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May 20, 2017

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The 4 stages expatriates have to deal with in a foreign culture

IT was a magnificent Saturday morning as my plane began its descent into Shanghai Pudong International Airport. I knew very little about this part of the world but would spend the next 18 years of my life mingling among these amazing people and their wondrous country.

My own family members and friends asked me what it’s like to live in a culture so different from my own. Hailing from Sydney, my response was one must relearn everything, like a child with an adult mind. One must learn how to eat, dress, speak a new language, discern how to interact in a variety of social settings, and understand other cultural norms. One need not just learn this new culture but must be able to live and function within it. This process of adjusting to a new culture is called “cultural adaptation.”

There are several stages to the notion of cultural adaptation, inclusive of the process and time it takes for one to assimilate to a new culture. It is not always an easy transition as humans differ from one to another. Over the years there have been numerous adaptations of the different stages of assimilating to another diverse culture.

One of the most well-known models is the “U-curve” proposed by Norwegian political scientist Sverre Lysgaard. This model includes four different stages:

Stage 1 — Honeymoon Stage

This stage typically extends from the initial point of arrival to the first couple of months within the host country. It is described as an experience filled with excitement and curiosity. People go out of their way to acclimatize to the culture, often taking language lessons and trying to adhere to cultural norms. They also find that the normal, everyday tasks back home are now more challenging in the host nation. Making sense of the menu in a restaurant, having the Internet turned on in ones’ apartment, or simply taking a taxi to the other side of town is a daunting experience.

Having made the decision to relocate to Shanghai, I managed to secure a rental lease in an apartment in Jing’an District, initiated discussions with local government departments in the district on potential projects and secured a part-time teaching position at a local college campus.

Life was good.

Stage 2 — Culture Shock Stage

The second stage tends to start three to four months after arrival. It is characterized by the feeling of culture shock, also described as the sensation of confusion associated with experiencing a new culture. This stage can be difficult as people begin to notice extreme differences between their native culture and the new one.

Living and working out of Shanghai, one is exposed to a kaleidoscope of experiences. The initial period of settling into my apartment, familiarizing with the array of restaurants within the immediate area, shopping for food items at the local supermarket and figuring out the public transport system to and from my place of work presented many challenges.

During these first few months, I experienced gastric issues like food poisoning. Things started to go south from there. The initial excitement of leaving my apartment each morning to catch the subway with tens of thousands of other commuters was beginning to wear thin. The unwritten rule of a meter circumference of space surrounding everyone in public, as practiced in the West, is generally regarded as one’s personal space. Forget that notion!

As the week drew to an end, I would wearily make my way home, dropping by the local supermarket to buy groceries and would encounter hordes of shoppers doing exactly the same thing. Having arrived at my apartment, I’d hurriedly close and bolt the door behind me and turn off the buzzer-phone. In the quiet of my apartment, I would remain indoors for the entire weekend. Solace at last!

At this stage, I had become confused in my thoughts. There were periods where I seemed to have misread or misinterpreted the behavior and speech of local residents. I became disoriented and unable to accurately predict what the local populace would say or how they would act or react. Hiding away in my apartment seemed to ease things somewhat. This tactic, however, would provide only a temporary fix.

Stage 3 — Recovery Stage

At this point in the transitional process, one gradually adapts to the new culture and learns how to behave appropriately. This phase is also referred to as the “adjustment phase.” People gradually realize that the local populace is not out to harm them, and that their distress is caused by the differences in values, beliefs and behaviors.

Several months had transpired and somehow I managed to survive. I had come to understand that I needed to seek out effective problem-solving strategies. The host culture was beginning to make sense to me, and that my pessimistic reactions and responses to situations were being transformed into understanding. I realized my issues were created by my inability to understand, accept and adapt. I came to appreciate this process of transition would be a gradual and arduous progression.

Stage 4 — Adaptation Stage

People are proactively engaged in the new culture, with a new set of problem-solving and resolution tools, and some degree of success is manifest. In this phase, people experience cultural transformation. After having passed through the first three stages, they know they possess a degree of understanding and acceptance of the native population and they have adapted to the new culture.

Having acquired a certain level of competency of communicating with the local citizenry, and because of their success, people start feeling good about themselves and functioning well. They have finally discovered their intercultural identity. They now nurture and evolve a sense of integration with their host environment.

It is important to be aware that every individual will react differently to a given situation. Some will assimilate earlier to a host culture, while others will take longer.

Tidbits for surviving a culture shock

• Do your homework and be prepared. Do some research on the country that you’re going to visit. Inculcate yourself with the customs, values, culture and behavior, to head off any unexpected surprises.

• Be aware that instances of emotional distress experienced within the host nation may be linked to culture shock.

• Apply common sense. The local citizenry is not to blame for the fact that your body and mind are struggling to adjust to the new environment.

• Keep in mind that everyone experiences some type and degree of culture shock. You are not alone.

• Review your culture-shock profile regularly for self-evaluation and reflection. You will come to understand your emotions better, and be able to self-determine at what stage you are at any given moment.

• If one is prepared to hang in there and go the distance, it will all work out. Good luck!


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