Understanding Culture Shock

You know that queasy feeling you get when you’ve been in a new place for a while? Butterflies swirling around in your head rather than your stomach? That’s culture shock, the roller coaster of emotions you go through when truly experiencing a country not your own. Everyone experiences it differently, but it happens, either way.
You’re probably familiar with the term. For many prospective students, culture shock is a big concern when applying to study abroad opportunities. How will I adapt to the culture? Will I call my mom crying every day? These fears are totally normal and totally manageable. The first step to dealing with culture shock is understanding what it is and how it works.

According to Paul Pedersen in his book The Five Stages of Culture Shock: Critical Incidents Around the World, that roller coaster of emotions can be broken down into five stages. I like to think that the experience of culture shock is a person’s plot line to their own unique story following Gustav Freytag’s plot structure. Study abroad student Audrey has experienced the culture shock roller coaster first hand when she moved to Japan for five months and has her own story to tell.

Using Pedersen’s stages, Freytag’s plot structure and Audrey’s hands-on experience we’re going to break culture shock down step by step, creating a practical road map to get you through it.

How Culture Shock Works

  1. The Honeymoon Stage

Say hello to your love-struck, starry-eyed, puppy dog phase. Everything is beautiful, bright and exciting because it’s all ever so slightly out of focus. You’re trying to take everything in at once, which means you can’t focus on specific details.

This first stage is usually overwhelmingly positive and might even be the only stage you experience during a short trip. And it is the perfect tourist moment! Take advantage of your excitement and record these experience in any way possible. Write, photograph, vlog. You want to be able to look back at your memories. Your exposition to this new country involves learning the basics before getting too deep in the dramatic plot.

Our friend Audrey stayed in Yamaguchi, Japan for almost five months with a study abroad program at Center College. Her face lights up as she recalls how she first fell in love with the scenery in Yamaguchi and its rural environment.

Japan scenery shot by Audrey

2. The Disintegration Stage

This is the conflict of your culture shock plot structure. Your romantic vision of this new place starts developing cracks, the details you didn’t pay attention to before move into focus and you start to see the imperfections. The USA is not as Hollywood paints it to be. As you rise up this mountain of language barriers, legal roadblocks, and misinterpreted social cues, it almost seems like you’ll never get it right…. almost.

During this stage, Pedersen explains that the “individual is overwhelmed by the new culture’s requirements.” It becomes frustrating keeping up with the customs and socially understood concepts. A lot of bitterness may start to seep in to your daily life. Rather than communicating your worries and staying open, it feels easier to withdraw. This is the part of culture shock Audrey warns about, the really hard part where it’s easy to isolate yourself.

Audrey had experienced long periods of cold weather before, but she was pushed out of her comfort zone and was freezing. The little space heaters in each individual room were sometimes not enough, but she adapted.

Photo by Audrey of Japan in the winter

3. The Reintegration Stage

Reintegration is the climax in your plot line after facing conflict—the “greatest tension in a story” (Ohio). Your new country has been your home for a short while and you have to make the most of what little time you have. While the disintegration stage left you feeling lost, the reintegration stage is where you adapt and understand how to deal with certain aspects of this new culture.

This stage in culture shock is the peak because by reintegrating yourself you take the challenge of accepting your dislikes and confronting them with your strength. After every tear of frustration, you wipe your eyes and take the breath it takes to keep moving forward. It takes a little push, but every country has its good and bad. By choosing to deal with the bad, you’re taking a bold step not many take.

Audrey chose her course by dealing with the cold in Japan: “Layers, definitely layers.” When you’re forced to grow it isn’t comfortable or easy at first, but eventually you find yourself at stage four…

4. The Autonomy Stage

Everything is falling into place just like it should in Freytag’s falling action. One solution leads to a holistic understanding to other problems and their answers. Rather than one main resolution to your story, tiny puzzle pieces fall into place to the point where you can see the bigger picture of the culture you’re in.

You are a strong, independent person who can take on a world of different cultures, because you got this culture down! You know how to ride the bus system and can pick out non-verbal cues of the people around you. The paperwork needed to get a driver’s license is filled out and complete. You are, after all, human. With mistakes also comes success.

Audrey even said her favorite part of studying abroad was mastering the public transportation. It takes time, diligence and patience but at the end of the day the sense of autonomy is exhilarating.

excited selena jennifer lopez exciting
  1. The Interdependence Stage

Last, but not least comes the important aspect of community. Your denouement consists of being one with yourself and with the community in which you surround yourself. You are able to reach out to others. Better yet, you’re able to trust yourself in this new home. Pedersen admits that there is controversy whether this multicultural level is possible, but being able to balance out your home culture with that of your new one is the ultimate goal. This last stage does not mean a happy ending. But it also does not mean a bad ending. It just means being at peace with your new, possibly temporary, home.

Photo from gratisography

If you ever felt confused about your feelings of being in a new place, start with Pedersen, Freytag, and Audrey. Understanding that everybody goes through this process it in some form or another is a way of getting through shock. You’re not alone in your journey – others have gotten through it at you will too.

Think about your culture shock journey as a plot line and all of a sudden it seems a little less scary, maybe even a little exciting. You don’t need to fight with the shock. Rather, embrace the hard work and strength it takes to get to the finish line. This is your story! Your culture shock has the makings of a book.

Here are a few more ways to deal with culture shock:

  • Keep a journal with your observations and opinions – track how far you’ve come during your journey!
  • Find a mentor who you can go to with questions, thoughts, feelings, etc.
  • Link up to someone or something that shares your culture – reconnecting to home can help beat homesickness
  • Be a tourist for a day – leave the heavy things behind and try exploring something new

Your background is something precious. Studying abroad and integrating with a new culture adds to your story. Appreciate the different cultures you’ve learned; they’re part of you, now. That’s something special to hold in your heart and to share with the world.

I highly recommend Pedersen’s book to any who want to learn more about culture shock; it should be available in any university library that uses WorldCat.

Comment your culture shock experiences below! What’s your story?

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Ivonne Mora

Ivonne is an idealist who seeks community but loves her freedom. Her recent rediscovery of her Peruvian background has sparked a newfound love and interest in Peru's rich culture (especially the food). Ivonne was drawn to Rakbo's work because it is a group that empowers people during a time of confusion through the power of writing, investigation, and a shared passion for worldly experiences.

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