2012 (Pilot Project)

Culture Shock and the Critical Incident, or How I Learned to Put Out the Trash

As an intercultural consultant, part of my work involves helping people prepare for life and work overseas. As such, my programs often include a little lesson about culture shock. I do this because people who know about culture shock are better able to identify when they are experiencing it and can deal with it accordingly.

Contrary to popular belief, culture shock is not really a “shock” at all. It is actually a rather long process of adjustment typified by emotional highs and lows – think of it as a cross-cultural adaptation roller coaster. Many people will agree, life abroad can be a real ride!

An individual’s experience with culture shock can vary a lot, due to factors such as pre-departure preparation, language skills, personal adaptation skills and cross-cultural competence. However, many experts agree that culture shock can generally be divided into specific stages that most people will experience in some form or another. By the way, no one is immune – if you don’t think you’ve had it, you didn’t recognize it for what it was.

The different stages of culture shock look something like this and can last for varying amounts of time:

Stage 1: Holiday or “honeymoon” period. This is where everything new that you encounter is fascinating and exotic. You’re soaking it all in and having fun discovering your new culture. It’s the rush you get as a tourist on holiday.

Stage 2: Withdrawal period. You begin to find some things frustrating and difficult. You react negatively and criticize. You’re feeling tired of having to navigate everything you do – it all takes so much longer than it would at home! Anxiety, homesickness and feeling blue are common during this stage.

Stage 3: Adjustment. You are now settling in. The high you felt at the beginning is over, but you have a daily routine that you’re happy with. You’re getting by pretty much like you would at home with more normalized ups and downs. You feel more like part of society, and are starting to understand different behaviours of people around you. Your confidence is up and you are more accepting.

Stage 4: Enthusiasm. You are at home in your new culture. You can enjoy yourself and you manage your life with reasonable ease. You’re becoming fluent in the language. You begin to adopt certain traits and behaviours of your new culture and prefer it that way.

Withdrawal and the critical incident

Generally, there is a point a few months into one’s stay – usually during the withdrawal period when may already be feeling down – when something happens. You encounter a problem or a miscommunication – a “critical incident” – that affects you greatly, both emotionally and personally. This critical incident can sometimes be a deciding factor or breaking point for someone’s decisin to stay in a country. It could be something like getting yelled at by your boss or getting sick and having trouble communicating with doctors. Or maybe it’s something as simple as tripping on the sidewalk trying to catch your bus, or finding the elevator has broken down making you late for work. Depending on your emotional state when it happens, one small problem can have a huge impact. If you can get through this incident and deal with it, often you will begin to enter the adjustment phase, having proven to yourself that you can deal with a problem – even all the way across the world.

My own critical incident

As for myself, I hit my own “critical incident” about four months after arriving in Korea. It was a small incident that had a big impact. I was just getting into the groove of my living arrangements, how to use the washing machine and such, when the building complex security‐guard‐ slash‐waste‐management‐patrol man (a.k.a ajoshi) knocked on my apartment door. I opened it and he was standing there red‐faced, holding my bag of garbage that I had thrown in the bin a little while earlier. He dropped it in front of me and started yelling. I didn’t understand much of what he was saying, except I thought I heard “do it again”. I felt dumb and dumbfounded. I felt awful, I knew I had done wrong but had no idea how or what.

As it turns out, in Korea the garbage disposal system is highly sophisticated, but complex compared to Canadian standards. Canadians are slowly catching up in that we now have different receptacles for waste, compost and recyclables. In Korea, one has to separate everything. Cans go in one bin, the little yogourt drink containers go in the next, milk containers in another, paper in another, compost in another and so on. Then finally, the leftovers that don’t belong in any category go in a specially purchased and labelled garbage bag that indicates your neighborhood. Not an easy thing to figure out with limited linguistic and garbage skills. I had done it so wrong. I separated it like at home, using any old bag, I had been doing this for weeks, and unbeknownst to me, this ajoshi had been physically going through our garbage each and every time, separating our trash on our behalf. He had had enough of me. He was really mad. To him, I was the ignorant, disrespectful, lazy foreigner. The very last thing I wanted to be known as to anyone! I was devastated, on the verge of tears, not understanding, feeling lost and confused. It was enough to make me question my entire decision to move to Korea.

Luckily, one of our neighbors witnessed everything and took it upon himself to give me proper and extensive garbage disposal coaching. My neighbor-coach was also kind enough to help convey my apologies to the ajoshi. The ajoshi accepted my apology immediately and happily moved on – and after a few days, with my emotions back in check and the incident behind me, so did I. In the end, this incident actually made me feel like I belonged there more. Why, I was now a master of the nuances of Korean waste disposal at the Jugong apartments! How many waygooks (foreigners) can say that?!

While this incident did not end up being a deal-breaker for me, it easily could have been. If you aren’t aware of how your own cultural and emotional makeup informs how you might react when challenged under normal circumstances, it will be that much harder to cope with challenges in a foreign environment, when you might already be feeling unsure or vulnerable. So while learning about your new culture is important for many reasons, learning about yourself, culturally and emotionally, and developing the tools to cope when problems arise, can be key to successfully living and working abroad.

             Did you know…?

  • One of the leading reasons that expats go home earlier than planned is because of their inability to adapt to their new culture?
  • Signs of culture shock often mimic symptoms of depression, including irritability, staying indoors, crying without reason, sleeping more than normal, drinking too much alcohol and even physical symptoms such as aches and pains?
  • Many people who have been living in a another country for a long period of time are highly susceptible to reverse culture shock when they eventually go home. They go through the stages of culture shock all over again.

– Jennifer Fletcher lived and worked in Busan, South Korea for two years where she proudly became the unofficial waste management coach for new expats in her building complex.

4 replies »

  1. As Korean moved to Canada, I think it’s exactly the same process that I went through, from Honeymoon period to Withdrawal, and Adjustment to Enthusiasm! The same thing as language, when you finally master the French language (in Quebec province), it made a tremendous difference in terms of my level of integration. I appreciate Jennifer’s sensitive observation toward a different culture.

  2. Interesting article. As an immigrant myself (moved to Canada 18 years ago from Croatia), I can entirely relate; especially with the 2nd and 3rd stages, which lasted the longest. I am now in a relationship with a Korean man who moved to Canada some 3 years ago, and is most likely at Stage 4 hehehe. To commemorate all of his funny quirky culture shocks (as well as mine), we’ve created a blog.

    The latest incident involves my introducing him to Canadian food (he still prefers Korean and Asian-inspired dishes), especially the SWEET stuff like BeaverTails. It took awhile to convince him, and this is how it all went down.

    Visit our blog :) Kimchi 김치 Sarma 사르마 – The Korean Croatian Couple


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