Photo credits: HE Rybol in Germany; book cover art (both supplied).
For her column this month, transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol presents some of the material from her book, Culture Shock: A Practical Guide. For those who are new to her column, H.E. is the product of a German dad and a French mom. She was raised as a Third Culture Kid and has lived in the United States, Luxembourg, England, Spain, Switzerland and Singapore. She currently resides in Luxembourg.
Hello, Displaced Nationers. This month I want to take you into the (sometimes too rapidly beating) heart of culture shock.
As those of you who have experienced it will know, culture shock is about a series of ups and downs. On the down side, a traveler may feel:
On the up side, they may feel:
If you are a regular reader of this column, you’ll know that for the past few months I’ve been quizzing expats about their experiences with culture shock so that I can add to, as well as sharpen, the tools for easing the condition that I’ve collected in my so-called culture shock toolbox.
This month I’m going to share a few ideas that you can find in my book, Culture Shock: A Practical Guide; but first let’s do something to put us into a culture-shocked state of mind. To that end, I’ve devised a quiz based on one of my own experiences.
In fact, what happened was that I continued helping until another Singaporean man walked by and said, in a rough tone: “Only a foreigner would do that.” He pressed his palms together, bowed slightly, and thanked me. I could see my helping was making the man with the flyers really uncomfortable, so I stayed just a little longer and then, wishing him good luck and smiling kindly (which he probably didn’t see as he barely looked at me!), left. Later I asked my local friends to help me interpret this rather strange (to me) encounter. They told me Singaporeans are cautious and tend to mind their own business. Is that because of they live in a nanny state? Maybe, maybe not…
When we go into culture shock, we are in free fall. Having exited from our comfort zone, we are stripped straight down to our core. Oftentimes we lose confidence in our ability to meet the most basic needs: What do I eat? Where do I sleep? Who do I connect with? Where do I belong? Will I be safe?
Cognitive dissonance is a big part of the problem. Our ideas and the reality we find sur place don’t match—which can feel threatening.
But leaving our comfort zone also propels us into a moment of accelerated growth. As we slowly begin to make sense of all the new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures—and interactions with others—we expand our minds to incorporate new perspectives. There is potential for us to learn compassion, kindness and gratitude. The experience may feel raw—but it can also be exhilarating.
Some of you readers should know me well enough by now that you can predict the next step: I can hardly wait to open my toolbox and offer you some tips for achieving this potential for growth.
5 tools for handling the culture shock roller coaster:
1. Consider the benefits: The term “culture shock” often evokes negative connotations. But let’s turn that on its head and pretend for a moment we don’t need a toolbox. Simply ask yourself:
How have challenging cultural transitions positively impacted my life?
2. Use food as an icebreaker: Food is a great way to learn about a new country and connect with people over a shared need. Say, how about getting out those cooking tools? 🙂
3. Communicate: “Please”, “thank you”, and a smile go a long way in someone else’s culture. Learn some basic phrases in the new language before you take off. For sure, a small phrase book, pocket dictionary or app ought to be in that toolbox. While you won’t end up having an in-depth conversation about political or social issues right away, at least you’ve made a start. Also, given that most communication is nonverbal, don’t be afraid to use your hands and feet—always fun no matter how clumsy it might feel! Find out about body language. What’s the polite way to hail a cab? Beckon someone to come over? Is it rude or polite to look someone directly in the eyes? Observe.
4. Slow down: Treat the fact that you are entering a new culture as an opportunity to slow down and take it easy. Take time to adapt and go of any preconceptions. Think of this tool as a pressure valve: open it up and let go all of that stress and pressure out. Don’t force yourself to visit as many sights as you can—even if you feel obliged to do so. The point is to enjoy yourself, isn’t it? Allow yourself time to fully experience this transition.
5. Practice the art of being grateful: Seeing life from a different perspective is a wonderful way to learn to appreciate what we have been given, on the road as well as in the home we’ve left behind. Here are some of the things I’ve become grateful for while traveling:
• hot water
• clean water
• a bed
• access to fresh food
Mostly, though, I’m grateful for the kindness of strangers, conversations I had with people I met along the way, friends I made, lessons I learned—and the privilege of having had the opportunity to experience all this in the first place. As often as possible, use the tools you have at hand to open your mind to the good things that surround you.
* * *
Readers, I hope this has you “fixed” until next month. Until then. Prost! Santé!
Editor’s Note: The above post was adapted from Chapter 1 of H.E. Rybol’s Culture Shock: A Practical Guide. It is followed by six chapters full of tips:
1. How to deal with craving comfort
2. How to process new information
3. How to cope without autopilot
4. How to deal with difficult situations
5. How to deal with alienation
6. How to unite both worlds within yourself
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