You’ve made the big decision: I am going to move abroad… I am going to sell my house, quit my job, carry on with heartfelt goodbyes to all your friends and family. You get on the plane and turn away from everything and everyone you know. Excited, nervous. You’re so excited about the big move, but little by little you begin to feel a bit anxious. You are in a beautiful new place full of adventure but you don’t feel like yourself. Feel a little crazy? Don’t. It’s called Culture Shock, and it is a real thing.
Culture Shock is not some phenomenon made up to make people feel better. It is a concept of human behavior that has existed for centuries and has been studied by anthropologists and psychologists for over fifty years. Originally coined by Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg in 1960, Culture Shock is defined as “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.” It is the wave of thoughts, emotions and behaviors that come along with living or working in a new place with an unfamiliar culture. These feelings may make you doubt your big decision to move abroad, but most likely you are just going through the natural process of adjusting to a new place. If this sounds familiar to you, I encourage you to accept how you’re feeling and accept that it is part of the process.
You may feel like you are unable to fully express your identity or feel confused about your own culture and social norms. You may feel isolated, misunderstood, nervous, annoyed, or scared. It can be frustrating, but I promise you it is not a sign that you are in the wrong place, or that you made the wrong decision. It is part of the personal journey in learning more about yourself, how to express your identity, and the beautiful challenge of living in a new country. If you understand what it is, you can be prepared to confront the glamour and reality of living abroad.
As explained by anthropologists and psychologists alike, cultural shock comes in a series of stages. It is important to note that these stages are not linear, rather you will likely jump between stages or get stuck somewhere in the middle. There is no timeline for these stages, but if you decide to stay abroad, you will likely move through all of these phases within 12-18 months.
The Honeymoon Stage
The Honeymoon Stage romanticizes the new and exciting environment, the “wow! I can’t believe I live here!” You say your goodbyes to all things familiar, take a flight, and get off the plane with eyes full of wonder and a long to-do list of all the spots, restaurants, and parts of town you want to see. This can last for days or months as you continue on vacation mode in your new home.
The Crisis Stage
The Crisis Stage is the initial feelings of homesickness or longing for your local customs. You may find yourself saying, “Well why do they do it this way? Don’t they know this other way would be so much more efficient?” You start to feel as though you’re dividing your conversations into “we” and “them” pronouns with a frustration or aggressiveness to local customs. You start to recognize what is missing from your new home and boast why certain things are better in your own country or culture. You may find a desire to vent and bond with those who are like you, and in doing so create a bubble that replicates your customs and social norms. You could very well stay in the crisis stage forever, or move forward in a matter of months up to a year.
The Recovery Stage
The Recovery Stage refers to the gradual transformation from feelings of isolation or fear to more comfort and confidence in your daily life. You may start to learn the language, gain a knowledge of social customs, or gain confidence in your ability to run errands independently. This period of transition marks a great feeling as you begin to appreciate your new home and the cultural differences. Does that mean things are always perfect? No. But, you begin to develop the coping mechanisms for when you’re feeling homesick and you recognize that this personal challenge could be a beautiful one. You may become a mentor to others who were in a similar circumstance, and you may even become so proud of your new home that you have negative feelings against your own culture.
The Adjustment Stage
The Adjustment Stage entails your acceptance of your new home for what it is. There is a new level of integration where you actually feel like you are part of the society. Ideally, you will be able to appreciate the place and culture where you come from, and simultaneously appreciate your new way of life. This can be a difficult balance, as you may feel so integrated in your new home’s culture that you lose sight of your own. This identity crisis is normal, especially for those who travel the world to work in different countries. If you’ve made it to the adjustment stage you can thrive at your fullest in the country you now call home.
It should also be noted that reverse culture shock is a phenomenon itself. Once you come to appreciate so many factors of your new home, you may return back to your country with feelings of frustration. Why are natural products so expensive? Why is traffic so terrible? Why is everyone so stressed? These feelings are normal, and go to show the reality and challenges of living life abroad. Whether you identify as a world traveler, immigrant, expat, or someone that works abroad often, you will likely be confronted with questions of your identity and how living in more than one country can confront you with personal questions about your identity.
Culture shock is different for every person. While some may go through the phases in a month, others many never feel fully at home in a new country. To prepare for cultural shock, anthropologist Rachel Irwin suggests to research before you move and be prepared for what challenges to expect. Once you are on the ground, you’ll have to develop a sense of belonging in some fashion. Whether that means learning the language, participating in community activities, meeting the neighbors, or developing a purpose to some degree, taking these steps are critical to progressing through culture shock. Methods of coping with the fears or anxieties that accompany culture shock can make a new country feel more like home as each day passes by.