For those of us who have embarked on a year abroad or even moved to a new country permanently, the majority of our initial problems are practical: how do I catch the bus? How can I talk to friends back home? Even, how do I source a fitting substitute for my Yorkshire brew? (Impossible.) Once we have conquered such straight-forward tasks, we are faced with the big one: becoming a part of an entirely unfamiliar culture and enduring an intense shock along the way. However, is this commonly used term, ‘culture shock’, a fitting description for what actually goes on?

Culture shock, besides the odd ‘carnival’ and ‘samba’, must be the most frequent phrase that has been thrown at me by friends and family ever since I relocated to Brazil. And when I say relocated, this is no Kirsty and Phil style move that I am referring to; in fact, it is a year of working abroad as part of a university course. But, what is a culture shock? Is it simply an untimely local pounding towards you, with a local delicacy in tow and in timely synchrony with a blaring exotic drumbeat? Yes, and no.

For me, culture shock is something that cannot be taken at face value. It must be understood with the individual and their experiences in mind rather than it being a mere change of situation and its after-effects. As a teacher of English as a Second Language and a frequent expounder of the usefulness of monolingual dictionaries to my students, I will now surrender to my aged accomplice, the Oxford Dictionary – which I assure you is receiving no form of sponsorship here – to clarify the meaning of the term. It is defined as the following:

The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

Instantly, the word ‘disorientation’ conjures up images that map almost exactly onto my own memories of the weeks that followed my arrival. Disorientation, firstly in the very literal sense, such as taking a bus home and ending up in the completely wrong destination. Then, disorientation in a more figurative sense; the alien feeling of trying to adapt to a culture that instantly recognises you as an outsider and has even proceeded to coin an expression to convey this. “Gringo.” You are also frequently reminded of this overwhelming sense of not belonging either in the form of endless, inquisitive stares on the bus or just thanks to that one individual who exclaims, “Ele não é daqui” (Portuguese for “he’s not from here”), while casually passing comment about you.

The idea of a culture shock involving the person being ‘subjected’ to an experience also reveals the nuances related to the term. Without exploding into an intense linguistic analysis (the perils of being a linguist), when we think of someone being ‘subjected’ to something it brings to mind the idea of being condemned to a fate or punishment. There are elements of forcefulness, doom and permanence involved. These aspects are especially important because the culture shock, as it did in my case, affects you on a psychological level; it makes you feel isolated, trapped and helpless – a prisoner of your own doing.

However, the term cannot be seen as a generic phenomenon. It must be viewed with the individual in mind, specifically their capacity to ‘familiarise’ themselves with the suddenly presented ‘unfamiliar’. The word unfamiliar is exceptionally fitting for a discussion surrounding culture shock because it implies a transitory element, which varies according to the actions and experiences of each person.

If you are about to embark on your year abroad, therefore, try to bear these ideas in mind. It is your perception of what is familiar, your level of cultural awareness, your mind-set and, ultimately, your willingness to adapt to new situations that will determine your experience of the ‘shock’. The task of balancing these elements is not instant; it is a slow process that involves a heavy dose of confusion, self-reflection and thought that ultimately results in inner contentment. Proactivity is also essential. One good friend I gained in Brazil told me to always converse with someone who is of a different age, nationality, race or social class, because from them you will gain a new perspective on life as well as a multitude of exciting new stories. Encourage yourself to take measures like these, and take pride in doing them. You really have absolutely nothing to lose. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, don’t rush the process: take time to reflect on the reality that you find yourself in and see it as the perfect opportunity to learn and grow as a person.

Culture shock, therefore, should not be seen as a mere jolt to the system that is brought about by sudden unfamiliarity; it is a conscious process or rather an exercise, not just of recovery, but also of rediscovery and revitalisation for the person involved. It is a lengthy but highly necessary process that makes us question our perception of normality and how we have assembled this. Most importantly, culture shock allows us to desensitise our opposition to change. It forces us to consider what is perhaps the most pertinent of human fears, the fear of something which is perceived as ‘different’.

Notting Hall Carnival image: Flickr/Angel Ganev

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