Culture Shock


James and I are recovering from culture shock. We can say we’re in recovery thanks to our handy Survival Kit for Overseas Living, which explains that the toughest weeks of culture shock usually come about three months into one’s adjustment to a new country. We’re now in month five, and are happily trending back up to our normal states of being.

If you need a refresher on the concept of culture shock, here’s how L. Robert Kohls, the author of Survival Kit, describes it:

[Culture shock] does not result from a specific event or series of events. It comes instead from the experience of encountering ways of doing, organizing, perceiving, or valuing things that are radically different from yours and which threaten your basic, unconscious belief that your enculturated customs, assuptions, values, and behaviours are “right.”

Aliens have landed

As this street art from Montevideo, Uruguay conveys, culture shock means that sometimes we feel like aliens.

In other words, our lives in the US fill us with a repertoir of values and social cues that help us navigate our culture and inform us of how we fit into US society. Every interaction—how we wait in line, how we talk to strangers, how we argue, even what products we buy—all reflect our culture.

James and my culture shock reveals itself in various ways. Some days we’re depressed, some days we argue, some days we bury ourselves in English language books or mindlessly surf our favorite websites. Often our longings for what’s familiar express themselves in our dreams: a few weeks ago, I dreamt I was in a Trader Joe’s grocery store, stocking up on foods that I miss here in the Southern Cone. I found myself buying a mountain of dried cranberries, almonds, and pretzels to take back to Argentina, as if I could reach into the snack aisle of my subconscious and provision myself with comfort foods for the long journey through cranberry-less South America (well, not quite cranberry-less).

But, as I said, we are in recovery. Little by little, we notice changes in ourselves that tell us that a gradual adjustment is taking place. And every time we come back to Resistencia after a trip to Buenos Aires or Paraguay, our house feels a little more like home.

9 Responses to “Culture Shock”

  1. Thank you for sharing this aspect of travelling, not something that many people expect.

  2. Thanks! that was a fun one 😉

  3. Great post! We went through the same sort of thing when we first got to Nicaragua (or at least I did) and I remember paging through the same book trying to make sense of it. It still sneaks up on me sometimes when life is tiring or frustrating. It’s nice when the new house starts to feel like home too.

  4. Happy to hear you’re over the bump. I think most of us live with a bit of our heart somewhere else, always.

  5. 8 Tom Schumann

    Marian, I have experienced the Paraguayan culture shock you mention, but in reverse. I grew up in Asuncion where my parents also worked at first at Colegio International, and then at Mission de Amistad (1961-1968). After 7 years in Paraguay I returned to the states to start high school and was totally overwhelmed by the differences in cultures, and it took quite a while to adjust.

    • Thank you for writing, Tom. It’s great to hear your perspective. I can only imagine what it must have been like to come to the US as a teen after spending a childhood in Stroessner’s Paraguay. Thanks so much for sharing and for connecting with us.

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