Have You Experienced the Four Stages of Culture Shock?

Culture shock is, “The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.” I have experienced culture shock but I did not know that it had four stages to it. I thought only grief was dealt with in stages…but anyway.

My connection with America, its language and culture was established via movies and TV shows including X-Files (my first encounter with extraterrestrials), Small Wonder and the iconic Friends. The blue-eyed boys from the numerous boy bands of the time also may have played a small role. Did this acquaintance help? Well, they left me with a vague impression of how life would be here. For instance, I did not stare at public displays of affection (PDA) in the middle of a busy mall, unlike Madhavan in the movie Nala Damayanthi. It was a totally different story with our mothers though, especially my MIL. Her expression upon seeing the scantily clothed (I am being generous here) women on Las Vegas Boulevard was priceless; she was scandalized to say the least.

I did some research and learned that people go through culture shock in four stages: the honeymoon period, frustration, adjustment, and acceptance. I figured that if experts are saying so, there must be some truth to it, no?

The first stage is apparently the honeymoon period; the initial phase of any relationship where you see everything through rose colored shades. I believe Mr. P and I did go through this phase when we first came to this country. Everything from the clean streets to the brightly lit fast food joints, the food, beautiful homes and stores like Walmart and Costco where one could easily get lost, left us in awe. The excitement of being in a new country was very evident.

The next stage is Frustration and is said to be caused by “fatigue of not understanding gestures, signs and the language sets in and miscommunications may be happening frequently.” I can think of only one thing that frustrated us the most in the first few months โ€” lack of transportation. It took us some time to buy a car and until then, we depended on friends for everything. Apart from that, we never felt lost. This was probably because language was not a problem and we came to a part of California that could very well be an Indian settlement. We had friends and relatives, Indian grocery stores, temples and very importantly Indian restaurants, including Saravana Bhavan. There were, of course, instances where we felt completely out of place when the locals would give us stares, as though we were ‘aliens’. One can’t blame then, though. We have probably done the same to goras (foreigner) walking down the streets in India. I bet our experience would have been completely different if we had moved to a different part of the country though. We just got lucky.

The next stage is Adjustment, where familiarity is said to set in and and life becomes easier and the final stage is Acceptance, where after a period of time the immigrant accepts the new situation of life and feels comfortable in the setting. These, I believe everyone goes through at some point in time because if they fail to do so, life would be miserable.

Okay, there are four stages to culture shock, but what about the reverse shock that you get when you go back home? That is what we experienced when we returned to India, every few years. The city that we knew so well had changed drastically, the fashions, the food, even the language had changed. Some of our relatives had taken to speaking in English at home, while after all these years, Mr. p and I still try our best to speak in Malayalam with each other (we fight/argue in English). We should probably have kept our fights in our mother tongue, to avoid being understood by the neighbors ;-).

Though the culture and values that we grew up with and the ones that we experience in a different country may be completely different, it is up to us to assimilate what we want and discard what we don’t. Have you experienced culture shock? If so, did you go through these stages? I would love to hear about your experiences.

P.S. – Some interesting observations:

  1. Most people are very polite and thank you for simple things like holding a door open for them.
  2. Many men wear shorts and Hawaii shirts to work but dress up to go eat in fancy restaurants.
  3. Most women live in high heels and make up and most are also so busy that they finish their makeup while at a traffic signal.
  4. Eating and drinking (especially coffee) in the car is normal.
  5. People address each other by name, regardless of age and seniority at work (which I think reduces barriers at a work place).
  6. People are spoiled for choice: supermarkets have entire aisles for breakfast cereals, ice creams and frozen desserts, and frozen foods (and the same people complain of obesity and health issues).
  7. Spellings of words like colour and neighbour don’t have the ‘u’ that we are so used to in India and other parts of the world.
  8. Liquids are measured in gallons, solids in pounds, distance in miles and temperature in Fahrenheit.
  9. Light switches work in the opposite direction (lights turn on when switch is in the off position) from India and other parts of the world. Mr. P reminded me of this incident. He was trying to fix a lamp and when things weren’t going right, his aunt, who was visiting us then said, “Ee naatil ellam thalakeezhanallo, matte pole thirichu nokku.” (In this country everything is upside down, try turning it the other way). And it worked! ๐Ÿ™‚
  10. Unlike India, public schools here do not have uniforms and the children’s bags are definitely not as heavy as those in India.

13 thoughts on “Have You Experienced the Four Stages of Culture Shock?

  1. Culture shock is definitely a rite of passage when you move to a new country. However, the most prominent feeling Iโ€™ve had after moving to the US is the shock/ surprise ( whichever way you want to look at it) when I find a myth we had developed about this country crumble in the face of reality. Some times itโ€™s been most illuminating!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. My first micro culture shock was when I joined a College in Trivandrum, for a two year course, after a fairly strict school environment. The campus was strife with student politics and rivalry of a violent sort. This definitely jarred me.
    Then came the more sober but a bit strenuous Engineering College.
    The major shock came when I joined the Indian Navy. From being a carefree middle class boy to be converted into a disciplined, sophisticated, responsible man in uniform was a a big change.
    The Navy prepared us to face any type circumstances in life without much problems and heart ache. The exposure to people from different regions, cultures, countries etc helped me to cope with new set of environments in different places.
    Nothing much surprises me in a new environment. I do some research also well in advance.
    Well written piece by Aparna.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. In our case its’s different
    frustration, adjustment, acceptance & honeymoon period,
    I think the place where you landing first, makes huge difference

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I see this post is over a year old, but yes, I went through culture shock. And, for me, it happened over several years. I have the opposite experience: I married a Malayalee and moved from New York state to Kerala. I have been in Kerala for ten years now. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I wore rose-colored glasses until I had my daughter, and then I got slapped in the face big time with cultural differences. I’ve adjusted since then (and everyone else adjusted to me too), but that first year of motherhood was SO HARD here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Brittany, thank you for your comment. New York to Kerala..wow. I can imagine how that wouldโ€™ve been. Glad the adjusting was mutual ๐Ÿ˜€
      By the way, how do you like it there? I am from Kerala, btw.

      Liked by 1 person

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