Wednesday, September 7, 2011
I am going to violate blog protocol now and you'll have to actually scroll through tons of text(!) regarding my thoughts about culture shock. For those of you brave souls that aren't intimidated, grab a cup of tea and read on.
The anthropologist Kalvero Oberg first coined the term cultural shock. He reported that cultural shock was caused by the "anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse" while living and working in another culture. There's five typical stages of culture shock;
1) Stage 1: The honeymoon. Everything is new and exciting. You are open to the possibilities.
2) Stage 2: The rejection. Coming down from the novelty of it all and trying to work and live in a new place. A stage marked by frustration and eventual hostility to the new environment.
3) Stage 3: The regression. Frustration fosters self-isolation and foreigners often look for the comfort of home language and cultural outlets and blame and complain about the new culture.
4) Stage 4: The acceptance or assimilation. Realizing that there's good and bad of both your home culture and country as well as the culture and country of your new home. Things get more comfortable, you have a greater understanding and acceptance of your environs.
5) Stage 5: The re-entry. You've finally adapted to your new life and then its time to go back to your old one, but you have changes and so has everyone else. Often the toughest stage.
These stages aren't necessarily linear, often one cycles through them more than once. But they are a very common experience to those who have lived abroad.
I think my honeymoon period with Chile lasted longer than normal- up into July really. I was so happy to be abroad again and in particular in Latin America. In some ways, it was like going home after living for almost 5 years in the Dominican Republic and another year in Venezuela more than a decade ago. I was so happy to be speaking Spanish full time again and learning about so many new things here in Chile...like a kid in a candy store.
When I returned to Chile in August, after 3 weeks out of the country, I think I realized the honeymoon was over. I started becoming more sensitive to the differences between Chile and the States and even more so, the differences between Chile and the culture in the Caribbean, which had been so familiar to me. Unlike the Caribbean, it was winter and cold and people tend to be less gregarious and open here in Chile. In the winter, I think folks tend to hibernate a bit here, similar to Minnesota, and perhaps socialize most with familial or long-established groups, which can make for a somewhat isolating experience if you are new in this land. There isn't a a vibrant nonprofit sector in Chile, unlike in Minnesota, which had made it difficult to find appropriate volunteer opportunities for me. And then, watching the kids navigate the social challenges surrounding a new school, in a new language, and particularly one with its own cultural idiosyncrasies, has been very difficult for me (watch out mama bear).
I know that this has been an amazing experience for the kids and that they have learned a ton. I trust that in the end, the positives will far outweigh the negatives - hands down. But I also recognize that this hasn't been easy for either of them and that we have asked a great deal of them; to leave family, friends, their home, everything familiar for a year. To walk in a school everyday and face the challenges of not understanding everything in the class or outside of it, of not having a history with friends and feeling like you really don't and won't ever fit in in some fundamental ways. Probably, I'm more sensitive than the kids, but Dan and I opted for this experience which maybe makes its harder when things are difficult for the kids.
So, August was a tough month and probably I went through some rejection and regression, which was made easier as we had family visiting from home. I think I'm moving on in terms of the stages now. I think I am becoming more comfortable and patient with some of the challenges that surround us. Plus I am becoming more engaged again. My English class started again with double the number of students. I have had an explosion of volunteer opportunities related to nonprofits and facilitation work that had all seemed remote previously, but now all are becoming possible at the same time. That all makes a big difference for me (I don't do idle or non-engaged well). And the kids seem very happy, which may be a testament to their resilience or maybe to the fact that its not so challenging for them these days. Hard for me to know, but I need to trust the smiles and laughter.
Just like any country or any culture, there is the good and bad of it. And just like anywhere one lives, isn't the trick to focus on how to enjoy the great aspects of living there, of which in Chile there are many, and let go some of harder aspects of it.