The Stages of Culture Shock
Culture shock could more readily be described as culture fatigue because it is not something that affects us suddenly, but rather is a gradual process with distinct stages.
Robert Kohls (1984) states that “most people begin their life in a new country with a positive mind-set…. They come with expectations which are too high and attitudes that are too positive toward the host country and forthcoming experience.”
Pre-departure orientations inform JETs that Japan is an affluent country, with a strong education system. For some people this information can be misleading and vague, giving rise to expectations that hinder a more open-mind set. In this stage JETs concentrate on the similarities between Japan and their home countries, and from this springs the euphoria at encountering familiarity. This feeling of euphoria/excitement may last from a week or two, to a month.
The Emotional Roller Coaster - During this honeymoon stage, you are marching to your own drumbeat and life around you moves in ways that you don't understand. As such, it can often feel like you are on a roller coaster. When something good happens, it is so good that you will remember it for the rest of your life, and when bad things happen, you have the feeling that even though you are plunging downwards, everything will work out. The one thing you can't seem to do on the emotional roller coaster is find stability; this happens because your rhythm of life is out of whack with the rhythms that run through the host culture. Keep in mind three things as you enjoy your ride on the emotional roller coaster.
- Everything tends to work out when things go badly because other people work hard to make sure they do.
- Things aren't always as they seem to you; enjoy the good times, but remember that there are a lot of people doing things you are unaware of to make sure you have those good times.
- Don't take others' kindnesses for granted; remember to say thank you to people who are kind to you.
Insomnia - At the very beginning of the honeymoon stage, people tend to experience insomnia due to jet lag, but as jet lag fades away, troubles with insomnia may continue. Insomnia in the honeymoon stage tends to be caused by the fact that the brain is constantly encountering things it can't comprehend and so at night, many people experience the sensation of their mind racing. Exercise does wonderful things for this kind of insomnia, so if you can't sleep because your mind is racing, go for a walk and then try sleeping again.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome - Let's face it, you came to a new country, and you are living in a new culture: the bottom is in the process of falling out of your world, and unfortunately for the person in the next stall, the world is also in the process of falling out of your bottom. Some of this is caused by your stomach not knowing what to do with the food you are feeding it; it craves a nice steak and mashed potatoes, you feed it raw snails, and it gets revenge on you. Some of this is also caused by the fact that your stress level is high and everything is unfamiliar to you. Your rhythm of life is off. The best advice: buy extra toilet paper.
Loneliness - In the honeymoon stage of culture shock, the uncomfortableness caused by loneliness tends to be sharp and come on suddenly. The loneliness that people in this stage of culture shock tend to suffer is shallow because they have only lost meaning in their communications with others, the core values with which they were raised are still fully intact and relatively unchallenged. As such, a quick conversation with a good friend can be all it takes to make loneliness disappear. In the case that it doesn't try reaching to one of the prefectural advisors.
Irritation and Hostility
“Gradually your focus turns from the similarities to the differences. And these differences, which suddenly seem to be everywhere, are troubling. You blow up little, seemingly insignificant difficulties into major catastrophes. This is the stage generally identified as culture shock” (Kohls, 1984).
People experiencing culture shock often feel homesick and have a negative attitude toward the host culture. This is the most critical stage, because it is the one in which JETs are most likely to feel irritated or hostile.
Irritability - The frustration stage tends to set in when people's patience with what they don't understand is exhausted. Because you can't yet see the real problems that face you in the frustration stage clearly, there is a tendency to vent frustration by becoming irritated with small things that don't really matter. Having to pay 300 yen for 3 hours of parking can seem like an insurmountable obstacle. Take a moment, take a deep breath and remember that you are in the frustration stage and that even though it doesn't seem like it at the moment, you are learning a lot.
Loss of Perspective - This is related to irritability, but its a slightly different problem. When things irritate you, there is a tendency to blame it on Japan. When people irritate you, there is a tendency to blame it on "them." Who exactly constitutes "them" is as unclear as how the goal of an entire country could be to inconvenience a single person. When you face problems, take time to remember that your experience in Japan is, in fact, many experiences. Remember that some of these experiences are frustrating, but also remember that others are wonderful and that the two types come hand in hand. Don't lump all your problems into the category: "Japan sucks." When you have problems with one or a few Japanese people, take time to figure out who you are frustrated with; put a name to "them" and try to remember the kindness you have received from others. Don't blame all Japanese people for the actions of one or a few.
Loneliness - As the honeymoon stage fades out, the uncomfortableness caused by loneliness tends to deepen into a dull aching that is easier to live with than the sharp pangs of honey-moon stage loneliness, but also more difficult to alleviate. During the frustration stage, the loss of meaning begins to seep into your core values. You are being challenged to look at the world through new eyes, but you don't yet understand what your new perspective means. You might feel that people back home can't understand what you are going through. You also might feel that Japanese people who haven't left Japan can't understand what you are going through. During this time, remember the JET community. Most of us have experienced culture shock, and we help each other through the hard times. Don't be afraid to ask for help; its often the people who help you through the hard times that become your lasting friends.
Excessive Sleepiness - Wanting to sleep a lot is the brain's response to receiving too much new information. During this stage, give yourself a little extra time to sleep, but also try to get out of the house. Having a restaurant where you are a regular can be really nice during this time. You may be foreign to Japan, but at least you have one place where everyone knows your name and the food is just the way you like it.
Weight Fluctuations - Food and/or exercise are what tend to get people through this difficult stage of culture shock and both of these things cause your weight to change. So long as your weight remains within the healthy limits for your height, don't worry about it. Your weight goes up, it goes down, if you aren't going to die from it, it just doesn't matter. Let what happens happen. Eat wonderful food, play fun sports, whatever floats your boat, indulge.
Imagined Anxiety - You may find yourself imagining bad or negative situations that have never happened. Don't let these imagined situations cause you too much stress, after all, they haven't happened. What's happening is that your brain is coming up with responses to potential situations. Imagining your reaction to bad or negative situations is a sign that your brain is starting to figure everything out. In some ways, imagined anxiety is the light at the end of the tunnel. Your brain is moving from constantly reacting to unexpected situations to anticipating potential problems and this can be the first sign that you are beginning to understand the world around you.
Paranoia - If you find yourself thinking too much about people staring at you, try giving the JETLine a call: CLAIR JETline (Tokyo): Monday-Friday (9am-5:45pm) English and Japanese: (03) 3591-5489 They are removed from the normal process here in Akita, and you are guaranteed confidentiality when talking to them.
You stand out in Japan and people like to stare at you. This is a fact. On the other hand, the reason why any given person is staring at you can only be guessed at. Sometimes when the brain gets tired, it starts coming up with strange paranoid reasons for why people are staring. Its good to talk to someone who can walk you through the problem. Sometimes, when you need to call the hotline the most, your brain comes up with a billion reasons why you can't. Despite this, its easy to call and doing so will help you out a lot!
“The most difficult stage is over and you are on your way to adjusting to life in the new culture. This step may come so gradually that, at first, you will be unaware it is even happening. Once you begin to orient yourself and to be able to interpret some of the subtle cultural clues and cues which passed unnoticed earlier, the culture seems more familiar. You become more comfortable in it and feel less isolated from it. Gradually too, your sense of humour returns and you realise the situation is not hopeless at all” (Kohls, 1984).
Cognitive Dissonance Anxiety - This is a complicated name for a complicated thought. In the Gradual Adaptation Stage, you are beginning to look at life from a double perspective. There are times when the perspective of your home culture conflicts with the perspective of your host culture. The human brain isn't very good at dealing with this conflict and it can cause you to have trouble making decisions. The Gradual Adaptation Stage is the stage when you first begin to understand your host culture and as your understanding of the goals to which that culture deepens, cognitive dissonance tends to go away. To quote the author Pierre Boulle in his introduction to his novel The Bridge on the River Kwai:
"The insuperable gap between East and West that exists in some eyes is perhaps nothing more than an optical illusion. Perhaps it is only the conventional way of expressing a popular opinion based on insufficient evidence and masquerading as a universally recognized statement of fact, for which there is no justification at all, not even the plea that it contains an element of truth. During the last war, 'saving face' was perhaps as vitally important to the British as it was to the Japanese. Perhaps it dictated the behaviour of the former, without their being aware of it, as forcibly and as fatally as it did that of the latter, and no doubt that of every other race in the world. Perhaps the conduct of each of the two enemies, superficially so dissimilar, was in fact simply a different though equally meaningless manifestation of the same spiritual reality."
In order to overcome cognitive dissonance, read up on Japanese history. The Bridge On the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle is a nice place to start. Embracing Defeat by John Dower is particularly enlightening for foreigners in Japan because it looks at how Japanese people have struggled to reinvent Japan according to an imported political system while preserving the culture that makes Japan so special in the world. The more you know about the past, they more you can understand your present circumstances. History can be the key to understanding why the correct choice for a member of Japanese culture is not always the correct choice for you.
Loneliness - The loneliness experienced in the gradual adaptation stage has a somewhat different quality from the loneliness experienced during the initial stages of culture shock. Often people in this stage feel that they are caught between two cultures. People from the home culture and other members of the expat community don't quite understand what's important to you, but neither do the people members of the host culture. The best way to make this loneliness bearable is to stop trying to get others to understand what you are going through and instead try to understand what others are going through.
Melancholy - Melancholy tends to come from the same root cause as the loneliness. During this stage, you are beginning to recover meaning in your life and you can understand a lot of what is going on around you, but it lacks a sense of reality. It is as though you are watching others enjoy life while you are on the outside. Melancholy differs from depression in terms of the outlook of the future. When you experience depression, you have difficulty feeling happy, and you even have trouble imagining that you will ever feel happy again. When you experience melancholy, you do have difficulty feeling happy in the present, but you are fueled by a sense of purpose; you have some goal that you are working towards that is keeping you going even when the going is tough.
The act of creating something can bring the warmth of happiness back into your life. Try making pottery, or music, or tea. Learn kendo, or judo, or write an essay for an essay competition. Even creating wiki pages can help. It doesn't matter exactly what you create, but if you create something, the feeling of being an outsider watching other people have fun will begin to disappear.
Adaption and Biculturalism
“Full recovery will result in an ability to function in your own and in Japanese culture with confidence. You will even find a great many customs, ways of doing and saying things, and personal attitudes which you enjoy- indeed, which you have to some degree adopted- and which you will definitely miss when you return home. In fact you can expect to experience reverse culture shock upon your return to your own country.” (Kohls, 1984)
Most foreigners are likely to experience some degree of culture shock when they move countries. The information included in this article is there to help you identify where these feelings are coming from. Just being aware of the source of these feelings can help to alleviate the distress you feel and help you to regain control of your emotions. Culture shock is an entirely normal reaction to movement between cultures.