Moving to a new country is an experience that can be described as exhilarating by many. When in a new environment, people tend to feel more alive: they immerse themselves into unfamiliar sounds of new languages, various smells and taste of local cuisine, spectacular views and sights, and a new climate never before experienced. This is a sensory bombardment that changes with time and becomes a sensory overload. Novel experiences are progressively more stressful and not as stimulating to handle, because the situation progresses to the point where delight grows to a high level of discomfort. Culture shock is a normal but stressful phenomenon that happens to everyone visiting a new country and can only be dealt with by being able to learn and adjust faster.
Culture shock is a feeling of anxiety as well as disorientation that is experienced by many people for a period of accommodation in a foreign country. Andreatta and Ferraro (2012) assert that unless one is prepared to deal with the eventualities and challenges in a new country, the experience can be very stressful. According to Jandt (2015), 30-60% of foreigners moving into a new country experience extreme culture shock, and only approximately 20% find it easy to adjust in a new country. It is a feeling of uncertainty and confusion that every individual goes through when they come into a direct contact with a new environment.
Experience of Culture Shock
As a student from the United Arab Emirates, I was excited to take up my first trip to the United States for one semester exchange program. Even though the United States is an English speaking country, I did not feel like I would be affected by the new environment. Actually, during the period I was in the United States I was able to experience five stages of culture shock from a personal point of view. This paper provides my personal account of this intercultural experience.
The first stage is the honeymoon phase, an experience that I had during the initial period of my accommodation in the United States. It is the same experience a person has when they are able to get in contact with something new. It is a rush of both excitement and euphoria having the prospect of getting in contact with something original and unique (Lewis, 2011). For me, this stage is best remembered for fresh exciting feelings I had by contacting with a new culture.
The honeymoon phase is also known as an incubation period and is characterized by what can be referred to as a feeling of being excited and fascinated with what happens around the new culture that a person is trying to integrate into. I was romanticized with the new environment and American culture, although this feeling lasted no more than two weeks of my semester in the United States.
I later realized that differences end up creating an impact. This is what I was able to understand in the second stage of culture shock known as the distress stage. After the first two weeks, everything that I was experiencing was no longer new. As a matter of fact, new things that I had experienced started to oppress me. I was feeling quite confused, inadequate, and generally isolated by what was going on around me (Harris & Sanborn, 2013). I could not adjust especially when I realized that my regular support systems were no longer available. In Dubai I was close to my family, they represented the source of support when I needed it. Unfortunately, in the United States they were not available, and the people that I had to deal with were not the people I had got used to while in Dubai.
The third stage that was also very important in defining my culture shock is the re-integration stage. At this stage, I actually began to dispraise the United States and its people. I started to dislike the people, the language, and even the food that they ate. In most cases I would reject everything as being inferior (Hua, 2013). I developed high level of prejudice about the American culture. For instance, I thought that the ladies in this country are a bit loose basing on the kind of clothing that is popular among the ladies. This was anchored on the fact that the situation is different in United Arabs Emirates where the ladies are more conservative in terms of fashion. I also did not see the reason as to why people in the United States should openly and recklessly take alcohol as a means of relaxation. This form of conduct impressed me negatively, as I am not used to see it so often in Dubai. I was also concerned with the fact that most of the people in the United States are straight talkers. For me, this is very impolite form of self-expression, as a speaker does not consider the influence such straight statements could have on other individuals. This practice is not common in Dubai where people are quite sensitive and reserved when talking to each other.
In the United States, I was getting angry, hostile, and frustrated with the people around me. I started to cling on my phone as a source of company and I would get attracted to any individual who physically resembled people from the Middle East. In terms of physical symptoms, I could not make myself eat American food, which exhausted my body. On the other hand, I was often depressed and tired and did not cook at home, which is why my malnutrition soon bore fruit in a shape of acute abdominal pain and deteriorating health state.
Most of the time I questioned why I decided to come over to the United States while I could have found it easy back home in the United Arabs Emirates. I started to idolize life back at home and it meant that I would always compare any situation at this place with what I used to experience at home. I really wanted to feel and touch something that I was familiar with. But what I eventually realized is that the feeling was normal, it was an indication that I was actually adjusting to my new environment (Jackson, 2014). It is the means through which I was reconnecting to what I do value about myself and my culture back in the United Arabs Emirates.
The fourth stage that I experienced in the United States is called the autonomy stage. This was the first step where I managed to experience acceptance. At this stage I felt like getting out of the fog and started to feel like my normal self once more (Jandt, 2015). I began to feel highly confident and understood how I could best deal with any situations that would arise out of my new experiences. This means that I was no longer feeling isolated. On the contrary, I perceived that the world around me needed to be appreciated. While on the previous stage I had doubted that I would be able to finish this semester, at this stage I understood that I could change the situation around me to suit my internal feeling.
The last stage that I was able to experience is the independence stage. At this point I felt reunited with my old self again. I managed to embrace the American culture and I started to see things in a new light, as everything around me became realistic. The college life in the United States started to turn into an enjoyable practice. I had rejuvenated my confidence and I could make decisions based on my values and preferences. The long isolation I had had before moved out of my internal self (Lewis, 2011). It appeared that the similarities and differences between the cultures did not matter at all and I actually started to feel at home in the United States.
There are different ways which individuals could utilize to deal with cultural stress shock. They include personal support, social support, and physical support. According to Andreatta and Ferraro (2012), personal support is based on how a person feels and thinks in relation to various stages of cultural shock and adjustment. For me, the most important thing that has changed my position is the fact that I was able to analyze my situation and adjust to it. I realized that the most important thing is to be patient and identify ways through which I would be able to think positively.
At some point of the semester I clearly lacked social support. I identified my sources of support which were far away from the United States. Back in Dubai, I was very reliant on my family as a source of support. I had planned how I would best communicate with my parents, but this was not as effective as talking to them face to face. Finally, I decided that I was not going to isolate myself; I resolved to seek out help from friends and groups of people who shared common interests with me (Lewis, 2011). This is partly the reason as to why I decided to reach out to other students from Dubai who were within the campus or even beyond.
The period when I felt that the food in the United States did not match my taste actually worsened my physical health. It was important that I ate well and got enough rest in order to deal with the problems. Unfortunately, this was not possible as I had a lot of things to worry about. I realized that I was supposed to recollect myself and understand what could change my future days in the United States (Harris & Sanborn, 2013). I looked for the best ways to distract my mind from thinking about Dubai, and one great way that I actually used was to hit the gym and exercise regularly.
Even though I had difficulties with my environment in the United States, it did not deter me from doing better in terms of adjusting to the situation. It was not easy to alter my stand, but I managed to realize that the best way to change a situation is to accept it and find means through which it could be improved. While accommodating in the United State, I understood that I should not avoid the things and situations I do not like but learn to embrace them (Jandt, 2015). This gives me a possibility to embrace American culture as a whole and restore my identity
Basing on my experience, I can state that culture shock is a normal phenomenon. It can be avoided and it is not an indication that one has made a great mistake that cannot be altered. There are positive aspects of culture shock which can be used as a learning point; this means that the positive elements of culture shock are important in shaping individuality. In my opinion, this is a great learning experience that has made me aware of aspects of my own culture as well as the culture of the United States of America. This has improved my skills which I can use in future while accommodating in other foreign countries.