After you’ve arrived, expect to undergo a wide range of emotions and reactions. Mostly likely, you will experience some sort of culture shock. Culture shock is the anxiety, disorientation, and trauma that takes place when you make a move from your home culture to an unfamiliar one. Each person experiences culture shock to different degrees of intensity, depending on your personality, the length and purpose of your trip, and on how different the new culture is from your home culture. It is normal for a complete transition to take between six months to a year, so give yourself a break if adjustment seems to be taking longer than you thought it would… or should. To give you an idea of what the experience of culture shock is like, imagine trying to order your lunch at a restaurant when you can’t read the menu, don’t know the language, and people are offended by your American way of interacting with the staff.
Some general symptoms of culture shock include the following: fatigue, feeling overwhelmed, becoming overly concerned about your hygiene, fear of being robbed or cheated by members of the host culture, short-temperedness, impatience, loneliness, massive homesickness, lack of creative energy, and a desire to attach yourself to others like you.8
As Daniel Hess states in his book Studying Abroad/Learning Abroad,
“The principal cause of culture shock lies in the encounter with differences—but not just the exotic differences of the immediate senses, the sights, sounds, and smells of the new environment. It is the differences in the way the society is organized and in the values, behaviors, styles of communication, and patterns of thinking that cause the problem, since so much of what makes up these basic cultural characteristics is automatic and unconscious and is assumed to be universal” (4).4
Take note. When you are in transition, it is common to experience feelings of self-centeredness brought on by high stress and anxiety. (That doesn’t mean it isn’t sinful to feel this way, it just means it is normal...many other people experience the same emotions). Other symptoms of culture shock include excessive irrational fears about the unknown culture, frustration, romanticizing your home, associating only with others like you. Your symptoms can be emotional, social or even physiological. During this time, you may pass from the “Flight” stage to the “Fight” stage. At this point, you realize that you’re not going to be able to go home anytime soon, which usually leads to general attitudes of hostility and anger. You may resent your host culture and the people in it.
Ronald Byrnes comments on this aspect of the transition experience:
“If one tendency of some students studying in other countries is to romanticize the cultural differences they encounter, another tendency is to rush to a negative judgment about the people involved in the cross-cultural encounter and the culture more generally. These turns towards negative judgments have three roots: a traveler’s subjective perspective, the misreading of cultural cues, and predisposed expectations of ‘the way things should be.’”5
Culture shock is often aggravated by the fact that your expectations may not align well with reality. If you find yourself experiencing a particularly bad case of culture shock, do not despair. First of all, you are normal. Secondly, a bad case of culture shock often leads to the most culture learning, which is one of the most beneficial aspects of cultural transitions. You will never be the same again. That may be scary to a point, but it is also good tool for sanctification. God can use this hard time to make you stronger and more like him. And, it’s important to note that even when it seems like there is no light at the end of the tunnel, there is. God is faithful to bring you through dark times, but that doesn’t mean you will be pain-free throughout the process.
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