When you go through a life transition such as finding a new job, moving to a new house or a new country, you go through distinct phases. You’re met with a different culture. People may think, act and make decision differently. The food they eat, the way they dress, their language and their way of life may be different.
The reasons of the cultural transition phases are best explained by the iceberg theory. L. Robert Kohls, a cross-cultural consultant, suggests that culture is a kind of iceberg. The tip which is visible above the surface of the water is the surface culture while the larger part hidden below the surface is the deep culture.
There are 3 phases of cultural adjustments – 1) Everything is beautiful, 2) Everything is awful and 3) Everything is Ok.
These phases of adjustment are discussed in part of a Culture Resources material written by Rex Heer, Yaoling Wang, and Lori Brunner.
Everything is beautiful
This phase is the tip of the iceberg. You are drawn to the new things – the food, the people, the neighborhood, the fashion, the entertainment, the way of life, etc. Everything is new and exciting. This is also called the honeymoon phase.
When I first came to Thailand, I was drawn to the beauty of the city of Bangkok. I admired the infrastructures; I loved the plenty of very fashionable yet affordable clothing, the lots of big malls, the very helpful and polite people who always smile and the big market for international teaching career. For me, these were beautiful. However, I stayed at this stage only for a month.
Everything is awful
When you past the honeymoon stage and you’ve exhausted the novelty of new things, you begin to see below the surface. This is what you call the culture shock. You realize that things are not beautiful, in fact, they’re awful. You begin to feel anxious, displaced, restless, impatient or depressed.
Based from my experience, it took me two years to survive the culture shock. I hated to go to the market because of the awful smell of grasses that I never thought were edible. I couldn’t enjoy the food in most restaurants because they’re too spicy for me. I hardly could commute through public buses because I couldn’t tell in Thai where I’d get off. And yet, when I take a taxi, I had to say a hundred prayers for the driver to understand and bring me to the right place.
I found that the people always smile and they’re always polite even if they hate you. They can never be frank. This is a land of smile and it’s their culture to maintain politeness regardless of what they think or feel. But at your back, it’s a different story. For someone who came from a culture which people are free to argue, oppose and debate up front, it’s very difficult to adjust. If you genuinely believe in those smiles without learning to read between the lines, you get shocked when the result tells you otherwise.
The international teaching market is indeed big and there are lots of teachers needed, it was good for me. However, the people worship the western accent so much that whoever is white, blond and with blue eyes deserve more respect and betterr salary than those with brown skin (even if their educational attainments speak otherwise).
Everything is Ok
“At this stage you are seeing things in a balanced manner. You realize that the host culture has both positive and negative aspects. You have also learned more about your host culture, and you are more used to the foods, sights, sounds, smells, nonverbal behaviors, and language of the host culture. You start noticing that you are not as confused as before. You also have fewer headaches and stomachaches, and you have started making some new friends.”
After two years, I overcame the culture shock. I started to see the many positive things of the this country and not only the negative things. I developed a sense of loyalty and appreciation for it.
Did you experience going through these phases of cultural adjustments? How long did it take you to overcome the culture shock?
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