Gong Xi Fa Cai! Happy Chinese New Year, everyone. I spent the morning listening to my daughters class on teams present their school report about China for the Chinese New Year.
I sat with a huge grin on my face as memories of living in Singapore flooded my mind. It was nearly eight years ago now that I lived in Singapore, and I have the most amazing memories. My daughter was born there, the amazing food, and of course, living the culture. I had travelled to Singapore a number of times for work, but moving to a new country to live is a different experience altogether.
You’re probably thinking, here she goes talking about travelling to a different country when we’re all stuck here at home dealing with COVID, we’re not going to be feeling culture shock any time soon.
Possibly, but the feeling of uneasiness that accompanies culture shock is not one that we feel only when we travel. We feel it in several situations, and I reckon we’re all going to feel it when we get out of lockdown.
So what is culture shock?
We usually assimilate culture shock with going to some “foreign” land or to a culture that doesn’t speak the same language or have the same rituals or beliefs. Yes, but we as individuals may have a different language, traditions or beliefs. So, do we feel culture shock when we meet someone new?
The definition of culture shock is:
“A feeling of confusion, doubt, or nervousness caused by being in a place that is very different from what you are used to.”
This confusion, doubt or nervousness can happen anywhere. It can happen when you visit and travel to a new village or town to move to a new state or county. It can even happen if you move to a different neighbourhood. But just like anything else, if you understand it, you’ll be able to manage it.
So, it is here I’d like to invite you to look at culture shock not just as an experience of an individual faced with societal and cultural differences, but to look at culture shock feelings and principles and apply them to a situation of meeting someone new. I think when we all get out of lock-down, it’s going to be a bit of a shock learning how to interact with one another again.
The Four / Five Stages of Culture Shock
Therapy changed my thinking to learn how to embrace uneasiness and change. So, when we moved from Sydney to Ireland, I didn’t think of that move as one where I would experience culture shock, but I was wrong. Everyone spoke the language (albeit with a different accent), I understood the culture, and I was pretty comfortable with the rituals and beliefs. But I still grappled with culture shock for over a year until I learned about the culture shock cycle.
Many people have written about the 4 stages of Culture Shock and how you can overcome them. That’s not what I want to in this article. Here I want to have you use the culture shock cycle to embrace that uneasiness feeling as a whole — no matter where you go or who you meet.
Stage 1: Honeymoon stage where you feel really excited about landing someplace new, moving into a new place as well as when we meet someone new. We are interested in everything! Everything a new PLACE can offer us — the exciting landmarks, the food, the smells… our senses are very open and heightened when we land somewhere new. Which is when we move into stage two.
Stage 2: Negotiate. We’re now familiar with where we are but aren’t always appropriate for where we are. For example, my Boston humour didn’t exactly match the Aussies’ humour when I moved to Sydney. I had to negotiate my tone, my metaphors, and my timing! It’s where you learn the cultural appropriateness and social rules, negotiating and navigating them to feel included.
Stage 3: Adjustment: We learn how to adjust, and we then start to adapt to our surroundings and new cultural rules.
Finally, in stage 4, Mastery, we can understand how society works. How to function and solve problems. How to communicate and engage like a local. We have embraced change and feel part of a new tribe.
The fifth stage is one that we don’t expect. And it can hit us out of nowhere. The concept of reverse culture shock is genuine and can cause more distress than the initial culture shock itself.
Reverse Culture Shock
Living in a different country changes you, and I would recommend anyone do it, at least once in their life. But the concept of “reverse culture shock” is a real thing and can cause more distress than the initial culture shock itself. Reverse culture shock caught me off guard when I landed back in Boston nearly 10 years after I initially left, with a nearly 4-year-old toddler and an 8-week old baby. My values had changed. My core identity had changed, and I no longer knew where I sat in this landscape that I grew up in. I was no longer a “Masshole” from Massachusetts who worshipped the Patriots and drank Dunkin Donuts coffee like it was water. I now loved cricket. My values had changed; my interests had changed; my beliefs had changed. I had changed.
We all go back “home” for something, whether to visit or work or live. This stage of culture shock shouldn’t go un-thought of. I think I’ll write an article on reverse-culture shock later as there’s a lot that can be wrapped up in our minds and there are strategies to get through it.
For now — looking at the stages above, we can see that preparing, planning, and embracing culture change not only apply to moving to another country but can be applied to any new situation in which our personal beliefs, attitudes, and expectations are challenged and confronted.
The more thorough the understanding of a new culture, the smaller the negative impact there will be because knowledge about the host culture enhances the individual capacity to adjust to the unique circumstances (Coodman, 1994).
Here’s my version:
I would argue that the more thorough the understanding of your thought process and your expectations, the smaller the negative impact. Being open to the host enhances our capacity to adjust to new situations.
We go through the same process when we meet someone new.
1. Excitement — oooo, this person seems cool. Here you may attribute a stereotype or belief or trait, but still don’t know anything. We’re usually excited to meet someone new.
2. Negotiate — Ahhh they like chocolate, I don’t, I prefer sweets, but that’s ok — we both like dessert. We negotiate through our thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes as we know someone.
3. Adapt and Learn — She loves to go snorkelling. Oh, GOD! I hate swimming in the ocean. Here you may put your beliefs aside and adapt the conversation to find common ground and learn something.
4. Master — You look at your watch and realise you’ve been talking for 20 minutes. You’ve mastered the connection and can solve to problem of talking too much by asking questions and turning the conversation over to the other person.
5. Expectations — This is where your preparation comes into play.
Your thought process could go like this:
A. the conversation is over, and now, you look back at the start of the conversation and think, well that was a waste of time because I came to this part to find a new biking partner and she doesn’t bike, she snorkels! She’s definitely not someone I want to be friends with because I want to bike.
B. Right, so I didn’t meet a new bike partner tonight, but I never knew you could start snorkelling in a pool to get comfortable, so maybe I’ll give that a go. What an interesting conversation.
Embrace the Uneasiness of New
I worked my way through both the culture shock cycle and learning how to live with reverse culture shock while living in Ireland. My family and I then went on another adventure and moved to Singapore. Now, THIS time I was prepared.
When I was in Singapore, I became pregnant with my daughter, my second child. As many of you know, my battle with postnatal depression was traumatic, and life-changing with my first child. But having an understanding and living through culture shock a couple of times already, I had grown my threshold for uneasiness. I embraced the Asian culture. When my daughter was born, I didn’t just have a “western” birth, I went further and brought in a “confinement nanny”.
A confinement nanny helps new mummies care for their newborn during their confinement period. The extra help is invaluable to bridge the transition period from pregnancy to post-delivery, where new mothers need to have a nutritious and well-balanced diet coupled with sufficient rest to fully recuperate.
This is not something I would’ve or could’ve done without the ability to embrace uneasiness.
Throwing myself into an Asian culture after birth was eye-opening in so many ways.
- I was transported into learning about new beliefs.
- I learned to let go and take care of myself.
- My mental and physical health was nurtured.
- My understanding of eastern thinking was expanded on so many levels.
- I was more accepting of myself and life.
- I fell in love with myself, my daughter, my nanny, and…
the experience of uneasiness, itself.
I was able to embrace new learning, embrace the experience of birth for a second time after having been through a traumatic experience before, and embrace the feeling of letting life lead me, all because I had made peace with the culture shock cycle, using it as a guide to all situations.
Moral of the story? I’m sure you can see it.
If you can prepare your thinking for new situations, you may find more than you expected using the culture shock cycle.