Pressure relief from culture shock


If you’ve moved to a new place recently, you’re probably experiencing some degree of culture shock.  I remember when I first moved to Thailand.  My temper grew short, I felt stupid most of the time (for my friends, no need to comment here) and it didn’t help being illiterate either, and I seemed to feel things I’d never felt before!

What was going on?  I wasn’t myself.

When I moved to Thailand in 1987, the idea that Thailand was the ‘Land of Smiles’ had I believe just begun to become a national slogan. Everywhere I went, I felt like I was expected to smile. I grew up in Southern California. Smiling at the wrong time, place or person could get you into serious trouble. More to the point, I just didn’t feel like smiling all the time. Smiling took effort. Yet everywhere I went, people wanted me to smile back at them.

I found relief though. It was during this time that I discovered Indian food. Not far from my house, was this great little Indian restaurant that some friends took me to, and the food was outstanding. Then reason I went back over and again however was not for the food. I had found a pressure release valve for culture shock!

From the moment I entered the restaurant, smiles were no longer expected and this felt wonderful. Walking in, the owner or manager might be standing there, staring with not even a hint of a smile, as if to ask, “Why are you coming into my establishment?” I would stare back, without a smile at all and say I want a table for 3. From ordering food, to paying the bill and leaving, the entire time could be spent without any effort or expectation that I needed to smile at someone.

Now, looking back, I’m much more comfortable with smiling. Rarely now, do people ever say that I look angry or unhappy but I assure you that this didn’t happen without pain – having to do anything that doesn’t come naturally is hard work.

Adjusting to any new culture – this is hard work. Culture shock is normally NOT some huge thing that happens, but is a lot of little things that we generally don’t notice.  What we notice, are the feelings that we experience as a result of being pushed out of our comfort zones.  In fact, for me, I see adjusting to a new culture as something very similar to excercise – it’s good for us.

Most of us have lived in our own language/culture and have arrived at an inner ‘place’ or comfort zone.  Our lives are predicatble there.  We know that we are easy-going, or high strung, or whatever we think characterizes us.  When we move to a new place, our inner limits change.

Imagine for example, that we have a cup of water (patience) that is 1/4 full.  To overflow (or lose your patience), we have to add in 3/4 more water, and this is you normally.  When you move to a new place, all the little things that are different and probably don’t really bother you all that much, get added in.  Together, they may add up to a great deal.  So are you losing your patience easily?  Not surprising.

Over time you assimilate the differences and they become part of you.  This generally takes longer than you think.  Don’t be surprised don’t be too hard on yourself.  There can be nothing as fantastic as learning about new people and places.  Enjoy it as much as you can, and accept that the inner-excercise of culture shock can be a healthy thing!

A pretty good blog about culture shock can be found at:
Leaving the Nest: An Expatriate’s Survival Guide: Culture Shock 101: The Problem

(One thing I realized as a student in the AUA Thai Program is that through sharing their lives, our teachers gave us more understanding of culture than was even imaginable.  I realized that in fact, understanding culture was more important than being able to use Thai, and preliminary to being able to use Thai as a Thai. There is so much added value in that, the for me, becoming fluent in Thai was merely a by-product.)

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