Our guest blogger Benjamin remembers what his first move to Europe taught him about culture shock.
Wikipedia defines Culture Shock as “the personal disorientation felt when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life”. Culture shock can consist of four distinct phases: Honeymoon, Negotiation, Adjustment, and Mastery.
Having lived in a few different places, I have experienced culture shock several times. When I travel to a new place, I don’t expect it to be the same as the place I just came from (that’s why I go in the first place), but often the differences catch me by surprise.
In my previous post, I wrote about how traveling enables you to learn more about yourself. One thing I have clearly learned about myself is how I react to and handle culture shock. Looking back now, the best example of this happened when I first moved to from North America to Poland right after university for work. It sticks out in my mind, not because the culture shock was so severe; it’s because each phase was so clearly defined.
The first phase is always the Honeymoon Phase. Mine began as soon as I arrived. I was filled with excitement and energy. I was curious about everything and even the simplest mundane task, such as going to the shop to buy bread, was exciting. I was eager to learn the language and meet as many people as possible. In the Honeymoon Phase, everything was great all the time, and my cultural learning expanded the fastest.
My Honeymoon Phase usually lasts about two or three months, but it ends abruptly, and I then move into the Negotiation Phase very quickly when I encounter my first major crisis. I remember it was exactly 11 weeks into my relocation when the Negotiation Phase hit me like a brick wall.
I got really sick. I always prided myself on being healthy and avoiding illness, but winters in northeast Europe come very fast and very strong. Being in the Honeymoon Phase, I was caught off guard. For the first time, I was scared. I was in a foreign country where I didn’t know the language, far away from my friends and family, didn’t know how to find a doctor or a hospital and couldn’t even explain what was wrong with me if I did.
Next comes the Adjustment Phase or, as I like to call it, the Acceptance Phase. Fortunately, I had met some very nice people who helped me find a doctor and even accompanied me to the hospital. I was able to get the help and medication I needed to get well again, but more importantly, I realized that everything was going to be okay. I accepted my situation and my new environment.
The Mastery Phase occurs about four months into the move. I remember this started around Christmas when my friends invited me to spend the Christmas/New Year’s holiday with them. It was my first Christmas away from my family and my home, but just like home, the holiday was spent with lots of food, fun and laughter.
I came to realize that not everything was going to be great all the time, but that was okay because everything would work itself out. I figured out how things in my new location worked (more or less) and knew who I could turn to for help. Did I experience difficulties? Of course, but I knew how to deal with them, how to “master” them.
I think culture shock is just something that all explorers have to experience each time they are on a new adventure. Everyone’s timetable will be different, and each experience may have a different timetable, but learning about more yourself is one of the most important aspects of expat life.
(Image credit: Benjamin W.)