“Culture shock” is one of those things like “hegemony,” “zero-sum,” and “Yes, you’ll be tested on Samuel Huntington” that international relations majors inevitably brush up against. Most people file culture shock dutifully in their notebooks, regurgitate a few paragraphs on it for the final, and forget about it until they travel abroad. As for the rest? Our experiences diverge, but I’ll tell you that some of us end up staring at British “salad cream” at the grocery store and wonder where we’ve gone wrong with our lives. Salad cream? It’s DRESSING, for lettuce’s sake.
Except…it isn’t. You’re in a new country, a new culture, and these are not the rules you know. These are new idioms to learn, new social mores to navigate, and thousands of years of existence to which you need to adapt lest you make a fool out of yourself. (A note to the British friend who warned me that “fanny” in the United States may refer to one’s backside but in the UK it refers to the female genitals, thus sparing me from yelling to my daughter “You’ve got dirt on your fanny!” on the playground–THANK YOU.)
So what is it? There are a few stages of culture shock, according to the yellowed notes in my college composition book: the honeymoon phase, anxiety/negotiation/anger, adjusting, and mastery. First you looooove your new culture. You want to marry it. You can’t believe how they act at home, the heathens. This is far superior. Then you start to notice little things. For me it was how in the UK it’s “salad cream” and not dressing and serving beer at less than frosty temperatures, which led to unsavory comments like “This is why American colonists threw off their imperial masters.” In time–a few weeks to a year–you learn to appreciate the culture again as you settle into the routine of living your life. Once you learn to function flawlessly (the locals compliment you instead of giving you pitying smiles) in your adopted culture, well, you’ve hit mastery, baby.
But how to get through that period to get to mastery? It was really hard for me when we first moved to England. I was newly pregnant with all the accompanying exhaustion and sickness, and I was used to year-round Hawaiian sunshine and 80-degree days. Northern England is many wonderful things, but “tropically sunny” is not one of them. I wanted comfort food to ease my belly, which I couldn’t find, and to stop wearing a winter parka in June. It was embarrassing because it’s England! How different from the US can it really be? It was. From healthcare bureaucracy to getting a cell phone plan to seeing mayo on the table as a condiment, it was so different.
Ultimately, the only way is Winston’s Way–Churchill, that is. “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Stick it out and be active. Do your utmost to explore and seize opportunities to get to know your new culture. I let morning-afternoon-night sickness sideline me for much of our first year here, and that held me back from getting over my culture shock. Once I was able to start seeing–really, TRULY seeing–my adopted homeland I started appreciating it more. Eventually, I grew to love it and all its ways. I love learning more about English politics. I got excited about the Queen’s Jubilee and hard cider festivals. And to my surprise, when I went back to the United States for a visit I was so glad to return home–to England.
Where has culture shock hit you?