Most people think they aren’t going to experience culture shock when they move to another country. “That isn’t going to happen to me,” they might say. “It’s going to be amazing every day I am there.”
That is exactly what I thought when I moved to South America for two years. I thought that I was different, stronger or something, until one day it hit me like a ton of bricks. Coming to a new country is a challenge. It is exciting and new and scary and you don’t know exactly what to expect. Is it going to be that much different from my home country? Will I be able to adjust? So many questions go through your head even before you actually arrive in your host country. Everyone experiences culture shock differently and BridgeEnglish Denver students, whether they are here for only two weeks or for a year, must adapt to their new culture. It isn’t always that easy.
There are four stages of culture shock: the honeymoon stage; the crisis/depression stage; the adjustment stage and finally the acceptance stage. These stages can happen at any time and in any order, sometimes reoccurring depending on how long you are in your host country. As a teacher at BridgeEnglish Denver, I can sometimes tell which stage my students are going through depending on their mood and their level of energy. So what exactly are these “stages” of culture shock?
The first stage, the honeymoon stage, is pretty self-explanatory. This stage usually lasts for around three months. Everything is exciting and new and you just can’t enough of your new host country. You never want this stage to end and, during this stage, you never actually think it is going to end. It is like being on some sort of culture drug in which you are high all the time. Colors seem brighter, the language is new and exciting, even if you can’t really understand it, and everything is endearing to you, even the feral dogs roaming the streets (if you happen to be in a country where there is a plethora of feral dogs.) How can it get better than this? Well, the high must subside at some point and, when it does, you are left with a big old headache. Welcome to stage two, the crisis/depression stage.
Using no uncertain terms, the crisis/depression stage is a big bummer. Sometimes suddenly, the differences in your new country start to create an impact. Everything you are experiencing no longer feels new; in fact, it’s starting to get you down. You feel confused, isolated or inadequate and realize that your familiar support systems (e.g. family and friends) are not easily accessible. During this stage, many different feelings and emotions may arise like confusion, anxiety, homesickness, and loneliness. Moodiness abounds and it can be worse for women than for men. You may feel unsure of yourself and feel less competent than in your home country. Feelings of being overwhelmed or angry are also possible. The language barrier is no longer a welcoming challenge. It’s just frustrating not being able to understand the natives. You may feel angry and irritated much of the time. The things you found so endearing during the honeymoon stage just make you mad now. The one piece of good news in this sea of anxiety is that these are totally normal feelings and that there is an end in sight. This phase can last from one month to six months depending on the person and how long you are in your new country. But don’t despair. This stage also comes to a close. You are just holding on for stage three, the adjustment stage.
The adjustment stage gets a little better. This is the first stage towards acceptance. You’re almost there. This is the stage when you start to come out of the ‘fog’ and finally begin to feel like yourself again. You start to accept the differences and feel like you can begin to live with them. You feel more confident and better able to cope with any problems that may arise based on your growing experience. You no longer feel isolated and you’re able instead to look at the world around you and appreciate where you are. This is where you live now and you are ok with that. You can communicate better in the language and all of the quirks about this new culture that used to irritate you are now commonplace and don’t really faze you, not even the pack of stray dogs you see on your way to work everyday. Everything is status quo; one more stage to go.
Ah, acceptance, sweet, sweet acceptance. This is the stage where you finally feel normal again and you embrace the new culture and see everything in a new, yet realistic light. Things start to become enjoyable again. You feel comfortable, confident and maybe even like part of the community. You no longer feel alone and isolated and you understand and appreciate both the differences and similarities of both your own and this new culture. You start to feel at home. Ironically enough, sometimes this stage happens just as you are about to go back to your home country. Why does the good part always happen last?
In closing, the stages of culture shock are totally normal and happen to most travelers, sometimes multiple times. I went through the crisis/depression stage at least three or four different times in the same city, and the honeymoon stage at least twice. They come and they go. The best way to deal with culture shock is to have family and friends to talk to, even if they are back home, or find other travelers to share your emotions with. You may feel alone in Denver but I guarantee, there is someone at BridgeEnglish Denver who is going through the exact same thing you are. Feel free to talk to the teachers as well, as most of us have lived abroad and can relate. The great thing about having culture shock here at BridgeEnglish Denver means you never have to go through any of the stages alone.