Monday, January 7, 2008

Culture Shock 101: The Symptoms

So in the last post on this subject, we addressed the fact that culture shock is a very real problem that effects everyone who travels for long periods of time. You'll find yourself entertaining thoughts that you might not have back home. My good friend Nicole in Kuwait brought up an interesting example in her comment on the last post.

"The shock often results in me wanting to strangle certain types of people."
Nicole B Author of NicoleB Photography (excellent blog)

As tough as she may be, this is an educated and well traveled young woman. She's lived in Asia, Eastern Europe, and now the Middle East. If that feeling can be big for someone like Nicole who has seen more of the world than 99% of us, you can bet that you or I will be susceptible too.

For example, one time I was wanting to meet a friend at the Denny's in La Uruca, about 15 miles from my house. I told the taxista, "yo quiero voy a la Denny's in La Uruca". Simple enough I thought, until the hour long car ride ended at a glitzy country club / resort. I had said "Denny's", but the guy heard "tennis" and took me one one of the most exclusive clubs in the province.

Now had this happened last week, the driver and I would have had a good laugh and I would have called my friends with a funny story about why I missed my Moon Over My Hammy date with them. But no, this happened in the second month I was here and I was still oblivious as to why I was so irrational and paranoid. In that moment, my brain was conjuring up every possible scenario that had led to to some tennis club and not Denny's. First it was suspicion of the driver trying to charge a gringo as much as possible, knowing full well I had said Denny's. Maybe my friends sent me this taxi as a joke, which was quite possible considering my love of pranking them.

So I told the guy to just get me back home and that he was going to have to rethink his price. And because of my excellent grasp of the Spanish language at that time, I'm sure he heard it as "blah, blah, blah, mi apartamento...blah, blah, blah, dinero...blah, blah, blah, godammit!!" He was smart enough of a guy to figure it out, and an hour later I was back at my building. I paid the guy generously (I had calmed down enough to know it wasn't his fault), and made a beeline for my friends' apartment. The scene that followed played out something like this....

I'm a guy who rarely, if ever, loses his cool. This wasn't me at all and I recognized that as soon as my mind stopped to take a breath from all the hostility. And not all forms of culture shock manifest as hostility as Dr. Carmen Guanipa points out in her study.

"The symptoms of cultural shock can appear at different times. Although, one can experience real pain from culture shock; it is also an opportunity for redefining one's life objectives. It is a great opportunity for leaning and acquiring new perspectives. Culture shock can make one develop a better understanding of oneself and stimulate personal creativity.

  • Sadness, loneliness, melancholy
  • Preoccupation with health
  • Aches, pains, and allergies
  • Insomnia, desire to sleep too much or too little
  • Changes in temperament, depression, feeling vulnerable, feeling powerless
  • Anger, irritability, resentment, unwillingness to interact with others
  • Identifying with the old culture or idealizing the old country
  • Loss of identity
  • Trying too hard to absorb everything in the new culture or country
  • Unable to solve simple problems
  • Lack of confidence
  • Feelings of inadequacy or insecurity
  • Developing stereotypes about the new culture
  • Developing obsessions such as over-cleanliness
  • Longing for family
  • Feelings of being lost, overlooked, exploited or abused"
Remember: YOU are in control here, and now that you know why it is you think building a bunker in your room for the end of days seems like a swell idea right now, you can put off those plans and just try to chill.

My next post on this subject will be just that: Chill Methods

I hope this helps!


Nicole said...

THAT's why I'm in front of my Computer the better part of the day ;)

Yesterday I had a Lady honking at me (a long annoying honk that made me jump) while walking the dogs, just to make us turn our heads and show us off to her kids.
Or people staring at me and the dogs, just staring, because they have not seen anyone walk their dog before, let alone two of them.
Or crowds gathering around you when you let your dogs play at the beach.

And yes, taxi drivers. Nice.
The other day I wanted to go to the Radisson Hotel. Simple enough in a place that you can cross from border to border in a few hours, no?
Nobody knew and I forgot the district name and only 1 out of 8 Taxi drivers tried to get the location with his central. That was the last one and by then I was so frustrated that I didn't want to go anymore anyway.

Or the taxi driver on Base in Korea. We wanted to go to Walmart (off Post), he said yesyes and went around the corner (about 10 meters) and stopped in front of the PX.


Yeah, staying home is the Best solution on a bad day ;)
You can feel those days, your gutt tells you "Don't go anywhere"
You don't listen.
There you go ;)

Thanks for the link though - I hope not everyone thinks now that I'm a mass murderer ;)

Lisa McGlaun said...

I lived in Guam for two years and I experienced most all of the symptoms you listed. Now I wish I'd relaxed a little bit and ejoyed living on a tropical island instead of being so stress all the time and just wanting to hop on the next plane out of


Merlyn Trey Hunter said...

Do you see yourself going back, Lisa? Knowing what you do now? I think you owe it to yourself to expose that deep intellect of yours to more of this world.

I prescribe to you a straight month of travel on at least two continents you've never set foot on. Charge your writing batteries the same way Papa Hemingway did, and you'll come back a novelist!

I'll watch the kid(s), they'll have fun with Uncle Merlyn and Aunt Dr. Girlfriend in CR while you're doing this.

Nicole: Those "Don't go anywhere" days are actually hitting me now too. Maybe it's New Years malaise or just decompression from the holidays, I can't get myself to run around in the jungle nowadays!

Lisa McGlaun said...


I'd love to go back to Guam, just for a visit. There are some gorgeous beaches and a spectacular waterfall there that I want to see again. have no idea what you are getting into when you offer to babysit my kids. Are you and Auntie up for five?..yes I said

When they are all out of the house my husband and I plan to catch up on our travel..It would be so exciting to move away like you've done. You're my hero..:)

Merlyn Trey Hunter said...

Nicole, as a mother of five who keeps her optimism to the point of writing a whole blog dedicated to good're MY hero and probably one of the few actual legit heroes in the blogosphere.

I'm the oldest of five myself. We visit Mom often at the clinic...I mean "relaxation resort" often!

Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

Great blog!!! I would think *loss of identity* would be the hardest to overcome and would cause many of the other symptoms. It is true that you can look at a person and surmise facts that give you an idea of how you relate to that person socially or economically or educationally. When thrown in the sea of a different culture, the rules change.

Hugs, JJ

CostaRicaNaturally said...

Wow, I wish that I had read something like this the first couple of months and years (!) I was here ('97). Well maybe I did, but it just didn't sink in - "hindsight is 20/20"! One of the most subtle things that happened to me is the loss of identity thing, and wanting to mold myself into the culture so badly; it didn't help (or maybe it really helped - depends on the point of view) that I fell in love and got married to a Tico that I wanted to please so badly that I even learned how to make expert tortillas and Olla de Carne (I only knew how to make Top Ramen before)!
Thanks for commenting on my blog, I came here to read about who you are and I was happily surprised to find this AWESOME and helpful blog! Christina
PS I made a link to your blog on my page

Merlyn Trey Hunter said...

Thank you Christina, and I really need to try your Olla de Carne some day! Your blog is incredibly important in it's message of conservation and the love of the natural world. One good things about escaping to this beautiful country is you can see first hand what it's like when Mother Earth still runs things.

marina said...

Funny, I've been living in CR for almost 6 years, and I'm just now getting homesickness. It doesn't actally hurt, but it does feel sad! Especially cause I want my son to know his grandparents and extended family, which he can't do that here.
Hi, I'm new to the blogosphere, and just saying hello to fellow Costa Rica bloggers.
Hope to see you on my blog and develop a blogger friendship:)

l33 v4n cl33f said...

i can defenetly relate to your situation, i felt that way while living abroad too