I remember feeling overwhelmed from excitement and fear when I decided to leave home in 2008 to teach English. While I was looking forward to traveling and discovering foreign lands, I was also terrified of being consumed by loneliness and having to return home with my head hung low to admit that I couldn’t hack it. At no point did I think that one of my biggest challenges would be continuously dealing with small bouts of culture shock.
Culture shock involves feelings of confusion, anxiety, anger, frustration, and sometimes sheer despair. In the past 14 years of living abroad in Spain and Japan, I have experienced moments of confusion and uncertainty. But I have also learned how to deal with culture shock in varying situations.
What Is Culture Shock?
There are four main stages to the culture shock phenomenon. The first is the honeymoon period. In this stage, you are giddy with excitement. You are loving your new life and you are inoculated to cultural differences.
The second period sees the culture shock bite. Things that had a novelty factor now grate, and you start to pine for the certainties of your native land. The initial giddiness that you felt has become a dizziness. This creates nausea as homesickness kicks in.
Then you move into a period of adjustment. As you acclimate to your new home, you start to value the way the locals do things. Traditions make sense when you realize they have stood the test of time.
You enter the fourth stage when you return home to visit friends and family. Customs that were second nature now seem foreign. This is what is known as reverse culture shock. I’ve experienced each of the four stages, and here’s how I deal with culture shock based on my experiences living in Japan and Spain.
Accept That Accidents Will Happen
My first moment of culture shock occurred two days after settling into my new life of teaching English in Kiryū, Gunma Prefecture, Japan. My fridge was empty, and I needed to go grocery shopping. What I thought would be an easy trip quickly became a stressful odyssey. It all started when I ventured out of the produce, meat, and fish sections and headed down the aisles. The fact that I wouldn’t be able to read when I moved to Japan hadn’t hit me yet.
Do you remember a time when you couldn’t read? Neither could I. Is this salt or sugar? What kind of oil is this? Would it be bad if I opened the jar and smelt the contents? My brain literally short-circuited right then and there in the condiment aisle. I grabbed what I thought was what I wanted and speedily headed home.
That evening I made a wonderful tomato sauce… heavily seasoned with sugar. You might be wondering why I didn’t taste test first, but I was so overwhelmed that my logic was M.I.A. A natural response would have been to either get angry with myself or cry, but instead, I started laughing uncontrollably in my kitchen. Laughter is honestly the best medicine when dealing with these types of culture shock situations. If the worst thing happening to you is eating oddly seasoned pasta sauce, you’re golden!
That same week, I shared this blunder with a fellow Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) English teacher. He told me that he washed his floors with vegetable oil and spent a few days slipping and sliding around his apartment. As we commiserated, I realized that these sorts of blunders happen to the best of us. And then I laughed some more.
Make Local Friends
It’s one thing to move to a country where you don’t understand the language (Yes, it’s hard, but if someone wants to help you, they will), but it’s another thing to move to or visit a country where you don’t understand the cultural nuances. These little culture-specific nuggets are often a source of confusion.
If a Japanese person answers “no” to one of your questions — congratulations, you have just found a needle in a haystack. The Japanese rarely say no, and it was something that both confused and frustrated me when I moved to Japan in 2008. I would constantly ask questions at work to avoid making mistakes or doing something that could be rude, but I never got a straight answer. The answer was always, “well, hmm… umm,” and I was supposed to infer a “no” from an incomplete sentence full of noises. Needless to say that at the beginning of my time in Japan, I did a lot of things I probably shouldn’t have done. It was frustrating to then be given a dirty look when the whole thing could have been avoided if someone had just been straight with me.
I often struggled and got angry with the indirect nature of the Japanese language during my three years there. So how did I deal with this example of culture shock? First, I stopped caring about what people thought. I was raised to be polite and open-minded. My intentions were never to offend, so if someone looked at me in disgust for something I had just done, said, or worn, I just chose not to let it bother me.
Secondly, once I made Japanese friends (many of whom had lived abroad), life there started to make a bit more sense. They understood my Western way of being since they had experienced it themselves, so I would ask them questions, and they would give me direct (Hallelujah!) answers.
Ask Your New Friends For Help
Who doesn’t like receiving a compliment? Despite acting all tough and hard to impress, I have to say, I do love a good compliment. It doesn’t matter if it’s about my work, clothes, taste in music, or my looks. I am happy to have someone take notice of me. But to fully relish in a compliment, it helps to understand it. I had no idea that I was being complimented when I first moved to Japan to teach English.
A common compliment that many foreigners receive is “You have a small face.” This is not a direct reference to the size of your head, and it actually means that you are beautiful. The first time someone said this to me, I took it as an insult and replied as if I were a five-year-old child: “Oh, yeah? Well, you have a big head!” (sticks out tongue)
While not my most mature moment, sometimes, when you suffer culture shock, your tolerance levels are low, and the slightest misunderstanding can set you off. My world changed when a Japanese friend told me I was constantly being told how good-looking I was. At that moment, I’m pretty sure my ego inflated ten fold.
Interestingly enough, this compliment turned into a learning opportunity and made me think about the differences between Western and Eastern standards of beauty. It really does help to take moments of culture shock as opportunities to broaden one’s inherent way of thinking and become more open-minded in the process.
Culture Shock Strikes in the Unlikeliest of Places
I knew adapting to the Japanese way of life wouldn’t be easy, but I never imagined how frustrating moving to Spain would be. My parents are both Spanish. I grew up speaking Spanish, eating Spanish food, and even spent my summers in small-town Galicia. Plus, being Canadian meant that I grew up with people constantly asking me where I was from (as in, what are your cultural roots?). The answer was always “I’m Spanish” (insert super proud grin emoticon here). I always felt like I was Spanish until I actually moved to Spain.
Physically, I fit the Spanish stereotype. My name (Maria Jose Perez Bahamonde) couldn’t be any more Spanish. But even though I have always spoken Spanish, I have an accent easily identified by a native speaker. My accent, coupled with having been born and raised abroad, rendered me automatically not Spanish in the eyes of my cultural brethren. So here I was, strutting down the streets of Madrid, feeling like I was an intricate part of the cultural landscape, only to be constantly (even to this day) reminded that I wasn’t Spanish. I thought purity of blood was important in this country — but I guess not!
Being alienated by who I thought was my own people used to really get to me. I would get frustrated and angry and really didn’t understand why I wasn’t permitted to boast about my dual heritage. It took me a while to accept how others were defining me. What helped was finding wonderful Spanish friends that found both my Spanish and Canadian identities fascinating. This helps me remember every day who I am and where I came from.
Learn the Rules of Your New Surroundings
To anyone who has lived in Spain, you know that bureaucracy can be an absolute pain in the butt. I haven’t lived in Canada in over 14 years, but I do remember customer service being excellent, whether it was in person, via email, or over the phone (I hope it’s still like this!). This is often not the case in Spain.
What initially boggled my mind was that the answer to questions would vary depending on who you spoke to. Can someone please explain to me how a lack of consistency within a company is effective? Why don’t you just say that you don’t know what the answer is and that you’ll get back to me instead of just making something up? Paperwork that should have only taken 15 minutes turned into a two-week ordeal (not an exaggeration!).
Many of my most frustrating moments of culture shock have been fueled by bureaucratic interactions in Spain. How did I deal with them? I used to employ the North American way. Whenever you were not satisfied with the service you received, you uttered the dreaded phrase, “I want to speak to your manager.” In Canada, this was an effective way of at least having your complaint heard and dealt with. In Spain… not so much.
There is never a manager around. So you can rant and rave all you want, but no one cares. I have learned that patience and a big smile are the keys in Spain. If you are super nice, people will usually go the extra mile to try and help you. The minute you show an ounce of frustration or cause a stink, you get pushed aside. My advice here is that sometimes you have to mentally prepare yourself to fake being OK with whatever shenanigans come your way. At least you’ll avoid stressing yourself out.
How to Deal With Culture Shock in a Nutshell
Culture shock is normal when you’re abroad, and it happens continuously no matter if you’ve lived in a country for a year or 10. What changes is your ability to deal with it. You learn patience, understanding, how to laugh, or just how to just outright shrug it off. What’s most important is never to lose your sense of self when living abroad. Adapt to your surroundings, but always remember who you are and where you come from. My best advice is to always just “do you.”