Wow. I’ve been on a honeymoon and didn’t know it. This transition has seemed so easy, but these last two weeks, something . . . .
I thought it was just exhaustion. I’ve been packing and unpacking since March, and my room still looks like a bomb went off. I notice little things are starting to piss me off. Today may have been the straw on the camel’s back. I was trying to buy a bottle of alcohol to clean the keys on my computer. Sounds simple right? Not! The label said alcohol (in Swedish of course) but it was something to put on mosquito bites. Not rubbing alcohol available at any grocery store in the U.S. A small thing. Then I was trying to buy a hose that fits into a appurtenance on our new lawn mower which is stinking up the garage with rotting grass, and also my crow’s nest in the attic which is the only place in the house where I can write. There are two sizes of hose in Sweden (go figure) and trying to get the right one – when mixed with metric and English – has became a mind boggling quest.
Such small frustrations. Some of you may have read Charles Bukowski who wrote about broken shoestrings – minor frustrations that drive people crazy when they stack up. I could write a list of these, and thought today was just another one – then came the epiphany. Culture shock! I looked it up on Wiki.
The four phases
During this period, the differences between the old and new culture are seen in a romantic light. For example, in moving to a new country, an individual might love the new food, the pace of life, and the locals’ habits. During the first few weeks, most people are fascinated by the new culture. They associate with nationals who speak their language, and who are polite to the foreigners. This period is full of observations and new discoveries. Like most honeymoon periods, this stage eventually ends.
After some time (usually around three months, depending on the individual), differences between the old and new culture become apparent and may create anxiety. Excitement may eventually give way to unpleasant feelings of frustration and anger as one continues to experience unfavorable events that may be perceived as strange and offensive to one’s cultural attitude. Language barriers, stark differences in public hygiene, traffic safety, food accessibility and quality may heighten the sense of disconnection from the surroundings.
While being transferred into a different environment puts special pressure on communication skills, there are practical difficulties to overcome, such as circadian rhythm disruption that often leads to insomnia and daylight drowsiness; adaptation of gut flora to different bacteria levels and concentrations in food and water; difficulty in seeking treatment for illness, as medicines may have different names from the native country’s and the same active ingredients might be hard to recognize.
Still, the most important change in the period is communication: People adjusting to a new culture often feel lonely and homesick because they are not yet used to the new environment and meet people with whom they are not familiar every day. The language barrier may become a major obstacle in creating new relationships: special attention must be paid to one’s and others’ culture-specific body language signs, linguistic faux pas, conversation tone, linguistic nuances and customs, and false friends.
In the case of students studying abroad, some develop additional symptoms of loneliness that ultimately affect their lifestyles as a whole. Due to the strain of living in a different country without parental support, international students often feel anxious and feel more pressure while adjusting to new cultures—even more so when the cultural distances are wide, as patterns of logic and speech are different and a special emphasis is put on rhetoric.
Again, after some time (usually 6 to 12 months), one grows accustomed to the new culture and develops routines. One knows what to expect in most situations and the host country no longer feels all that new. One becomes concerned with basic living again, and things become more “normal”. One starts to develop problem-solving skills for dealing with the culture and begins to accept the culture’s ways with a positive attitude. The culture begins to make sense, and negative reactions and responses to the culture are reduced.
I remember that line from Evita: So what happens now? Will I adjust? Maybe by Christmas. Funny, before I left the U.S. I predicted things would start to settle by the New Year. Hope I was right. There is sure as hell no going back, but one can always move on.
Tomorrow: Rare photo of what my room looks like after 3 months.