Expat Life and Culture Shock

I remember the first time I heard the term culture shock.  I was eight and had just moved to the Philippines.  It sounded like something terrible that could knock a person out, maybe for good.  Like electric shock, or toxic shock, or something equally awful.  The adults (all American missionaries in the Philippines) were talking about it.  About how someone who had recently moved there could hardly cope with life, the culture shock was so bad.  As a kid making the transition to a new country, I don't think I really experienced too much culture shock.  I didn't like being stared at constantly and followed around all of the time.  I didn't like sleeping under a mosquito net, or having to call everyone either aunt, uncle, or the Filipino terms meaning aunt, uncle, or big sister or big brother.  I remember almost choking on our first meal when we arrived in the country-- a "hamburger" which was sweet, made of pork, with lots of gristle, topped with banana "katsup." I didn't like how all the Filipinos treated us like we were super special and important, better somehow because of our skin color.  The cold showers were hard to get used to at first, as was filtering all of our water.  But none of these things really felt earth-shattering to me.  I was having a good time, and enjoyed the adventure.  It was just different, and I am always amazed by how well children can adapt to just about anything.

My first real experience of culture shock was probably when I returned to the USA, which is called reverse culture shock.  I was ten, and had been living in the Philippines for two years.  I remember noticing that people didn't seem as respectful to their elders, once all of those titles were missing, and I wasn't sure how to address anyone.  Table manners and other types of etiquette were really different, and I was afraid of doing something rude.  Americans didn't smile at each other nearly as much as Filipinos do, and so I didn't feel quite as welcome in my home country.  Kids couldn't do all the things I was used to doing-- for example, taking public transport with another child to wherever we needed to go, or building fires in our back yards. I was scandalized by the very short shorts girls wore.  Everyone was talking about movies or TV shows I'd never seen, and I felt really out of it.  I particularly remember being fascinated by the "lights" down the middle of the roads-- my dad explained that they were reflectors, and I felt silly for not knowing something so simple.  We were only "home" for several months, but I was glad to get back to a more normal life in the Philippines.

I only went back to live in the USA one more time before I graduated from high school and flew back over to live in my "home country" long-term.  It was disorienting enough being a college student for the first time, but I had to also face American culture simultaneously.  I remember feeling depressed that people weren't friendlier, and that I felt like I was in a completely new world when I should have been "at home."  Fortunately, I had wanted to return to the States, unlike some of my classmates.  Knowing that I would eventually move back made my experience at boarding school in Manila often feel more like a holding tank-- I knew I would leave it all behind eventually, and as graduation drew closer, I had to loosen my grip on just about everything and everyone in my life.

Here I am, culturally ambiguous at 16.  I went to my junior prom wearing a sari I had a dorm sister from Bangladesh pick up for me when she visited her parents.  I also pierced my nose (just for the weekend, since it was against school dress code.)

But in California, I felt like I didn't know how to do anything, or how to be me in a completely new context. I couldn't figure out how to dress-- I never seemed to be able to look like everyone else.  There were no answering machines in the Philippines, and whenever I got one when I was making a call in the States, I would freeze up.  I didn't know how to pump gas because, even though I had a Philippines driver's license, we never had to pump our own there.  Also, I failed my California drivers license test three times!  (Undoubtedly in part due to learning to drive in the Philippines!)  Using a debit card kind of freaked me out, as did many other automated situations.  I could go on and on about the things that I just didn't know how to do.  It didn't matter that I knew how to wash my own laundry skillfully by hand in a plastic basin, or that I knew how to care for pigs, goats, chickens and turkeys. (OK, monkeys, parrots, geese, and owls too!) That I could kill and gut a chicken myself, and cook it for dinner. That I knew how to check someone's blood pressure, and that I had cleaned and dressed a hundred wounds in poor areas throughout my adolescence.  No one in my new life knew that I spoke another language like a native, and that I could also get around pretty well in Tagalog.  Or that I was skillful at squatting for long periods of time and eating neatly with my fingers.  It wasn't relevant that I was frankly pretty amazing at climbing trees.  I felt completely inept in the skill set I needed for my new American life.  Plus,  I basically looked the same as everyone else, so no one treated me like a foreigner that needed help.

I eventually figured it all out... But it took a long time, and as I have mentioned before, I never felt completely at home in America.  I felt more like an immigrant with roots. Having overcome that major transition, and having since spent time in several other foreign countries, I thought I would probably have a pretty significant leg-up on culture shock.  In fact, I felt naively un-shockable.  But lately, I have realized that I am dealing with culture shock here in the UK, and it has taken me by surprise.  I will write more soon about the things that have thrown me for a loop here, but I wanted to get the conversation started.

What has your experience been with culture shock or reverse culture shock?  If you haven't lived overseas, do you have a story to tell about helping someone else transition to your culture?


In order to comment on BlogHer.com, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.