build a house. Work with helping street kids. Volunteer in the schools. Travel around and see the country you are living in. But whatever it is, do it, keep busy at it, and it will go a long way towards making you a happier person. When you aren't busy, your thoughts will inevitably turn to your problems, and that is guaranteed to cause you to start tilting bottles of the local rot-gut and that is when your life will really fall apart. Failing to stay busy is the number one reason people fail to adjust to life abroad. I once knew a man who moved to the Greek islands to retire, and to stay busy, became a fixture at the local park, playing backgammon with the local retired fishermen. Over the years, he became a much-loved figure there, greeting the children and passers-by, helping old ladies carry home their things from the market. He became so much a part of the local scene that when he died, the whole village came out to his funeral, and mourned his passing for a long time. He had a life, and it didn't take a lot of money to create it.
- Let yourself fall in love with the country. No matter where you end up, there will be things about the country that you will find more appealing than in the country you left behind. This is what you need to dwell on - and not what you find difficult. If you enjoy the mountains, or the beach, spend time there. Enjoy the forests, with their unusual trees and birds, the restaurants with their ethnic food, the parks, the architecture. There is much to enjoy where you will be living, and you need to concentrate on that, and not dwell on what you find difficult or annoying.
- Emulate the lives of your more successful expat friends. They have lives they have built successfully, and learn from them. Don't be afraid to ask them what they feel has helped them adjust and be happy.
- Laugh at yourself and your mistakes. Don't take yourself too seriously, and recognize that you're playing the fool to the locals on occasion. If you can't learn to laugh at yourself, and frequently, you'll occasionally find it hard not to cry.
- Don't let the evil people get you down. There are a lot of them, particularly in the third world, and particularly among expats living there. In third-world countries especially, expats abroad seem to frequently have an agenda that is not necessarily honorable. You'll encounter a lot of them - but always remember that for every one of them, there are more who are really wonderful people in every sense of the word. Associate with the latter.
- It is a cold hard fact, but it is true: men find it easier to adjust to life abroad than do women. Women can ameliorate this problem by finding other women with whom they share values and goals. Becoming friends with other women, including especially locals, will help enormously in the adjustment process. Seek out local women's groups even if you are not sure they're right for you - try them out and see. Often, your foreign perspective on things will be more welcome than you realize.
- Don't blame the locals for your problems. Your decision to move was yours, and your choice of destination was yours as well, so they're not responsible for your problems - you are. You are the guest in someone else's home, and you should never lose sight of that fact - if you can't find the toilet paper, that's your problem not theirs.
- Accept that the locals aren't as stupid as they might appear. Usually, they have very good reasons for doing things the way they do. Shelves in the kitchen rather than cabinets? In tropical countries, cockroaches are ubiquitous in the environment, and will always be present in the house, no matter how hard you try to keep them out. Shelves means they have no place to hide and they won't be much of a bother - but with cabinets, they'll take up residence and drive you crazy. It is this kind of wisdom you need to tap into. If you see a reason to question, then ask, not from a position of arrogant superiority, but one of curiosity. They'll usually be happy to share their wisdom, but only if you ask out of curiousity and genuinely wanting to know why they do what they do. Remember, you're the learner, they're the teacher - whether you like it that way or not. If you don't understand (or even if you think you know better), emulate.
- Be honest, always. Honesty isn't just the best policy, it is the way to avoid an enormous number of potholes in the road of life where you would never expect to find them. You can't always earn the respect of the locals (many foreign cultures are just hardwired that way), but if they have reason to suspect your honesty, they'll not only never respect you, they'll probably not want cooperate with you willingly, either. And that can make your life enormously more difficult than it would ever otherwise be, in ways you would never suspect.
- You're allowed to experiment all you like, but never lose sight of the fact that the locals will always have the upper hand, and you'll be the source of their amusement. So laugh with them.
- You're not the only one going through culture shock. The locals are as puzzled by you as you are by them. Remember that, and try hard to be more patient with them than they are with you - you're the one that is trying to fit in.
- Never lecture the locals about politics or religion, particularly about the "American way" or "freedom and liberty" or try to evangelize them to your way of thinking. Latin Americans like to refer to what they call the "SCC Syndrome" - the Second Coming of Columbus. That's the tendency of people from the United States in particular to come down to Latin America with the attitude that they are the "second Columbus" and are there to spread the Enlightenment, civilization and The One True Religion to the local savages. This sensitivity has been greatly aggravated around the world by the policies and propaganda of the U.S. government over the last two centuries. Behavior like this is a guarantee that you'll be resented at best and hated at worst. What makes it particularly bad is that more often than not, you are wrong, whether you realize it or not. Understand and accept that reality, and you'll get along a lot better. If you really can't stand the way they run their country, then vote with your feet.
- Always stay on the right side of the law. That means paying rather than evading local fees and taxes, especially real estate and income taxes and vehicle registration fees. It means complying with motor vehicle regulations and zoning regulations. It means avoiding illicit drug use. It means keeping your visa/residence permit current. It means avoiding criminal associations. Why? This isn't just Miss-Goody-Two-Shoes advice, it is very practical - because no matter how clever or street-smart you think you are, I guarantee at some point, lawlessness will come back to haunt you, and it will almost certainly come from a direction from which you least expect it. Behind on your property taxes? Don't be surprised if you get trouble from the immigration authorities in your residency renewal application. Visa expired? Don't be surprised when you get arrested at a traffic stop. Income tax not paid? Don't be surprised when your property deed registration is held up. Been driving home drunk a lot? Don't be surprised when the local police chief proves to be well aware, and refuses to sign an affidavit for your post office box application. Just because you see the locals getting away with some of these things, doesn't mean you can - you are the stranger in someone else's village, and you would be very foolish not to expect the much greater degree of scrutiny from authorities that comes with it. The law is not always applied consistently abroad, but I guarantee, as a foreigner, they're more likely to apply it to you than to the locals.
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The Ugly American by William Lederer is a classic American novel, published in 1958, and warning Americans about the consequences of their behavior abroad. It is a serious warning about what ignorance of foreign cultural values can lead to. Set at the height of the cold war, the premise is dated, but the theme is as fresh as ever - and that is why it is still very deservedly used as a text in university classes on American foreign policy.
Beautifying the Ugly American: How to Understand the Culturally Different -- Arabs to Zulus by Don E. Post, is as good a general antidote to the "Ugly American" syndrome as you can find in one single book - it is enormously helpful in decoding the mysteries of any foreign culture, particularly for those trying live or do business abroad.
To get the "Culture Shock" guide for the country you need, type the phrase, "Culture Shock +CountryX" in the search window above, without the quotes, and the name of the country you want to search for replacing CountryX, of course.
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