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The International Writers Magazine: Culture and Lifestyles

Disparities of Culture Shock
Rachel Boone

The Tower of Babel started a phenomenon that we are still dealing with today. One race, one language, one culture existed before the Tower of Babel. The Bible tells us that this mutual society decided that they were going to build a tower that reached God, a stairway to heaven. They did this in their pride, believing together they had the ability to physically access God.
Unfortunately God disliked their plan and detested their attitude. So He confused their language, causing them to speak different languages so they would not understand each other. By doing this, God thwarted their plans. These independent groups moved away from each other into all different parts of the earth, each developing their own identity, or culture.

Have you ever visited another country and thought, "What in the world is going on?" You were lost. You had no idea what anyone was saying, and you didn’t understand why they were doing certain things, and what you had to do to fit in. To some of us, this is exciting and adventurous. To others, entering a new culture is scary and stressful. Either of these responses can be experienced upon entering a new culture, whether for vacation, study-abroad, a business venture, or migration. These responses are commonly referred to as culture shock.

Culture shock is the process of initial adjustment to an unfamiliar environment. The term of culture shock was first introduced in 1954 by Kalvero Oberg to describe the anxiety resulting from not knowing what to do in a new culture. This "anxiety" encompasses five stages, which are present at different times, and each person has their own way of reacting to them. My two experiences of cultural integration were completely different, and both incongruously included the five stages but didn’t follow their progression.

Usually it begins with the new arrival feeling euphoric and pleased by all of the new things encountered. This time is called the "honeymoon" stage. Then a person may encounter some difficult times and crises in daily life while trying to adapt to a new culture that is very different from the culture of origin. The second stage is a difficult process and often takes time to complete. During the transition, there can also be strong feelings of dissatisfaction.

The third stage is characterized by gaining some understanding of the new culture. A new feeling of pleasure and sense of humour may be experienced. One may start to feel a certain psychological balance as one becomes more familiar with the environment and wants to belong. This initiates an evaluation of the old ways versus those of the new.

Again, after a few days, weeks or months, one grows accustomed to the new culture’s differences and develops routines. At this point, an individual no longer reacts to the new culture positively or negatively, because it no longer feels like a new culture. An individual becomes concerned with basic living again, as they were in their original culture.
In opposition to the first four phases of assimilation, stage five is reverse culture shock, or re-entry shock. It is experienced upon returning to one’s home culture after growing accustomed to a new one and producing the same effects as described above.

When I travelled to Mexico in 2005 to live with missionaries in Jimenez, Chihuahua, my experience trampled right over the five stages of culture shock. However, it is possible that I just hit number one, and stayed there. It wasn’t like I was drooling over Spanish culture; in fact, my initial feelings were of ambivalence that I had decided I needed to go when I really hadn’t wanted to leave my friends and fun at home. Something happened when I crossed that border from El Paso into Chihuahua. Maybe it was the tanned, skinny children staring at me with their bottomless brown eyes. Or maybe it was the vibrant warmth emanating from the peoples’ gazes and expression. It could even have been the soothing timbre of the Spanish tongue on my Caucasian ears. I don’t know what it was, but after that first day in Mexico, I was at home.

I might have been in the honeymoon stage originally but I moved in and out of it seamlessly, constantly balancing the old and new and always finding room for the new. I did have conflicts, but they were always overshadowed by an ardour I cannot explain. I think I had a love affair with Mexico. If I had stayed (which I wanted to do) for the rest of my life, would this passion have continued? My culture shock in Mexico was very limited if existent. I had also been to Mexico once before, for a week, so I wasn’t entering a completely unfamiliar environment. My Spanish language skills were basic, but enough to communicate and build on them.

My "shock" could have been lessened or diminished by these or any number of different factors. That is the problem with "culture shock". Many factors contribute to the duration and effects of culture shock. For example, the individual's state of mental health, type of personality, previous experiences, socio-economic conditions, familiarity with the language, family and/or social support systems, and level of education, according to Dr. Carmen Guanipa, Dept. of Counselling and School Psychology, San Diego State University.

My migration to Australia in February 2007 brought culture shock to my front door, and that’s when I began to see what everyone was talking about. However, only now can I see the faint outline of them in my cultural adaptation here. I moved here permanently because my husband is Aussie. When I married him, I knew full well that I was making a double promise: to be his wife and to live in Australia. I didn’t struggle with that; I was adventurous and living in Oz seemed to fit in fine on my list of life experiences.

My time in Australia has been quite different than my Mexican romance. First of all, I knew I was staying and I knew it was non-negotiable. I was a lot further away from home physically, but socially the culture was much more like home than Mexico was. I skipped lightly through the honeymoon stage, enjoying my first month or so, but it was not intoxicating. The testing times of stage two hit me hard. Struggling to accept my new way of living, I became very critical and defensive. I also felt alone and out-of-place. I had no girlfriends, and my husband was always away. I started university again, but depended on others for my transportation. I was brittle inside, but I retained a strong front.
Getting a car and working part-time swept me quickly from stage three to four, giving me a sense of independence, and allowing me to understand society and blend in. As I resumed my second semester at uni, I began to feel more Aussie than American. I found I was relating better to my Aussie friends than the American exchange students. What had happened? This is when I started to think about culture shock. I must have gone through it without even realizing it. Just recently I found myself thinking Australia’s my home now, I love it here.

For some reason it took me a lot longer to get to this stage in Australia than it did in Mexico. Honestly I don’t know the real reasons. I still love Mexico and think about my Spanish friends daily. I’ve only recently developed a love for Australia. The cultures played disparate roles in my life, but in the end I’m thankful for both of them and the experiences they’ve brought me. As for the fifth stage, I had severe reverse-shock when I returned to the States from Chihuahua. I found it very difficult at first to readjust to my old life, often crying for no reason and constantly comparing things. I hope the same thing doesn’t happen when I return home from Australia, but I highly suspect it will.

5. Furnham, Adrian and Bochner, Stephen. Culture Shock, Psychological Reactions to Unfamiliar Environments. New York, NY: Routledge, 1989.

© Rachel Boone November 2007

Rachel is a freelance journalist, living in Australia on the Gold Coast with her Aussie husband who whisked her from America only a year ago. 
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