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January 26, 2017

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Adapt, accept and embrace new experiences

EVERY year, countless families move from their original places and residences to work or study in another country. Sometimes, this “adventure” can cause physical and psychological concerns related to adapting to the new place of residence.

I still remember when I moved to the United Arab Emirates to work in Dubai. Moving from a European, Latin and Mediterranean culture to another, completely different and much more conservative (in some respects), country was not easy.

This is “culture shock,” a term used to define a series of reactions, feelings and perceptions that we can experience when we move from a familiar environment to another that we find new and strange.

Adapting to a new culture means adapting to: other values and beliefs, different human relationships, different customs and traditions, different lifestyle patterns, different family structures, different foods, different languages. Social and cultural adaptation process can be compared to the cognitive processes of assimilation and accommodation established by the pedagogue Jean Piaget. While assimilation is a process by which new information is taken into a previously existing schema, accommodation is the process by which pre-existing knowledge is altered to fit new information. Finding the balance between these processes is the key to adapting.

The most common signs associated with cultural shock are as follows:

• Anxiety

• Difficulty concentrating and sleeping (especially in children and adolescents).

• Loss of appetite or excess eating.

• Frustration.

• Disorientation, desperation.

• Negative attitudes.

• Nostalgia, sadness.

We can also identify four stages or states of a complete adjustment:

Phase 1: “Honeymoon” or initial euphoria

We have just arrived in a new country and we are thrilled. I remember when we were landing in Dubai and we saw the Burj Khalifa from the Persian Gulf coast. It was a time of new places, new clothes, new flavors, smells and colors.

Phase 2: Irritation, rejection

Little by little, as the days go by, we compare the new place with our country of origin and we focus on the differences. This causes us feelings of irritation and negativity. We criticize local customs, local values and we ask ourselves: “What I am doing here?”

Phase 3: Starting the re-adjustment

Slowly we adapt to the new culture. We start to interact with local people, try new foods, accept invitations, etc.

Phase 4: Adaptation, acceptance, bi-culturalism

In this phase you feel comfortable with your new life in your new country.

How can we cope with these concerns? Here are some ideas:

• Learn beforehand about the country to which we will move. We can reference books, documentaries, TV shows, websites, friends and colleagues who have lived there.

• Try to interact with co-workers, neighbors who are local or who know the local life well.

• Keep your traditions and customs at home (meals, celebrations, etc.).

• Learn the language of the host country. Language can be the key to good adaptation.

• Participates in cultural and social activities.

• Have faith in yourself and be patient.

• Ask for help when you need it. Look to friends, neighbors, social groups and embassies.

To conclude, I would like to reference wise words from “The Little Dragon,” which, in my opinion, metaphorically reflect this process.

“Empty your mind,

Be formless, shapeless — like water.

Now you put water into a cup,

It becomes the cup,

You put water into a bottle,

It becomes the bottle,

You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot.

Now water can flow or it can crash.

Be water, my friend.”

(Bruce Lee, 1971)


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