Culture shock is so cliche.
It’s a buzz word that is tossed around by all who travel but rarely understood. I know because I don’t understand it either. I’ve seen the charts and the diagrams with the highs and lows, the big dip around six months and the slow climb that levels out around 12 to 15 months when you have fully adjusted to your new culture and everything is fine. I even use these regularly to explain the mess that people are going to experience when the honeymoon of high culture China fades. It’s a nice illustration and it makes a valid point that sometimes you’re up and sometimes your down. But that really doesn’t cut it.
It’s deeper than that.
Maybe that’s the kicker. Culture shock is inherently personal. It is inevitable and carries some universal characteristics but when you really get down to it everyone’s chart looks dramatically different.
I knew I was at the bottom of the dip when the sixth season of Gilmore Girls wasn’t playing right. We had spent the better part of the past two weeks watching the first five and a half seasons so stopping was not an option. The screen kept freezing but if I shook the DVD player it would play for about four seconds and then pause again. After watching a full episode in four second bursts I turned to my wife and said, “We need to get out of this apartment.”
We had done the classic – retreat, withdraw and create a familiar environment – instead of engaging China. We had been told that would happen but who could have guessed that Lorelai Gilmore would be our refuge.
I think the most profound part of my cultural adjustment has also been the most difficult. It wasn’t the dip (at least not the first one). My chart has at least two maybe three significant dips, each one a little more impacting than the last. Once I got through the, “this place is hard, stop staring at me” phase I was confronted with a culture much more challenging than China’s.
When I started trying to see myself through they eyes of the people around me I realized just how Western, how American, how Central Illinoisan I really am. It forced me to question which parts of me are core and unshakable and which parts are simply a product of my environment and my upbringing.
When pieces that have been a part of me since day one were challenged it was unpleasant. The result, however is refining. I am finding that my core values are not destroyed but strengthened when all of the fluff falls away (or is ripped out). The high side of culture shock is seeing yourself the way you are seen and as painful as that is, I think it makes you better.
I’ll tell you for sure when I get to the top of the dip.