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|Culture Shock - One Ordeal of the ESL Profession
What is culture shock? The English (UK) Encarta Dictionary defines culture shock as a "sudden exposure to unfamiliar culture. The feelings of confusion and anxiety experienced when an individual or a group suddenly finds itself in an unfamiliar cultural environment".
There are five stages to culture shock stress. (Remember stress can be both a positive or negative emotion).
Adjustment or Acceptance stage
Re-entry shock or reverse culture shock
Let me share with you my honeymoon stage, hostility sage and adjustment stage.
The honeymoon stage started even before I came to China. Two months before departure I was so busy with planning my trip. I read books from the library; I spent hours on the internet and I purchased a travel guide book. I had to apply for a visa sell my car and finalise my accounts. Get a medical check up and some vaccinations. It was go, go, go. I remember being very excited, apprehensive and anxious. In other words I was under a lot of stress and loving it. I was finally moving out of the ordinary and into what I perceived as the extraordinary -- living and working as an English teacher in China. This was a country that had for many years haunted and beckoned me to come and experience charm and mystery. My naivety blinded me to the upcoming hostility stage where I would perceive myself as being cursed and betrayed by its seductive facade. However, there is more to my honeymoon stage.
I am very open to new experiences and this trait of mine has allowed me to enjoy the flight over and the initial arrival in Beijing. I knew the situation involved risk and possible lost of money and face with people back home. As fortune had it my planning paid off and I secured a one year contract in Nanjing at a private boarding school teaching kindergarten and primary school students. I had hoped for a University posting but Nanjing had some advantages that compensated me.
For the first month I was on a high. Everything was new and exciting; just like a new love. I suppose that is why they call it the honeymoon stage. Well for those readers who have "been there and done that" we all know that the honeymoon comes to an abrupt end with no warning. You just wake up one morning feeling these giant mood swings and the same "cognitive process" that had you totally convinced that coming to China was the right thing to do, beats you around the head and shouts "What have you done!"
I will tell you what I had done. I had left the home I loved, the people I loved and now I was experiencing an emotional storm whipped up grief and loss. Nothing the school did was good enough. The students were a pain in the neck. The weather was terrible. The food was poison -- in some cases this may have actually been true. I could feel myself erupting with some much anger but I did not know why. Why did the honeymoon have to end? Why couldn't I try and hold on to those good times for the whole of my contract? I was a rational person and capable of an attitude shift to revive the good times of old. No way could I get out of this depressed mood. I would struggle to go to class; I lost weigh, started smoking and increased my alcohol consumption. I was literary falling apart. I was going to just get up one day, pack up all my things and go home. But it didn't happen. Why?
I was so fortunate to have another foreign English teacher from New Zealand living with me and with me being an Australian we formed our own ANZAC co-operation to help one another. He is married to a wonderful Chinese woman and they have an eight month old baby boy, Ben. In other words, I had by this time had a close friend to call on for moral support. He had been in China for two years and we would have a beer and talk it out. He and his wife were really a lifesaver during that time. Besides, I got on so well with the baby. He was a real delight. If I wanted a hug he was happy to comply. What more could I ask for?
I was asking for a lot more believe me! Anyway there is a happy ending; for the time being. I still have another seven months to go and I fear that I might have a relapse and this time my friend and his wife will be gone. And no more hugs from little Ben. I planned a strategy to work through the hostility stage and here it is:
And no it was not to drink more, smoke more and shout more and feel more sorrow for myself. Event though it blew my budget to hell, I bit the bullet and went home for an eight day break. The school was closed for the May holiday so I took advantage of the school's willingness to let me go.
But before I went home, I called on my inner self and said. "Paul is this the best you can do? Sooner or later your body is going to rebel and say enough is enough". And it was only after reaching the low of the lowest point did I stop and begin to climb back to a sense of acceptance and normality. Regrettably sometimes you have to journey so deep into you inner self to find your authentic self. I was told this journey is referred as the "long dark night of the soul" and awaiting you at the end of tunnel is a shock awakening that brings you back to a sense of reality. No pain no gain.
Now it does not have to be that dramatic. Let's get practical!
Survival tips for ESL teachers working overseas:
I found that cleaning my room and decorating it "my way" was good therapy. So if you were always told back to take down that ridiculous poster now go find a similar one and put it where you damn like. Make sure you have some familiar things to transform it into "your home away from home".
Find safe and healthy ways of relaxing. I like music or watching a movie. I brought myself a DVD ROM burner/player for my computer. It is easy to install and there is some much material available on DVD.
Mediation and prayer are also productive for those who have the means of connecting to a higher power.
Try and have your computer running on an ADSL connection. I have to pay out of my own pocket but my sanity was well worth the expense. This avoids the slow dial-up technology and you can use your phone at the same time. I can come in my room anytime and be online and know I got mail. I can chat and when my friend back home gets ADSL we can try video cam chats. The mind boggles!
I started planning short trips to build up good memories on my digital camera to send home on the net and for my journaling. In other words, stop procrastinating.
Create opportunities to become more "cultural competent". For example find someone to help you learn the language. Spend time going out on social outings with the natives (figure of speech) to try out some of your new language. Go ahead make mistakes it is a good way of learning.
Phone home -- get your hands on an international dialling phone card and carry it with you always. I write my most popular phone numbers on the card with a marking pen. Now there may some people who say phoning home can make the situation worse. Not so if you make the call for the right reasons. What I mean is that you call home to speak about big and little positive things you have accomplished and share the little joys with you loved one. Stay clear of emotions that may trigger a negative mood swing. Always try and end the call on any humours or uplifting note. If you know you have s short time left and there is something you really need to say then interrupt the call and say, "I have only a minute to go and I want to say."
I will say this once -- have a good cry and recognise that you are going through a grief experience. It is nothing to be ashamed of and it works to open new doorways to your inner self. Remember grief is a process and takes time and the period will vary from person to person. Do not be too hard on yourself if your recovery is taking longer then you expected. Monitor your feelings and date them so you can measure your progress and know you are doing positive things to change for the better.
I don't use a journal but I do write long letters home and it is good to review them form time to time to monitor your progress.
Finally avoid all actions and thought processes that compound the problem.
The big $64,000 question: Am I experiencing culture shock? Below is a list of Signs and Symptoms of Culture Shock:
Preoccupation with health; aches and pains
Disturbed sleep pattern
Mood changes; depression, mood swings, anger, irritability
Unwilling to interact with others, withdrawal
Loss of identity
Lack of confidence and reduced abilities
Feelings of paranoia
This is not meant to frighten you but to help you look after yourself in order to prevent any of these problems occurring and now sing with me when you're smiling, when you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you.
I have sung my way into the "home stage" but it still takes conscious work and effort on my part. Now I sense that I am able to function in two cultures with confidence. I am discovering new ways of doing things that I enjoy and I am already adopting some of them. I have made a significant adjustment to my host country, China.
Maybe I will write about my experiences of re-entry or reverse culture shock when I return to Australia in january 2005. Basically, this stage consists of feeling out of place in your own country, or experiencing a sense of disorientation. But I am sure it will not be as depressing as my recent experience.
If you have any English grammar or vocabulary questions,
please post them on this English Grammar Forum.
Author: Paul A Hodge