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Culture Shock & Being Homesick

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Culture Shock and chocolate.
The problem and the cure.

Culture Shock is the term used to describe the anxiety and stress people feel when they relocate to a new environment. It’s most obvious when moving to a new country where habits, customs and language may be very different from the person’s own country.

Culture Shock comes about because of difficulties in assimilating the new culture, uncertainty as to what behaviour is appropriate and what is not, and sometimes disgust or revulsion about certain aspects of the new culture. And then culture shock leads to Being Homesick – longing for the familiar and wanting to leave and go back to a “safe” and “familiar” environment.

Phases of Culture Shock

There is often an initial honeymoon phase when moving to a new country. Everything is strange and different and is seen in a romantic or exotic new light. The food is exotic, the people look exciting and different, the atmosphere is charged and so on.

But this is often followed by the new culture losing its freshness and a desire for one’s own culture: food, friends, language, television and so on. The contrast of the old and the new can become more pronounced and frustrating and develop into annoyance or anger that things aren’t “how they should be”. This is the hardest phase to cope with.

After time the new culture becomes assimilated and most people find their balance. They accept what they like and try to ignore what they do not.

However, since teachers often work abroad for a set contract this means that after a year or so they may well move back home where the process starts all over again!

Coping with Culture Shock & Homesickness

Some people cope better than others with culture shock. Experienced travelers have developed strategies for dealing with the changes in culture and this helps to make their time in another country more enjoyable and profitable.

Before you go:

  • immerse yourself in your destination country
  • learn about the new country beforehand – if you read about your destination before you go this will make it seem less strange and intimidating when you first arrive; for example you might read that the toilets are different which will mean when you first arrive seeing a completely different set up in the toilet won’t be so much of a shock!
  • learn a few words – no matter how little you know, it will make a difference; immediately you will have one or two words to act as footholds in the new language. Especially important here is learning how to address people correctly: the local equivalent of Mr, Mrs and Madam, for example, so that you can establish some immediate rapport with people (even if you continue the rest of the conversation in English).
  • read about cultural differences (such as body language‏‎) to avoid the possibility of offending local people

See also, What to Take With You‏‎.

When you arrive:

  • After you’ve got advice on personal safety‏‎, get out and explore the area where you live. Spend time wandering the streets to see what is out there. Who knows, you may even meet a few people on the way.
  • Use the same shops to buy your essentials so you can build a relationship with the shop keepers – it’s someone else to greet when you go to work in the morning.
  • Learn the basics and then introduce yourself to your neighbors. They might be useful if you ever find yourself in difficulties.
  • Find the essentials in your neighborhood: the police station, the post office, the doctor, dentist and hospital.
  • Get into a routine. After breakfast, for example, have coffee at the same shop in the same seat each morning. This will make you feel more like a resident and less like a tourist.
  • Join a gym. Look out for any social activity and don’t turn down an invitation so you meet as many people as possible. If you have a free day, make sure you do something with it rather than just sit at home. It doesn’t matter what as long as it gets you out of the house.

For a more in-depth look at meeting people, see this article about Socializing in a New Country‏‎.

Help during problem times

If you do have problems:

  • Try talking to other people who have been in the same situation.
  • Make sure you have packed a few “luxuries” from home which can help: your favorite books or music for example. If you haven’t packed them, get online and buy some!
  • Take up a hobby: it doesn’t matter what, but it’s something to take your mind off the situation for a few hours be it fishing, knitting, building matchstick models of the Titanic or whatever.
  • Keep a diary of your days. Write down all the new and strange details of your life and then, when you like to, go through it and you’ll realize that those situations which used to be so strange and frightening in the early days are commonplace and quite fun now.

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