Of culture shock and reverse culture shock: When everything seems different to expats

Written by on November 22, 2016 in Perspectives - Comments Off on Of culture shock and reverse culture shock: When everything seems different to expats

Most expats or immigrants have gone through a so-called culture shock. Those come in different intensities, and we may experience them in different phases. Culture shocks might be interesting and positive, but they can also turn out to be the exact opposite. They can make us feel limited, not accepted or valued, they can confuse us or make us wish we had never left our home country.

Also there are reverse culture shocks. We might go through those when we return to our home country, where everything is or seems very different, all of a sudden. Some of us might be having a hard time getting used to home again, either because our home has changed or because we have changed through our experience abroad. Or both.

Hector Gonzalez (name changed) is a Mexican scientist. Eight years ago, he took his 9-year-old son and his wife to Bremen in Germany, in order to accept a job he was offered at a university. So, they arrived in the fall of 2008. It was a lot colder than in Mexico City, when they moved into a furnished apartment. This was the initial culture shock.

The boy needed to go to school. Sure, at that age it is comparatively easy to learn a new language, even if it is German. But it does not happen within five minutes. When that 9-year-old entered the classroom full of fellow students he would not understand right away, he experienced another culture shock.

The boy’s mother basically stayed at home. She left the house only to run errands. At the supermarkets she entered, not everyone treated her properly. She felt rejected and discriminated, and experienced her second culture shock. Especially for her, it was not easy. The grey skies, the German mentality, the language, and the fact that her husband was working all day long, made her feel very uneasy. Quickly, she became depressed.

This Mexican family might have felt a lot better half a year later, after experiencing the first German summer and getting to know more people. But the level of their culture shocks seemed to be too high. They left Germany after a few months and went back to where they had come from.

Depending on the new country, the circumstances and the person, culture shocks might feel good, especially during the phase in which everything is still new and exciting, before reality kicks in. But they can cause truck loads of problems as well. Homesickness, information overload and language barriers are just some of them. The person now living in a new country, might feel dependent on others a lot more than before. If the move happened because of a job, boredom might be one of the consequences at first, since it takes a while to get to know people or to make friends in the new environment.

I have gone through several culture shocks, in several countries. As a 13-year-old, I moved to Mexico City, where absolutely everything was new, and where two foreign languages were spoken at school. In former Yugoslavia, during the war, detonating grenades and missiles did not exactly help me get over that culture shock. In Washington D.C., I lived in a motel, which I shared with truck drivers and hookers, before I finally got the documents I needed in order to rent an apartment. In Bulgaria, things were easier, since I did not move here on my own. At least that is my illusion.

We might go through culture shocks in different phases. At first, the new country we chose might be so interesting and exciting. Being there might feel like a vacation at first. The second phase hits home when we notice things are different indeed. In that situation, some of us expats might doubt we will ever make it in the new surrounding.

In the third phase, we have gotten used to the new country, at least to some extent. We know our way around, we know some people and we might be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It might take a year or longer to reach this phase. In the fourth and last phase, we will finally feel at home, at least sort of.

Of course, people who know what to expect will have far less trouble going through all of this. Couples, families or friends who move abroad together, have advantages too, since they can always communicate and go through it all with someone who is close, one way or another. Love birds, those who move abroad because they fell in love with a person from their new country, will have an easier time than singles, who take the step on their own.

The extreme culture shock? Watch “Not Without My Daughter”, the story of Betty Mahmoody. The easy culture shock? Move from the United States to Canada. Or from France to Luxembourg.

The reverse culture shock will kick in, when we adapted to things in the new country and can not accept the way they do it in our home country. This could be anything, such as the way of thinking, the entire life philosophy, or just the food and the driving style.

(Photo of Plovdiv’s Old Town: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)

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About the Author

Imanuel Marcus, the founder of foreignersandfriends.com, is Associate Editor of The Sofia Globe.