Culture Shock, a two-headed beast

I believe that culture shock is aptly named. Currently, I find myself experiencing it on two levels. The first is the obvious, text-book variety level – it is “shocking” to exist in a culture that is largely different from what you know and understand. I think this stems partly from the constant overload of information that your senses must absorb. In Canada, I am not constantly analyzing everything that I am doing, wondering if I am behaving appropriately, and struggling to speak the language. Often, days go by when I do not even consider the fact that I am indeed living in a culture. In Bangkok, however, culture is inescapable, and adds a new and complex dimension to life that is, at times, overwhelming.

The second dimension of culture shock is what I find to be especially interesting, particularly in my more self-absorbed moments. It is the fact that I am always shocked by culture shock. Although my international experiences have been short term, they have generally been long enough to give me a taste of culture shock. Each time, however, it comes as a fresh surprise. “Why do I feel so crappy?” I used to ask myself (now Todd is the lucky recipient of these rants). “I was so excited to come here. Why do I hate it right now?” Classic culture shock behaviour, and yet it still surprises me.

I’ve spent the past 7 years (gaahhhhh!! My youth is gone!!) in the realms of academia, and if there is one thing that has been beaten into me, it is to question and analyze everything. This lesson is still fresh, and I find myself applying it to my adjustment process. It’s like an out of body experience, with Ruth The Academic analyzing Ruth The Emotional Spazz. “Now you’re going through Stage 1 (“I love it here! Everything here is amazing!”). Now you’re experiencing Stage 2 (“I hate everything! I’m sick of Thai food! Our apartment smells like garbage!”).” Currently, I am in a vaguely depressed stage – I’m no longer spazzing out, but I’m starting to miss my friends and family, my house and my University, and being able to blend in with the general population. This, too, is classic culture shock.

Even though I can analyze it, and step outside of it for a moment, it still blindsides me. It still shocks me.

Getting felled by culture shock

9 thoughts on “Culture Shock, a two-headed beast

  1. the best thing to do in these situations is to get into a fight! what you are really missing is real raw emotion. depression squeezes out the anger that can keep us alive! my advice, call someone an upstart and if they get angry slap them then run off.

    on a more serious note what you really need is to laugh hard at something in country, something you can’t find anywhere else. try watching animals and how they interact. imagine what they might be thinking. I do this with goats here in Ghana and the result: A bunch of people will stare at me while I burst out laughing. that just makes me laugh more.

    in the words of a wise man “Remember, I’m pulling for ya. We’re all in this together!”

  2. I want to point out that the attached (canoe) photo confirms what you admitted in your last blog: you are obese! But seriously, ‘though I have not experienced extreme culture shock myself, I find this fascinating. (Tendency to analyze is inherited, maybe?)

  3. Haha man you are progressing through the stages quickly. A totally new culture does have the effect of triggering self-reflection, but I found that it did not help much. You should feel weird and begin to miss home, that is normal. You are totally removed from your element. What I found really helpful is not to analyze yourself so much as the culture you are now living in. Ask yourself why the people do things the way they do when compared to Canada. Developing a fundamental understanding of the paradigm through which the average people view the world and go about their daily lives will be crucial to you embracing the wonderful things about the culture and becoming comfortable in your element. You are always going to be fundamentally Canadian, but having the ability to view the world from a different perspective will allow you to develop a new normal. Everything from going to the store to eating at restaurants are part of the cultural norms of that country, even though we might not realize it. So, understanding the norms for placing an order of noodles to the proper etiquette at the cash register will allow you to begin to build that comfort.
    The clothes thing I never solved. Never bought an article in the year I was away. Internet shopping with international shipping was usually the answer for foreigners.

    • thanks for the tips, Bill. Good advice about analyzing the culture more than myself, although making that shift will be severely trying for my morbid introspection 🙂

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