I burst into tears yesterday at the sight of some Rocky Mountains in the western part of the United States. I moved away two years ago. Shouldn’t I be over being homesick and culture shock? This question prompted me to research culture shock and reflect on my findings.
Travel vs. Moving = Vacation vs. Permanency
Part of the reason travel is so exhilarating is that you volunteer to go to another place and immerse yourself into culture and place for a duration of time of your choice. In fact, most times travel is all about you and your preferences: city/country, hotel, restaurant, museum/tours, shops, beach, etc all are chosen by YOU.
Relocating however is not a welcomed choice always. As a trailing spouse, you may not even get to choose the place let alone the time the move happens. Instead, you are choosing your marriage or family over comfort (and career!) and must stay in the new place at least for a while. So you can’t just ignore what you don’t like because you’re not on vacation. You must adapt or die, as they say.
Culture Shock is an Understatement
The unique or quaint aspects of your vacation destination are the very thing that exasperates you when it is a daily reality of your new home. I think the novelty of a new place wears on someone’s patience after awhile because what used to be easy, convenient or familiar is now absent. This website stated “Real CultureShock can happen in places you expect to be similar – it’s the accumulation of tiny things that can tip you over the edge. Don’t expect that it’s just that there’s snow, or that the buildings are taller.” It comes down to little things like customer service or social etiquette. How the different sexes are treated, whether you have children or not, food preferences and even….past times and hobbies. Maybe just the standard of living, condition of roads and infrastructure, and the severity of blight and crime is new to you. Routine tasks now take all day or maybe a week or more due to perhaps lack of knowledge of services or delays in service. You can read my post about trying to find emergency pet care and how exhausting and stressful that was.
I remember nothing “made sense” even though I wasn’t even dealing with serious cultural changes in hygiene, language, food, gender, and race. One article I read stated that all one’s cues on how to act and react are stripped away when you change cultures. It’s this removal of cultural props that is disorienting and confusing. When you are a tourist, on the other hand, sometimes it is fun to get lost in another culture. In fact, I used to travel for this very reason: I wanted to remove the veneer and rediscover myself in a new context. Then the discoveries were to help me orient myself again back home. I think we all can agree that relocating is not a fanciful delight but a gut-wrenching overhaul of everything you know and love.
Thus when you see something familiar like a snow-covered mountain in Colorado that is similar to other places you’ve lived and loved, you burst into tears.
For an academic perspective on culture shock, try Paul Pedersen’s The Five Stages of Culture Shock: Critical Incidents Around the World (1995 Greenwood Press, Westport, CT via Google Books). It was helpful to know culture shock was a process, unique to each individual and based on experiences and expectations. I would agree that if I’d had more time to research Wichita before moving here, I would have been better equipped to handle the transition. This hindsight is what compels me to write this blog and urge readers to DO YOUR HOMEWORK before relocating. But also be kind to yourself when things are tough. Further, Wikipedia offers an interesting discussion on their Four Phases of Culture Shock. Also this blogger describes it in his own words. Either way, isn’t it nice to know it all will pass with time?
But don’t worry about me…Guess what? I’m all better now that I’ve shared this with you. And now that I’ve learned some critically important cultural cues for Kansas and can appreciate Wichita and Kansas norms, the pangs of sadness are fleeting. Read my other blog post about how it all gets better with time. Don’t forget what Nietzsche said: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Let’s hear about your experiences. Any advice for those who have just moved?