Culture Shock: Surviving and Thriving

Photo Credit: Reuben Stanton

Photo Credit: Reuben Stanton

    Everyone gets culture shock at some point. 

   It's normal.  It's healthy.  It's unavoidable.  It's also funny and annoying and depressing and depleting and confusing and sneaky.   Sometimes you are having culture shock even when you don't realize it.  
    Event the Bible deals with themes of culture shock.  When the Israelites left Egypt, they complained, “We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt.  And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we wanted.  But now our appetites are gone.  All we ever see is this manna!” (Numbers 11:5-6).  The Israelites had just escaped slavery, but they still had culture shock!
    One of my friends is an engineering executive at a Korean company.  When he sends his Korean engineers to England for training, they pack one suitcase with clothes and one suitcase with Korean instant noodles!  Food has always been and always will be part of culture shock.
    Another huge part of our adaptation in the culture shock process is coming to terms with a basic fact of life: There is more than one way to do most things.  Even though my culture's way of doing things seems obviously right to me, it may not be right for everyone or the only right way.
    In fact, here's something I've learned after living for almost nine years in Korea.  Some of the things that drive me crazy about Korean culture are strengths if seen from a different perspective.  For example, Koreans tend to make plans quickly and to change plans quickly.  As a Westerner, I really value long-term, stable planning.  But I have also learned that this Korean flexibility (which drives me crazy) is also one of the key strengths which has allowed Korea to grow so quickly and to adapt so well to a rapidly changing global environment.
    No matter what specific annoyances and adaptations you are facing, culture shock normally moves in a predictable pattern.  As we discuss each step, I'll describe how a new Westerner often feels in Korea.  

Stage 1: The Honeymoon Period.  This is the stage when everything is new and beautiful and wonderful.  You are soooo excited about your new adventure in a new culture.  Everything is cute.
   Isn't it cute how the little kids ask if you are an American?  Aren't those little old ladies selling things on the street just so cute?  It makes me want to buy every vegetable they have!  I love how the lady in the store just keeps talking to me.  I don't understand anything she's saying, but I bought the soap she was selling because she was just so cute!
   This stage usually lasts between two weeks and three months.  For me, it lasted about 12 hours.  After a hot night with no AC and community loudspeakers at 6 a.m., the honeymoon was pretty much over.

Stage 2: Frustration.  Eventually things aren't so cute any more.  
   Why does everyone ask me if I'm American?  I'm Canadian, eh?!  You want to keep pointing? I've got a finger I can point, too!  I feel sad for those grandmas selling vegetables on the street.  I hate when that lady at the store keeps talking and talking and talking.  Doesn't she know I can't understand her? Just let me pick my own soap already!
    It may be helpful here to remember that some of the frustrations we are experiencing are not because of the host culture.  We would have similar struggles in any culture different from our own.  Also, part of the frustration is related to change not culture: new job, new home, new friends, new food, new modes of transportation.  That's a whole lot of change, and it can be really hard.
    This is the hardest stage of culture shock.  We can feel homesick, depressed, angry, and helpless.  This stage can last anywhere from three months to one year.  Some people go home while they are still in frustration mode.

Stage 3: Transition.  You start to learn some things that are helpful.  Maybe you actually start studying the language, so you can say more than “Hello” and “Thank you.”  You can actually use chopsticks without dropping your food all over your shirt.  You learn which stores have more familiar food.  
    After a while, when the kids looked at me in shock and say, “Foreigner,” I pointed back and said, “Korean!”  Instead of moving awkwardly past the cute lady in the short skirt hawking laundry detergent in the grocery aisle, maybe you try to get her phone number.  
    I remember the first time I ordered pizza over the phone in Korean.  It was a huge emotional victory!
    Once, when I was at the city swimming pool, a large group of elementary boys were getting ready for their swim lesson.  Some of the boys started pointing and saying, “Foreigner.”  I decided to have some fun and practice my Korean at the same time.  I said in Korean, “No I’m not a foreigner; I’m Korean.  I’m from Cheonan.”  This started a raucous argument among the kids.  They quizzed me about Korea and divided into camps.  Some claimed that I was obviously a foreigner because of my white skin and hairy arms (which they freely touched).  Others vehemently argued that I was clearly Korean because I spoke Korean.  As I stood there, stark naked and at the center of a storm of naked elementary boys, I decided this was not helping my culture shock.

    The key point in the transition stage is regaining hope.  The transition period usually lasts one to three months.

Stage 4: New Balance.  After a while, you start to get adjusted.  You kind of find your rhythm in a new place, living in a new way.  You feel less out of place.  You find a few groups or communities where you really belong.  And amazingly, your focus begins to shift away from culture shock and culture and on to just living regular life.
    This is the best and easiest stage, but some people never get here.  Some people just give up and go home.  Some people here isolate and form a ghetto culture within Korea.  All their friends are foreigners.  All their food is foreign food.  Sure they work with Koreans, but once they are done working, it's like they live on a different planet, and all interactions with Koreans are unfortunate necessities.  This is really sad.  People who don't get to the New Balance stage miss out on many good experiences and good people.  They never really see Korea.

Stage 5: Re-entry Shock.  You thought we were done, right?  Nope.  When we go home, we have culture-shock in our own culture.  Home isn't the same any more – or at least it's not the same for us.  Maybe new buildings have gone up in your favorite park.  Or maybe nothing has changed, and that seems incredibly boring.
   Once I asked a Korean to help me at the ATM, and she said she didn't know how to work them either.  She had just come back to Korea after 15-20 years abroad, and they didn't have ATMs here when she left.
   A few years ago, we felt lucky to find more than two or three varieties of cereal in our local grocery store in Korea.  While visiting family in Iowa, my wife and I walked up and down the aisles of a small country grocery store – just counting the different kinds of cereal.  I lost count somewhere after 70!  

   Some people feel a great sense of surprise and betrayal when they go “home.”  Others feel deeply out of place returning to friends and family who have not had the same life-changing experiences.

    So how do we go through culture shock well? 

I'll start with a few tips for the foreigners, and then I'll give some tips for people in the host culture.  
    To deal with culture shock well, we need a few basic strategies.

  1. Learn.  Become a student again.  Learn all you can about Korean culture, and learn the basics of the language. At least – AT LEAST – learn how to read the letters. This will help tremendously with culture shock.
  2. Balance.  Maintain healthy habits: sleep, exercise, and eating. They really make a difference. Also, stay productive.  Too much free time becomes more of a curse than a blessing.
  3. Community.  Build friendships.  Get in a small group.  Ask someone to hold you accountable for being healthy and faithful.  Avoid isolation at all costs.
  4. Home.  Figure out a good way to communicate with your family and friends.  Learn how to get the foods that are really important to you.  Put up some photos of home, and don't go too, too long without a visit.
  5. Make it Spiritual.  We are holistic beings.  Don’t count out prayer as a realistic tool for dealing with change and culture shock.  
  6. Patience.  Have patience with yourself.  You are human too.  Have patience with people in the host culture.  Have patience with the other foreigners.  They are going through culture shock, too.

    OK, now a few tips for our people in the host culture (and maybe for the long-term foreigners).  We have an obligation to help the new folks cope with culture shock.  
    If you have lived abroad or traveled to other countries, remember what it's like to be new.  Remember what it's like to be different.  Remember those people who helped you, or remember how you wished someone would help you.  Now, it's your turn.   Be the kind of people who help other feel welcomed and loved.
    Maybe you'll start a language class.  Maybe you'll invite a few new people out to lunch.  Maybe you'll pick one or two new people and make a special point to become their friends.  Maybe you'll develop a welcome packet for new foreigners.  Maybe you'll go to the doctor with someone, or volunteer for translation help by phone.  Maybe you'll take a foreigner with you when your family goes on vacation.  Maybe you'll offer to drive a few folks to hard-to-reach places.  There are many ways to help.  The main things are to become a friend and to welcome them into your life.

    Culture shock is real and unavoidable.  Culture shock can tear us up and spit us out.   But we can get through it. 

   If we address culture shock directly, if we learn together, if we are patient and loving and caring, we will find that culture shock can be something that leads to a kind of healing and growth and depth and community that is not available any other way.     Engage the process with open eyes and an open heart.


[This is one of my post popular pieces, originally written in 2009.  It has been published in several locations.  I'm posting it again here to make it accessible for newer links.]