Most of us writers living abroad know the feeling of culture shock, even if many people only recognise the negative aspects. Naturally, since the word “shock” already implies a negative context. But culture shock also comes in positive shades that trigger enthusiasm and a certain blindness for reality.
So, what is culture shock all about?
The Three Stages of Culture Shock
Culture shock comes in three distinct stages that I want to name love, hate and acceptance. Stage one and two differ greatly from each other and the switch from one to the other can be fast and brutal. The last stage arrives gradually and often takes a lifetime.
Most of us relocate out of our own, free will and decision. We are writers after all and therefore relatively free. For managers who supervise the startup of their company’s Southeast Asia headquarter, the whole procedure may be different. I have met people who hated Vietnam from the minute they left the airport. And I have met people who arrived and felt at home, with a love for the land and the people that never left them until the end.
For most of us the three stages count though, so let’s stick with that model a little bit.
Love – The Initial Euphoria
This feeling is so beautiful and yet so dangerous. I remember when I arrived in Hong Kong years ago – my first visit to Asia and all the colourful clutter, the many lights, the new food to experience, the pretty girls and the interesting culture as a whole. I went to Shenzhen where I made new friends and for two months I was caught up in a wonderful dream. For two months I studied Mandarin and instead of taking the metro from school to my hostel, I decided to walk for two hours almost every day, collecting my dinner from dodgy roadside stalls, practising my newly acquired language proficiency and generally enjoying the situation.
Walking through the streets and experiencing the daily life of the people is like walking on a cloud of unicorn wool with the famous pink glasses on your nose. It is amazing!
There are holes in the streets of Shenzhen that are a danger to humanity and I found it charming. There are span-high steel spikes jutting out of the concrete – remnants of some rebar construction stuff that was supposed to hold a lamp post or something in place. I found it actually nice that people are supposed to take care of themselves opposite to being spoiled by an insane catalogue of laws that is so prevalent in Austria. Workers fixed something in the sewage system and since they planned to come back tomorrow anyway, they didn’t bother to close the lid right in the middle of the sidewalk, endangering everybody – and I found it amusing…
However, by the end of the first 6 weeks, slowly the second stage began to take hold.
Hate – Everything is Bad
I have to admit, this stage was far less intense for me than it may be for many others, because just when the denial stage began to settle in, I returned back to Austria for a summer. Let’s talk about the stage first and then about my own experience.
Usually the initial euphoria when everything is awesome one day turns around in exactly the opposite. Reality kicks in and you see that the lovely, colourful wall along the street smells of piss because people don’t bother to seek out a public toilet. You realise that the pretty girls are just after you because they believe you have a fat wallet. You see that the busy construction site for the new skyscraper doesn’t show much progress and that little progress you can see is because there are three times as many workers as back home.
The same counts for the restaurant where they employ three times as much staff as there would be back home and nonetheless service is slow because each one thinks your table is the job of another one. The noise and the pollution begin to annoy you and the language barrier is actually a blessing because people don’t understand you when you are cussing at them like a sailor.
This stage is especially arduous when you work in a local company. People don’t think about the fact that they might bother you when they have a durian for lunch and they leave it out on their desk so get it to room temperature when it is the most delicious. (I have no problem with durians but others have.) In Vietnam it is mostly the traffic that is the most annoying thing for expats and during the second stage it is a serious problem.
But that’s not the only issue – every culture has its very own code of conduct. While in Austria staring at people is not really nice and may get you into trouble, most people just find it slightly annoying. In China and Vietnam it is perfectly normal to stare at something that sparks your interest. In Japan however it is considered as a very rude breach of privacy.
When we lived in the Japanese quarter in Saigon’s District 1, we encountered many Japanese people who apparently did not decide by themselves to relocate to Saigon, but rather have been relocated by their company to act as project supervisors or something. One evening as we came back from dinner, we encountered a man jumping like Rumpelstiltskin in our alley, cussing in a mix of English and Japanese and even spitting in random directions before he bolted into the entrance of his place.
His place was opposite of a local com tam kitchen and the woman who owns that place had been casually watching him. The man, obviously being under the influence of culture shock level two – and probably a bad day at work on top of that – totally lost his mind when he encountered this blatant breach of etiquette. That was the last straw and he flipped.
What also settles in is a general homesickness that makes you feel a bit miserable about everything. This stage is the greatest test for every expat in history. Decisions to stay in the country for longer are put to the test and many, if not most relationships that began in the stage of euphoria end in a thunderclap.
It doesn’t help that in districts with less foreigners living there, everybody stares at you as if you were the Eiffel Tower walking around on light blue stilts.
For myself it began quite early after 6 weeks. I still found the colours lovely and the ladies pretty, but I began to see through all of it. The fake efficiency of daily work, the inequality on the streets, the blatant showing off of wealth… But yes, mainly the lack of efficiency and discreet thinking was what painted a glorious picture of my country of origin in my mind.
Yes, I make this one confession: Back then I began to believe that WE are better than YOU.
Fortunately this process came to a halt at the perfect moment when I returned from China to Austria. The moment at the airport in Munich was the first time in two months that I got a meal served from a really rude person. I was like “What the hell, I am your freaking CUSTOMER!” and the whole construct collapsed in the following two weeks.
I had the whole summer to think about the differences between China and Europe. I came to the understanding that both worlds are great and crappy at the same time, just different from each other. A valuable lesson that made me start the second journey to the Far East in a totally different mindset.
A lesson by the way that everybody should learn and understand.
Acceptance and Adaption
The third stage of culture shock slowly sets in and you often can’t even detect it at first. You cast off your shoes before you enter a temple without wasting even one moment of thought on the action. You start calculating in Vietnamese Dong instead of Euro and Mi Quang are a dish you casually order when you are hungry.
When you travel to Thailand, you don’t compare the country to Austria, you nonchalantly compare it to Vietnam and you may even find the Thai people tall and a bit stocky – while you yourself are even taller and stockier than most in all of Asia, but you are used to the sight of Vietnamese. You don’t haggle on the market because you want to or because it’s fun. You haggle because you know how much the item is worth and that’s what you pay. And, the probably most important thing – you slowly get the ability to see through the people.
Let’s face it – on stage one of culture shock if a person smiles at you, you think “Amazing, these people are all sooo friendly!”.
On stage two of culture shock if a person smiles at you, you immediately suspect that the little rat probably can smell your wallet.
On stage three however, you just smile back and continue with your own business – as you would do it at home. Because smiling is just what you do here.
Some people say that this process can even go too far. Years ago I have read an article about the same topic, written by a guy who relocated to India. Somehow he adapted so far that he started bobbing his head, a form of body language widely used in India to signalise different levels of agreement. Apparently his boss told him to immediately cut that nonsense or he would replace him by another worker. I suppose the boss was on his second level of culture shock and immensely annoyed by people bobbing their heads.
Adaption is a continuous process and largely depends on your personality and the environment. Some people may have a harder time than others, who are closer to a certain culture in the first place.
The greatest benefit of adapting is, you gradually get to tell the difference between culture and nonsense. For example being late and littering are both equally frowned upon in Austria. In Vietnam, people are late often, just because it does not matter too much in their culture and it does not shed a bad light on their personality. So don’t judge people for being late, at least not too much.
Littering is also widely practiced, but it is not a cultural thing, but rather sheer thoughtlessness that doesn’t need to be accepted.
What this all means is that you should be careful what you do during the first two stages of your culture shock, because you may be under the influence of strong emotions that impede your ability of making good decisions.
About the third stage however – it is totally up to you. To say it in the tone of the article: If you like to bob your head, just go for it.
This article largely represents my view on my own cultural experience in Asia. Meanwhile my family and I moved to Austria. I think I need to interview my dear wife on the topic of how weird and illogical my country appears to her now.